Appearance and Reality/Chapter XVIII

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Both time and space have been shown to be unreal as such. We found in both such contradictions that to predicate either of the reality was out of the question. Time and space are mere appearance, and that result is quite certain. Both, on the other hand, exist; and both must somehow in some way belong to our Absolute. Still a doubt may be raised as to this being possible.

To explain time and space, in the sense of showing how such appearances come to be, and again how without contradiction they can be real in the Absolute, is certainly not my object. Anything of the kind, I am sure, is impossible. And what I wish to insist on is this, that such knowledge is not necessary. What we require to know is only that these appearances are not incompatible with our Absolute. They have been urged as instances fatal to any view such as ours; and this objection, we must reply, is founded on mistake. Space and time give no ground for the assertion that our Absolute is not possible. And, in their case once more, we must urge the old argument. Since it is possible that these appearances can be resolved into a harmony which both contains and transcends them; since again it is necessary, on our main principle, that this should be so—it therefore truly is real. But let us examine these appearances more closely, and consider time first.

It is unnecessary to take up the question of time’s origin. To show it as produced psychologically from timeless elements is, I should say, not possible. Its perception generally may supervene at some stage of our development; and, at all events in its complete form, that perception is clearly a result. But, if we take the sense of time in its most simple and undeveloped shape, it would be difficult to show that it was not there from the first. Still this whole question, however answered, has little importance for Metaphysics. We might perhaps draw, if we could assume that time has been developed, some presumption in favour of its losing itself once more in a product which is higher. But it is hardly worth while to consider this presumption more closely.

Passing from this point I will reply to an objection from fact. If time is not unreal, I admit that our Absolute is a delusion; but, on the other side, it will be urged that time cannot be mere appearance. The change in the finite subject, we are told, is a matter of direct experience; it is a fact, and hence it cannot be explained away. And so much of course is indubitable. Change is a fact, and, further, this fact, as such, is not reconcilable with the Absolute. And, if we could not in any way perceive how the fact can be unreal, we should be placed, I admit, in a hopeless dilemma. For we should have a view as to reality which we could not give up, and should, on the other hand, have an existence in contradiction with that view. But our real position is very different from this. For time has been shown to contradict itself, and so to be appearance. With this, its discord, we see at once, may pass as an element into a wider harmony. And, with this, the appeal to fact at once becomes worthless.

It is mere superstition to suppose that an appeal to experience can prove reality. That I find something in existence in the world or in my self, shows that this something exists, and it cannot show more. Any deliverance of consciousness—whether original or acquired—is but a deliverance of consciousness. It is in no case an oracle and a revelation which we have to accept. It is a fact, like other facts, to be dealt with; and there is no presumption anywhere that any fact is better than appearance. The “given” of course is given; it must be recognised, and it cannot be ignored. But between recognising a datum and receiving blindly its content as reality is a very wide interval. We may put it thus once for all—there is nothing given which is sacred. Metaphysics can respect no element of experience except on compulsion. It can reverence nothing but what by criticism and denial the more unmistakably asserts itself.

Time is so far from enduring the test of criticism, that at a touch it falls apart and proclaims itself illusory. I do not propose to repeat the detail of its self-contradiction; for that I take as exhibited once for all in our First Book. What I must attempt here first is to show how by its inconsistency time directs us beyond itself. It points to something higher in which it is included and transcended.

1. In the first place change, as we saw (Chapter v.), must be relative to a permanent. Doubtless here was a contradiction which we found was not soluble. But, for all that, the fact remains that change demands some permanence within which succession happens. I do not say that this demand is consistent, and, on the contrary, I wish to emphasize the point that it is not so. It is inconsistent, and yet it is none the less essential. And I urge that therefore change desires to pass beyond simple change. It seeks to become a change which is somehow consistent with permanence. Thus, in asserting itself, time tries to commit suicide as itself, to transcend its own character and to be taken up in what is higher.

