Appearance and Reality/Chapter XVI

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We have so far sketched in outline the Absolute which we have been forced to accept, and we have pointed out the general way in which thought may fall within it. We must address ourselves now to a series of formidable objections. If our Absolute is possible in itself, it seems hardly possible as things are. For there are undeniable facts with which it does not seem compatible. Error and evil, space, time, chance and mutability, and the unique particularity of the “this” and the “mine”—all these appear to fall outside an individual experience. To explain them away or to explain them, one of these courses seems necessary, and yet both seem impossible. And this is a point on which I am anxious to be clearly understood. I reject the offered dilemma, and deny the necessity of a choice between these two courses. I fully recognise the facts, I do not make the smallest attempt to explain their origin, and I emphatically deny the need for such an explanation. In the first place to show how and why the universe is so that finite existence belongs to it, is utterly impossible. That would imply an understanding of the whole not practicable for a mere part. It would mean a view by the finite from the Absolute’s point of view, and in that consummation the finite would have been transmuted and destroyed. But, in the second place, such an understanding is wholly unnecessary. We have not to choose between accounting for everything on one side and on the other side admitting it as a disproof of our doctrine of the Absolute. Such an alternative is not logical. If you wish to refute a wide theory based on general grounds, it is idle merely to produce facts which upon it are not explained. For the inability to explain these may be simply our failure in particular information, and it need imply nothing worse than confirmation lacking to the theory. The facts become an objection to the doctrine when they are incompatible with some part of it; while, if they merely remain outside, that points to incompleteness in detail and not falsity in principle. A general doctrine is not destroyed by what we fail to understand. It is destroyed only by that which we actually do understand, and can show to be inconsistent and discrepant with the theory adopted.

And this is the real issue here. Error and evil are no disproof of our absolute experience so long as we merely fail to see how in detail it comprehends them. They are a disproof when their nature is understood in such a way as to collide with the Absolute. And the question is whether this understanding of them is correct. It is here that I confidently join issue. If on this subject there exists a false persuasion of knowledge, I urge that it lies on the side of the objector. I maintain that we know nothing of these various forms of the finite which shows them incompatible with that Absolute, for the accepting of which we have general ground. And I meet the denial of this position by pointing out assumed knowledge where really there is ignorance. It is the objector who, if any one, asserts omniscience. It is he who claims to understand both the infinite and the finite, so as to be aware and to be assured of their incompatibility. And I think that he much overestimates the extent of human power. We cannot know that the finite is in collision with the Absolute. And if we cannot, and if, for all we understand, the two are at one and harmonious—then our conclusion is proved fully. For we have a general assurance that reality has a certain nature, and, on the other side, against that assurance we have to set nothing, nothing other than our ignorance. But an assurance, against which there is nothing to be set, must surely be accepted. And I will begin first with Error.

Error is without any question a dangerous subject, and the chief difficulty is as follows. We cannot, on the one hand, accept anything between non-existence and reality, while, on the other hand, error obstinately refuses to be either. It persistently attempts to maintain a third position, which appears nowhere to exist, and yet somehow is occupied. In false appearance there is something attributed to the real which does not belong to it. But if the appearance is not real, then it is not false appearance, because it is nothing. On the other hand, if it is false, it must therefore be true reality, for it is something which is. And this dilemma at first sight seems insoluble. Or, to put it otherwise, an appearance, which is, must fall somewhere. But error, because it is false, cannot belong to the Absolute; and, again, it cannot appertain to the finite subject, because that, with all its contents, cannot fall outside the Absolute; at least, if it did, it would be nothing. And so error has no home, it has no place in existence; and yet, for all that, it exists. And for this reason it has occasioned much doubt and difficulty.

For Psychology and for Logic the problem is much easier. Error can be identified with wrong inference, and can be compared on one side with a typical model; while, on the other side, we can show by what steps it originates. But these enquiries, however interesting, would not much assist us, and we must endeavour here to face the problem more directly. We must take our stand on the distinction between idea and reality.

