Appearance and Reality/Chapter VIII

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Before proceeding further we may conveniently pause at this point. The reader may be asked to reflect whether anything of what is understood by a thing is left to us. It is hard to say what, as a matter of fact, is generally understood when we use the word “thing.” But, whatever that may be, it seems now undermined and ruined. I suppose we generally take a thing as possessing some kind of independence, and a sort of title to exist in its own right, and not as a mere adjective. But our ideas are usually not clear. A rainbow probably is not a thing, while a waterfall might get the name, and a flash of lightning be left in a doubtful position. Further, while many of us would assert stoutly that a thing must exist, if at all, in space, others would question this and fail to perceive its conclusiveness.

We have seen how the attempt to reconstitute our ideas by the help of primary qualities broke down. And, since then, the results, which we have reached, really seem to have destroyed things from without and from within. If the connections of substantive and adjective, and of quality and relation, have been shown not to be defensible; if the forms of space and of time have turned out to be full of contradictions; if, lastly, causation and activity have succeeded merely in adding inconsistency to inconsistency,—if, in a word, nothing of all this can, as such, be predicated of reality,—what is it that is left? If things are to exist, then where and how? But if these two questions are unanswerable, then we seem driven to the conclusion that things are but appearances. And I will add a few remarks, not so much in support of this conclusion as in order to make it possibly more plain.

I will come to the point at once. For a thing to exist it must possess identity; and identity seems a possession with a character at best doubtful. If it is merely ideal, the thing itself can hardly be real. First, then, let us inquire if a thing can exist without identity. To ask this question is at once to answer it; unless, indeed, a thing is to exist, and is to hold its diversity combined in an unity, somehow quite outside of time. And this seems untenable. A thing, if it is to be called such, must occupy some duration beyond the present moment, and hence succession is essential. The thing, to be at all, must be the same after a change, and the change must, to some extent, be predicated of the thing. If you suppose a case so simple as the movement of an atom, that is enough for our purpose. For, if this “thing” does not move, there is no motion. But, if it moves, then succession is predicated of it, and the thing is a bond of identity in differences. And, further, this identity is ideal, since it consists in the content, or in the “what we are able to say of the thing.” For raise the doubt at the end of our atom’s process, if the atom is the same. The question raised cannot be answered without an appeal to its character. It is different in one respect—namely, the change of place; but in another respect—that of its own character—it remains the same. And this respect is obviously identical content. Or, if any one objects that an atom has no content, let him throughout substitute the word “body,” and settle with himself how, without any qualitative difference (such as right and left), he distinguishes atoms. And this identical content is called ideal because it transcends given existence. Existence is given only in presentation; and, on the other hand, the thing is a thing only if its existence goes beyond the now, and extends into the past. I will not here discuss the question as to the identity of a thing during a presented lapse, for I doubt if any one would wish to except to our conclusion on that ground.

Now I am not here raising the whole question of the Identity of Indiscernibles. I am urging rather that the continuity, which is necessary to a thing, seems to depend on its keeping an identity of character. A thing is a thing, in short, by being what it was. And it does not appear how this relation of sameness can be real. It is a relation connecting the past with the present, and this connection is evidently vital to the thing. But, if so, the thing has become, in more senses than one, the relation of passages in its own history. And if we assert that the thing is this inclusive relation, which transcends any given time, surely we have allowed that the thing, though not wholly an idea, is an idea essentially. And it is an idea which at no actual time is ever real.

And this problem is no mere abstract invented subtlety, but shows itself in practice. It is often impossible to reply when we are asked if an object is really the same. If a manufactured article has been worked upon and partly remade, such a question may have no sense until it has been specified. You must go on to mention the point or the particular respect of which you are thinking. For questions of identity turn always upon sameness in character, and the reason why here you cannot reply generally, is that you do not know this general character which is taken to make the thing’s essence. It is not always material substance, for we might call an organism identical, though its particles were all different. It is not always shape, or size, or colour, or, again, always the purpose which the thing fulfils. The general nature, in fact, of a thing’s identity seems to lie, first, in the avoidance of any absolute break in its existence, and, beyond that, to consist in some qualitative sameness which differs with different things. And with some things—because literally we do not know in what character their sameness lies—we are helpless when asked if identity has been preserved. If any one wants an instance of the value of our ordinary notions, he may find it, perhaps, in Sir John Cutler’s silk stockings. These were darned with worsted until no particle of the silk was left in them, and no one could agree whether they were the same old stockings or were new ones. In brief, the identity of a thing lies in the view which you take of it. That view seems often a mere chance idea, and, where it seems necessary, it still remains an idea. Or, if you prefer it, it is a character, which exists outside of and beyond any fact which you can take. But it is not easy to see how, if so, any thing can be real. And things have, so far, turned out to be merely appearances.