2. And we may draw this same conclusion from another inconsistency. The relation of the present to the future and to the past shows once more time’s attempt to transcend its own nature. Any lapse, that for any purpose you take as one period, becomes forthwith a present. And then this lapse is treated as if it existed all at once. For how otherwise could it be spoken of as one thing at all? Unless it is, I do not see how we have a right to regard it as possessing a character. And unless it is present, I am quite unable to understand with what meaning we can assert that it is. And, I think, the common behaviour of science might have been enough by itself to provoke reflection on this head. We may say that science, recognising on the one side, on the other side quite ignores the existence of time. For it habitually treats past and future as one thing with the present (Chapter viii.). The character of an existence is determined by what it has been and by what it is (potentially) about to be. But if these attributes, on the other hand, are not present, how can they be real? Again in establishing a Law, itself without special relation to time, science treats facts from various dates as all possessing the same value. Yet how, if we seriously mean to take time as real, can the past be reality? It would, I trust, be idle to expand here these obvious considerations. They should suffice to point out that for science reality at least tries to be timeless, and that succession, as such, can be treated as something without rights and as mere appearance.

3. This same tendency becomes visible in another application. The whole movement of our mind implies disregard of time. Not only does intellect accept what is true once for true always, and thus fearlessly take its stand on the Identity of Indiscernibles—not only is this so, but the whole mass of what is called “Association” implies the same principle. For such a connection does not hold except between universals.[1] The associated elements are divorced from their temporal context; they are set free in union, and ready to form fresh unions without regard for time’s reality. This is in effect to degrade time to the level of appearance. But our entire mental life, on the other hand, has its movement through this law. Our whole being practically implies it, and to suppose that we can rebel would be mere self-deception. Here again we have found the irresistible tendency to transcend time. We are forced once more to see in it the false appearance of a timeless reality.

It will be objected perhaps that in this manner we do not get rid of time. In those eternal connections which rule in darkness our lowest psychical nature, or are used consciously by science, succession may remain. A law is not always a law of what merely coexists, but it often gives the relation of antecedent and sequent. The remark is true, but certainly it could not show that time is self-consistent. And it is the inconsistency, and hence the self-transcendence of time which here we are urging. This temporal succession, which persists still in the causal relation, does but secure to the end the old discrepancy. It resists, but it cannot remove, time’s inherent tendency to pass beyond itself. Time is an appearance which contradicts itself, and endeavours vainly to appear as an attribute of the timeless.

It might be instructive here to mention other spheres, where we more visibly treat mere existence in time as appearance. But we perhaps have already said enough to establish our conclusion; and our result, so far, will be this. Time is not real as such, and it proclaims its unreality by its inconsistent attempt to be an adjective of the timeless. It is an appearance which belongs to a higher character in which its special quality is merged. Its own temporal nature does not there cease wholly to exist but is thoroughly transmuted. It is counterbalanced and, as such, lost within an all-inclusive harmony. The Absolute is timeless, but it possesses time as an isolated aspect, an aspect which, in ceasing to be isolated, loses its special character. It is there, but blended into a whole which we cannot realize. But that we cannot realize it, and do not know how in particular it can exist, does not show it to be impossible. It is possible, and, as before, its possibility is enough. For that which can be, and upon a general ground must be—that surely is real.

And it would be better perhaps if I left the matter so. For, if I proceed and do my best to bring home to our minds time’s unreality, I may expect misunderstanding. I shall be charged with attempting to explain, or to explain away, the nature of our fact; and no notice will be taken of my protests that I regard such an attempt as illusory. For (to repeat it) we can know neither how time comes to appear, nor in what particular way its appearance is transcended. However, for myself and for the reader who will accept them as what they are, I will add some remarks. There are considerations which help to weaken our belief in time’s solidity. It is no mass which stands out and declines to be engulfed. It is a loose image confusedly thrown together, and that, as we gaze, falls asunder.