Error is the same as false appearance,[1] or (if the reader objects to this) it is at any rate one kind of false appearance. Now appearance is content not atone with its existence, a “what” loosened from its “that.” And in this sense we have seen that every truth is appearance, since in it we have divorce of quality from being (p. 163). The idea which is true is the adjective of reality so far as its content goes. It, so far, is restored, and belongs, to existence. But an idea has also another side, its own private being as something which is and happens. And an idea, as content, is alienated from this its own existence as an event. Even where you take a presented whole, and predicate one or more features, our account still holds good. For the content predicated has now become alien to its existence. On the one side it has not been left in simple unity with the whole, nor again is it predicated so far as changed from a mere feature into another and separate fact. In “sugar is sweet” the sweetness asserted of the sugar is not the sweetness so far as divided from it and turned into a second thing in our minds. This thing has its own being there, and to predicate it, as such, of the sugar would clearly be absurd. In respect of its own existence the idea is therefore always a mere appearance. But this character of divorce from its private reality becomes usually still more patent, where the idea is not taken from presentation but supplied by reproduction. Wherever the predicate is seen to be supplied from an image, the existence of that image can be seen at once not to be the predicate. It is something clearly left outside of the judgment and quite disregarded.[2]

Appearance then will be the looseness of character from being, the distinction of immediate oneness into two sides, a “that” and a “what.” And this looseness tends further to harden into fracture and into the separation of two sundered existences. Appearance will be truth when a content, made alien to its own being, is related to some fact which accepts its qualification. The true idea is appearance in respect of its own being as fact and event, but is reality in connection with other being which it qualifies. Error, on the other hand, is content made loose from its own reality, and related to a reality with which it is discrepant. It is the rejection of an idea by existence which is not the existence of the idea as made loose. It is the repulse by a substantive of a liberated adjective.[3] Thus it is an appearance which not only appears, but is false. It is in other words the collision of a mere idea with reality.

There are serious problems with regard both to error and truth, and the distinction between them, which challenge our scrutiny. I think it better however to defer these to later chapters. I will therefore limit here the enquiry, so far as is possible, and will consider two main questions. Error is content neither at one with its own being, nor otherwise allowed to be an adjective of the real. If so, we must ask (1) why it cannot be accepted by reality, and (2) how it still actually can belong to reality; for we have seen that this last conclusion is necessary.

1. Error is rejected by reality because that is harmonious, and is taken necessarily to be so, while error, on the other hand, is self-contradictory. I do not mean that it is a content merely not at one (if that were possible) with its own mere being.[4] I mean that its inner character, as ideal, is itself discordant and self-discrepant. But I should prefer not to call error a predicate which contradicts itself. For that might be taken as a statement that the contradiction already is present in the mere predicate, before judgment is attempted; and this, if defensible, would be misleading. Error is the qualification of a reality in such a way that in the result it has an inconsistent content, which for that reason is rejected. Where existence has a “what” colliding within itself, there the predication of this “what” is an erroneous judgment. If a reality is self-consistent, and its further determination has introduced discord, there the addition is the mistake, and the reality is unaffected. It is unaffected, however, solely on the assumption that its own nature in no way suggested and called in the discordant. For otherwise the whole result is infected with falseness, and the reality could never have been pure from discrepancy.[5]

It will perhaps tend to make clearer this general view of error if I defend it against some possible objections. Error is supposed by some persons to be a departure from experience, or from what is given merely. It is again taken sometimes as the confusion of internal image with outward sensation. But any such views are of course most superficial. Quite apart from the difficulty of finding anything merely given, and the impossibility of always using actual present sensation as a test of truth—without noticing the strange prejudice that outward sensations are never false, and the dull blindness which fails to realize that the “inward” is a fact just as solid as the “outward”—we may dismiss the whole objection. For, if the given has a content which is not harmonious, then, no matter in what sense we like to take “given,” that content is not real. And any attempt, either to deny this, or to maintain that in the given there is never discrepancy, may be left to itself. But I will go on to consider the same view as it wears a more plausible form. “We do not,” I may be told, “add or take away predicates simply at our pleasure. We do not, so long as this arbitrary result does not visibly contradict itself, consider it true.” And I have not said that we should do this.