1. The first point which will engage us is the unity of time. We have no reason, in my opinion, to regard time as one succession, and to take all phenomena as standing in one temporal connection. We have a tendency, of course, to consider all times as forming parts of a single series. Phenomena, it seems clear, are all alike events which happen;[2] and, since they happen, we go on to a further con elusion. We regard them as members in one temporal whole, and standing therefore throughout to one another in relations of “before” and “after” or “together.” But this conclusion has no warrant. For there is no valid objection to the existence of any number of independent time-series. In these the internal events would be interrelated temporarily, but each series, as a series and as a whole, would have no temporal connection with anything outside. I mean that in the universe we might have a set of diverse phenomenal successions. The events in each of these would, of course, be related in time, but the series themselves need not have temporal relation to one another. The events, that is, in one need not be after, or before, or together with, the events in any other. In the Absolute they would not have a temporal unity or connection; and, for themselves, they would not possess any relations to other series.

I will illustrate my meaning from our own human experience. When we dream, or when our minds go wandering uncontrolled, when we pursue imaginary histories, or exercise our thoughts on some mere supposed sequence—we give rise to a problem. There is a grave question, if we can see it. For within these successions the events have temporal connection, and yet, if you consider one series with another, they have no unity in time. And they are not connected in time with what we call the course of our “real” events. Suppose that I am asked how the occurrences in the tale of Imogen are related in time to each adventure of Sindbad the Sailor, and how these latter stand to my dream-events both of last night and last year—such questions surely have no meaning. Apart from the chance of local colour we see at once that between these temporal occurrences there is no relation of time. You cannot say that one comes before, or comes after, the other. And again to date these events by their appearance in my mental world would be surely preposterous. It would be to arrange all events, told of by books in a library, according to the various dates of publication—the same story repeating itself in fact with every edition, and to-day’s newspaper and history simultaneous throughout. And this absurdity perhaps may help us to realize that the successive need have no temporal connection.

“Yes, but,” I may be told, “all these series, imaginary as well as real, are surely dated as events in my mental history. They have each their place there, and so beyond it also in the one real time-series. And, however often a story may be repeated in my mind, each occasion has its own date and its temporal relations.” Indubitably so, but such an answer is quite insufficient. For observe first that it admits a great part of what we urge. It has to allow plainly that the times within our “unreal” series have no temporal interrelation. Otherwise, for instance, the time-succession, when a story is repeated, would infect the contents, and would so make repetition impossible. I wish first to direct notice to this serious and fatal admission.

But, when we consider it, the objection breaks down altogether. It is true that, in a sense and more or less, we arrange all phenomena as events in one series. But it does not follow that in the universe, as a whole, the same tendency holds good. It does not follow that all phenomena are related in time. What is true of my events need not hold good of all other events; nor again is my imperfect way of unity the pattern to which the Absolute is confined.

What, to use common language, I call “real” events are the phenomena which I arrange in a continuous time-series. This has its oneness in the identity of my personal existence. What is presented is “real,” and from this basis I construct a time-series, both backwards and forwards; and I use as binding links the identical points in any content suggested.[3] This construction I call the “real” series, and whatever content declines to take its place in my arrangement, I condemn as unreal. And the process is justifiable within limits. If we mean only that there is a certain group of phenomena, and that, for reality within this group, a certain time-relation is essential, that doubtless is true. But it is another thing to assert that every possible phenomenon has a place in this series. And it is once more another thing to insist that all time-series have a temporal unity in the Absolute.

Let us consider the first point. If no phenomenon is “real,” except that which has a place in my temporal arrangement, we have, first, left on our hands the whole world of “Imagination.” The fact of succession there becomes “unreal,” but it is not got rid of by the application of any mere label. And I will mention in passing another difficulty, the disruption of my “real” series in mental disease. But—to come to the principle—it is denied that phenomena can exist unless they are in temporal relation with my world. And I am able to find no ground for this assumption. When I ask why, and for what reason, there cannot be changes of event, imperceptible to me and apart from my time-series, I can discover no answer. So far as I can see, there may be many time-series in the Absolute, not related at all for one another, and for the Absolute without any unity of time.

And this brings us to the second point. For phenomena to exist without inter-connection and unity, I agree is impossible. But I cannot perceive that this unity must either be temporal or else nothing. That would be to take a way of regarding things which even we find imperfect, and to set it down as the one way which is possible for the Absolute. But surely the Absolute is not shut up within our human limits. Already we have seen that its harmony is something beyond relations. And, if so, surely a number of temporal series may, without any relation in time to one another, find a way of union within its all-inclusive perfection. But, if so, time will not be one, in the sense of forming a single series. There will be many times, all of which are at one in the Eternal—the possessor of temporal events and yet timeless. We have, at all events, found no shred of evidence for any other unity of time.

2. I will pass now to another point, the direction of time. Just as we tend to assume that all phenomena form one series, so we ascribe to every series one single direction. But this assumption too is baseless. It is natural to set up a point in the future towards which all events run, or from which they arrive, or which may seem to serve in some other way to give direction to the stream. But examination soon shows the imperfection of this natural view. For the direction, and the distinction between past and future, entirely depends upon our experience.[4] That side, on which fresh sensations come in, is what we mean by the future. In our perception of change elements go out, and something new comes to us constantly; and we construct the time-series entirely with reference to this experience. Thus, whether we regard events as running forwards from the past, or as emerging from the future, in any case we use one method of taking our bearings. Our fixed direction is given solely by the advent of new arrivals.

But, if this is so, then direction is relative to our world. You may object that it is fixed in the very nature of things, and so imparts its own order to our special sphere. Yet how this assumption can be justified I do not understand. Of course there is something not ourselves which makes this difference exist in our beings, something too which compels us to arrange other lives and all our facts in one order. But must this something, therefore, in reality and in itself, be direction? I can find no reason for thinking so. No doubt we naturally regard the whole world of phenomena as a single time-series; we assume that the successive contents of every other finite being are arranged in this construction, and we take for granted that their streams all flow in one direction. But our assumption clearly is not defensible. For let us suppose, first, that there are beings who can come in contact in no way with that world which we experience. Is this supposition self-contradictory, or anything but possible? And let us suppose, next, that in the Absolute the direction of these lives runs opposite to our own. I ask again, is such an idea either meaningless or untenable? Of course, if in any way I could experience their world, I should fail to understand it. Death would come before birth, the blow would follow the wound, and all must seem to be irrational. It would seem to me so, but its inconsistency would not exist except for my partial experience. If I did not experience their order, to me it would be nothing. Or, if I could see it from a point of view beyond the limits of my life, I might find a reality which itself had, as such, no direction. And I might there perceive characters, which for the several finite beings give direction to their lives, which, as such, do not fall within finite experience, and which, if apprehended, show both directions harmoniously combined in a consistent whole.

To transcend experience and to reach a world of Things-in-themselves, I agree, is impossible. But does it follow that the whole universe in every sense is a possible object of my experience? Is the collection of things and persons, which makes my world, the sum total of existence? I know no ground for an affirmative answer to this question. That many material systems should exist, without a material central-point, and with no relation in space—where is the self-contradiction?[5] That various worlds of experience should be distinct, and, for themselves, fail to enter one into the other—where is the impossibility? That arises only when we endorse, and take our stand upon, a prejudice. That the unity in the Absolute is merely our kind of unity, that spaces there must have a spatial centre, and times a temporal point of meeting—these assumptions are based on nothing. The opposite is possible, and we have seen that it is also necessary.