Outside known truth and error we may, of course, have simple ignorance.[6] An assertion, that is, must in every case be right or be wrong; but, for us and for the present, it may not yet be either. Still, on the other hand, we do know that, if the statement is an error, it will be so because its content collides internally. “But this” (an objector may reply) “is really not the case. Take the statement that at a certain time an event did, or did not, happen. This would be erroneous because of disagreement with fact, and not always because it is inconsistent with itself.” Still I must insist that we have some further reason for condemning this want of correspondence with fact. For why, apart from such a reason, should either we or the fact make an objection to this defect? Suppose that when William has been hung, I assert that it was John. My assertion will then be false, because the reality does not admit of both events, and because William is certain. And if so, then after all my error surely will consist in giving to the real a self-discrepant content. For otherwise, when John is suggested, I could not reject the idea. I could only say that certainly it was William, and might also, for all that I knew, be John too. But in our actual practice we proceed thus: since “both John and William” forms a discordant content, that statement is in error—here to the extent of John.[7] In the same way, if where no man is you insist on John’s presence, then, without discussing here the nature of the privative judgment,[8] we can understand the mistake. You are trying to force on the reality something which would make it inconsistent, and which therefore is erroneous. But it would be alike easy and idle to pursue the subject further; and I must trust that, to the reader who reflects, our main conclusion is already made good. Error is qualification by the self-discrepant. We must not, if we take the predicate in its usual sense, in all cases place the contradiction within that. But where discrepancy is found in the result of qualification, it is there that we have error. And I will now pass to the second main problem of this chapter.

2. The question is about the relation of error to the Absolute. How is it possible for false appearance to take its place within reality? We have to some extent perceived in what error consists, but we still are confronted by our original problem. Qualification by the self-discrepant exists as a fact, and yet how can it be real? The self-contradiction in the content both belongs, and is unable to belong, to reality. The elements related, and their synthesis, and their reference to existence—these are things not to be got rid of. You may condemn them, but your condemnation cannot act as a spell to abolish them wholly. If they were not there, you could not judge them, and then you judge them not to be; or you pronounce them apparently somehow to exist without really existing. What is the exit from this puzzle?

There is no way but in accepting the whole mass of fact, and in then attempting to correct it and make it good. Error is truth, it is partial truth, that is false only because partial and left incomplete. The Absolute has without subtraction all those qualities, and it has every arrangement which we seem to confer upon it by our mere mistake. The only mistake lies in our failure to give also the complement. The reality owns the discordance and the discrepancy of false appearance; but it possesses also much else in which this jarring character is swallowed up and is dissolved in fuller harmony. I do not mean that by a mere re-arrangement of the matter which is given to us, we could remove its contradictions. For, being limited, we cannot apprehend all the details of the whole. And we must remember that every old arrangement, condemned as erroneous, itself forms part of that detail. To know all the elements of the universe, with all the conjunctions of those elements, good and bad, is impossible for finite minds. And hence obviously we are unable throughout to reconstruct our discrepancies. But we can comprehend in general what we cannot see exhibited in detail. We cannot understand how in the Absolute a rich harmony embraces every special discord. But, on the other hand, we may be sure that this result is reached; and we can even gain an imperfect view of the effective principle. I will try to explain this latter statement.

There is only one way to get rid of contradiction, and that way is by dissolution. Instead of one subject distracted, we get a larger subject with distinctions, and so the tension is removed. We have at first A, which possesses the qualities c and b, inconsistent adjectives which collide; and we go on to produce harmony by making a distinction within this subject. That was really not mere A, but either a complex within A, or (rather here) a wider whole in which A is included, The real subject is A + D; and this subject contains the contradiction made harmless by division, since A is c and D is b. This is the general principle, and I will attempt here to apply it in particular. Let us suppose the reality to be X (a b c d e f g . . . ), and that we are able only to get partial views of this reality. Let us first take such a view as “X (a b) is b.” This (rightly or wrongly) we should probably call a true view. For the content b does plainly belong to the subject; and, further, the appearance also—in other words, the separation of b in the predicate—can partly be explained. For, answering to this separation, we postulate now another adjective in the subject; let us call it β. The “thatness,” the psychical existence of the predicate, which at first was neglected, has now also itself been included in the subject. We may hence write the subject as X (a b β); and in this way we seem to avoid contradiction. Let us go further on the same line, and, having dealt with a truth, pass next to an error. Take the subject once more as X (a b c d e . . . ), and let us now say “X (a b) is d.” This is false, because d is not present in the subject, and so we have a collision. But the collision is resolved if we take the subject, not as mere X (a b), but more widely as X (a b c d). In this case the predicate d becomes applicable. Thus the error consisted in the reference of d to a b; as it might have consisted in like manner in the reference of a b to c, or again of c to d. All of these exist in the subject, and the reality possesses with each both its “what” and its “that.” But not content with a provisional separation of these indissoluble aspects, not satisfied (as in true appearance) to have aα, bβ, and —forms which may typify distinctions that bring no discord into the qualities—we have gone on further into error. We have not only loosened “what” from “that,” and so have made appearance; but we have in each case then bestowed the “what” on a wrong quality within the real subject. We have crossed the threads of the connection between our “whats” and our “thats,” and have thus caused collision, a collision which disappears when things are taken as a whole.