It is not hard to conceive a variety of time-series existing in the Absolute. And the direction of each series, one can understand, may be relative to itself, and may have, as such, no meaning outside. And we might also imagine, if we pleased, that these directions run counter, the one to the other. Let us take, for example, a scheme like this:


Here, if you consider the contents, you may suppose the whole to be stationary. It contains partial views, but, as a whole, it may be regarded as free from change and succession. The change will fall in the perceptions of the different series. And the diverse directions of these series will, as such, not exist for the whole. The greater or less number of the various series, which we may imagine as present, the distinct experience which makes each, together with the direction in which it runs—this is all matter, we may say, of individual feeling. You may take, as one series and set of lives, a line going any way you please, up or down or transversely. And in each case the direction will be given to it by sensation peculiar to itself. Now without any question these perceptions must exist in the whole. They must all exist, and in some way they all must qualify the Absolute. But, for the Absolute, they can one counterbalance another, and so their characters be transmuted. They can, with their successions, come together in one whole in which their special natures are absorbed.

And, if we chose to be fanciful, we might imagine something more. We might suppose that, corresponding to each of our lives, there is another individual. There is a man who traverses the same history with ourselves, but in the opposite direction. We may thus imagine that the successive contents, which make my being, are the lives also of one or more other finite souls.[6] The distinctions between us would remain, and would consist in an additional element, different in each case. And it would be these differences which would add to each its own way of succession, and make it a special personality. The differences, of course, would have existence; but in the Absolute, once more, in some way they might lose exclusiveness. And, with this, diversity of direction, and all succession itself, would, as such, disappear. The believer in second sight and witchcraft might find in such a view a wide field for his vagaries. But I note this merely in passing, since to myself fancies of this sort are not inviting. My purpose here has been simple. I have tried to show that neither for the temporal unity of all time-series, nor for the community of their direction, is there one shred of evidence. However great their variety, it may come together and be transformed in the Absolute. And here, as before, possibility is all we require in order to prove reality.

The Absolute is above relations, and therefore we cannot construct a relational scheme which could exhibit its unity. But that eternal unity is made sure by our general principle. And time itself, we have now seen, can afford no presumption that the universe is not timeless.[7]

There is a remaining difficulty on which perhaps I may add a few remarks. I may be told that in causation a succession is involved with a direction not reversible. It will be urged that many of the relations, by which the world is understood, involve in their essence time sequent or co-existent. And it may be added that for this reason time conflicts with the Absolute. But, at the point which we have reached, this objection has no weight.

Let us suppose, first, that the relation of cause and effect is in itself defensible. Yet we have no knowledge of a causal unity in all phenomena. Different worlds might very well run on together in the universe, side by side and not in one series of effects and causes. They would have a unity in the Absolute, but a unity not consisting in cause and effect. This must be considered possible until we find some good argument in favour of causal unity. And then, even in our own world, how unsatisfactory the succession laid down in causation! It is really never true that mere a produces mere b. It is true only when we bring in the unspecified background, and, apart from that, such a statement is made merely upon sufferance (Chapters vi., xxiii., xxiv.). And the whole succession itself, if defensible, may admit of transformation. We assert that (X)b is the effect which follows on (X)a, but perhaps the two are identical. The succession and the difference are perhaps appearances, which exist only for a view which is isolated and defective. The successive relation may be a truth which, when filled out, is transmuted, and which, when supplemented, must lose its character in the Absolute. It may thus be the fragment of a higher truth not prejudicial to identity.

Such considerations will turn the edge of any objection directed against our Absolute from the ground of causation. But we have seen, in addition, in our sixth chapter that this ground is indefensible. By its own discrepancy causation points beyond itself to higher truth; and I will briefly, here once more, attempt to make this plain. Causation implies change, and it is difficult to know of what we may predicate change without contradiction. To say “a becomes b, and there is nothing which changes,” is really unmeaning. For, if there is change, something changes; and it is able to change because something is permanent. But then how predicate the change? “Xa becomes Xb”; but, if X is a and afterwards b, then, since a has ceased to qualify it, a change has happened within X. But, if so, then apparently we require a further permanent. But if, on the other side, to avoid this danger, we take Xa not to change, we are otherwise ruined. For we have somehow to predicate of X both elements at once, and where is the succession? The successive elements co-exist unintelligibly within X, and succession somehow is degraded to mere appearance.

To put it otherwise, we have the statement “X is first Xa, and later also Xb.” But how can “later also b” be the truth, if before mere a was true? Shall we answer “No, not mere a; it is not mere Xa, but Xa (given c), which is later also b”? But this reply leaves us still face to face with a like obstacle; for, if Xa (c) is X later b, then how separate these terms? If there is a difference between them, or if there is none, our assertion in either case is untenable. For we cannot justify the difference if it exists, or our making it, if it does not exist. Hence we are led to the conclusion that subject and predicate are identical, and that the separation and the change are only appearance. They are a character assuredly to be added to the whole, but added in a way beyond our comprehension. They somehow are lost except as elements in a higher identity.

Or, again, say that the present state of the world is the cause of that total state which follows next on it. Here, again, is the same self-contradiction. For how can one state a become a different state b? It must either do this without a reason, and that seems absurd; or else the reason, being additional, forthwith constitutes a new a, and so on for ever. We have the differences of cause and effect, with their relation of time, and we have no way in which it is possible to hold these together. Thus we are drawn to the view that causation is but partial, and that we have but changes of mere elements within a complex whole. But this view gives no help until we carry it still further, and deny that the whole state of the world can change at all. So we glide into the doctrine that partial changes are no change, but counterbalance one another within a whole which persists unaltered. And here certainly the succession remains as an appearance, the special value of which we are unable to explain. But the causal sequence has drifted beyond itself and into a reality which essentially is timeless. And hence, in attempting an objection to the eternity of the Absolute, causation would deny a principle implied in its own nature.

At the end of this chapter, I trust, we may have reached a conviction. We may be convinced, not merely as before, that time is unreal, but that its appearance also is compatible with a timeless universe. It is only when misunderstood that change precludes a belief in eternity. Rightly apprehended it affords no presumption against our doctrine. Our Absolute must be; and now, in another respect, again, it has turned out possible. Surely therefore it is real.

I shall conclude this chapter with a few remarks on the nature of space.[8] In passing to this from time, we meet with no difficulties that are new, and a very few words seem all that is wanted. I am not attempting here to explain the origin of space; and indeed to show how it comes to exist seems to me not possible. And we need not yet ask how, on our main view, we are to understand the physical world. That necessary question is one which it is better to defer. The point here at issue is this, Does the form of space make our reality impossible? Is its existence a thing incompatible with the Absolute? Such a question, in my judgment, requires little discussion.

If we could prove that the spatial form were a development, and so secondary, that would give us little help. The proof could in no degree lessen the reality of a thing which, in any case, does exist. It would at most serve as an indication that a further growth in development might merge the space-form in a higher mode of perception. But it is better not to found arguments upon that which, at most, is hardly certain.

What I would stand upon is the essential nature of space. For that, as we saw in our First Book, is entirely inconsistent. It attempts throughout to reach something which transcends its powers. It made an effort to find and to maintain a solid self-existence, but that effort led it away into the infinite process both on the inside and externally. And its evident inability to rest within itself points to the solution of its discords. Space seeks to lose itself in a higher perception, where individuality is gained without forfeit of variety.[9]

And against the possibility of space being in this way absorbed in a non-spatial consummation, I know of nothing to set. Of course how in particular this can be, we are unable to lay down. But our ignorance in detail is no objection against the general possibility. And this possible absorption, we have seen, is also necessary.


  1. On these points see my Principles of Logic, and, below, Chapter xxiii.
  2. On this point see Chapter xxiii.
  3. For this construction see p. 84, and Principles of Logic, Chapter ii.
  4. See on this point Mind, xii. 579-82. We think forwards, one may say, on the same principle on which fist feed with their heads pointing up the stream.
  5. See Chapter xxii.
  6. On the possibility of this compare Chapter xxiii.
  7. I shall make some remarks on Progress in Chapter xxvi.
  8. I must here refer back to Chapter iv.
  9. The question as to whether, and in what sense, space possesses a unity, may be deferred to Chapter xxii. A discussion on this point was required in the case of time. But an objection to our Absolute would hardly be based on the unity of space.