I confess that I shrink from using metaphors, since they never can suit wholly. The writer tenders them unsuspiciously as a possible help in a common difficulty. And so he subjects himself, perhaps, to the captious ill-will or sheer negligence of his reader. Still to those who will take it for what it is, I will offer a fiction. Suppose a collection of beings whose souls in the night walk about without their bodies, and so make new relations. On their return in the morning we may imagine that the possessors feel the benefit of this divorce; and we may therefore call it truth. But, if the wrong soul with its experience came back to the wrong body, that might typify error. On the other hand, perhaps the ruler of this collection of beings may perceive very well the nature of the collision. And it may even be that he provokes it. For how instructive and how amusing to observe in each case the conflict of sensation with imported and foreign experience. Perhaps no truth after all could be half so rich and half so true as the result of this wild discord—to one who sees from the centre. And, if so, error will come merely from isolation and defect, from the limitation of each being to the “this” and the “mine.”

But our account, it will fairly be objected, is untenable because incomplete. For error is not merely negative. The content, isolated and so discordant, is after all held together in a positive discord. And so the elements may exist, and their relations to their subjects may all be there in the Absolute, together with the complements which make them all true, and yet the problem is not solved. For the point of error, when all is said, lies in this very insistence on the partial and discrepant, and this discordant emphasis will fall outside of every possible rearrangement. I admit this objection, and I endorse it. The problem of error cannot be solved by an enlarged scheme of relations. Each misarrangement cannot be taken up wholly as an element in the compensations of a harmonious mechanism. For there is a positive sense and a specific character which marks each appearance, and this will still fall outside. Hence, while all that appears somehow is, all has not been accounted for by any rearrangement.

But on the other side the Absolute is not, and can not be thought as, any scheme of relations. If we keep to these, there is no harmonious unity in the whole. The Absolute is beyond a mere arrangement, however well compensated, though an arrangement is assuredly one aspect of its being. Reality, consists, as we saw, in a higher experience, superior to the distinctions which it includes and overrides. And, with this, the last objection to the transformation of error has lost its basis. The onesided emphasis of error, its isolation as positive and as not dissoluble in a wider connection—this again will contribute, we know not how, to the harmony of the Absolute. It will be another detail, which, together with every “what” and “that” and their relations, will be absorbed into the whole and will subserve its perfection.

On this view there still are problems as to error and truth which we must deal with hereafter. But the main dilemma as to false appearance has, I think, been solved. That both exists and is, as such, not real. Its arrangement becomes true in a wider rearrangement of “what” and of “that.” Error is truth when it is supplemented. And its positive isolation also is reducible, and exists as a mere element within the whole. Error is, but is not barely what it takes itself to be. And its mere onesidedness again is but a partial emphasis, a note of insistence which contributes, we know not how, to greater energy of life. And, if so, the whole problem has, so far, been disposed of.

Now that this solution cannot be verified, in the sense of being made out in detail, is not an admission on my part. It is rather a doctrine which I assert and desire to insist on. It is impossible for us to show, in the case of every error, how in the whole it is made good. It is impossible, even apart from detail, to realize how the relational form is in general absorbed. But, upon the other hand, I deny that our solution is either unintelligible or impossible. And possibility here is all that we want. For we have seen that the Absolute must be a harmonious system. We have first perceived this in general, and here specially, in the case of error, we have been engaged in a reply to an alleged negative instance. Our opponent’s case has been this, that the nature of error makes our harmony impossible. And we have shown, on the other side, that he possesses no such knowledge. We have pointed out that it is at least possible for errors to correct themselves, and, as such, to disappear in a higher experience. But, if so, we must affirm that they are thus absorbed and made good. For what is possible, and what a general principle compels us to say must be, that certainly is.


  1. See more, Chapter xxvi.
  2. Compare p. 164.
  3. Whether the adjective has been liberated from this substantive or from another makes no difference.
  4. In the end no finite predicate or subject can possibly be harmonious.
  5. The doctrine here is stated subject to correction in Chapter xxiv. No finite predicate or subject can really be self-consistent.
  6. For further explanation, see Chapter xxvii.
  7. I do not here touch the question why John is sacrificed rather than William (or both). On this, see Chapter xxiv.
  8. See Chapter xxvii.