Bertrand Russell on appearance and reality

Yola asked:

What is the main argument on Bertrand Russell, ‘Appearance and Reality’? Explain why the argument is good (valid/ strong, sound/ cogent) or bad (invalid/ weak, unsound/ uncogent).

Answer by Danny Krämer

Philosophy is often a rebellion of thought. You find traditions that make no sense to you and you meet people whose arguments you just think are false. Often you even rebel against your own former beliefs. When Russell came to Camebridge British philosophy was idealist philosophy inspired by Hegel. One of the well known British followers of Hegel was F.H. Bradley. For these idealists the connection between beliefs and not the connection between thoughts and the world were important for truth. So they advocated a kind of coherentism. Everything that can be thought is a thought of someone and therefore everything that exists is either a thought of a universal mind, as in idealism, or it consists of many monadic minds, as Leibniz suggests. Russell, together with G.E. Moore, was one of the leading figures in the rebellion against British idealism.

The interesting thing in the first chapter of Russell’s Problems of Philosophy called ‘Appearance and Reality’ is his Cartesian starting point. He asks: Can we get a foundation for our knowledge that is so certain, that we can build our whole system of knowledge upon it? That is clearly a question that Bradley would reject. His form of idealist coherentism had no place for a foundation of any knowledge. Russell makes an empiricist point: In everyday life we have no problem in making true statements. We just observe state of affairs and then we know for example that the tomato is red. But he cautions us about any crude and naive empiricism. We often know that the things are not at all how they appear.

Take Russell’s argument from the relativity of perspectives:

Five persons stand around a table.

Every of this persons sees a little bit different colour shade and form of the table.
With some manipulation of the light even all five could see a different colour altogether.

Therefore there is not THE colour of the table.

What we call the colour of the table is just the colour of the table under normal circumstances to a normal observer. So it seams that the table itself has no intrinsic colour. The colour of the table is a relational property between the table, the environment and the observer. Russell suggests a ontology that can preserve the difference between appearance and reality. There are, he says, not only objects like tables but also sense-data. These are the things that are immediately known to us by sensation, like colours, sounds, smells etc. So the colour of the table is not a property of the table but a sense-datum.

Is the argument sound? I think it is as far as it goes but I don’t like Russell’s ontology of sense-data. The problem with sense-data as mental objects is that scepticism reigns supreme. If material objects just cause some mental objects which we perceive directly then this mental objects could be caused by a table or by a supercomputer to a brain in a vat. If we understand colours as relational and very complex properties between the observer, the object and the environment and not as sense-data i.e. mental objects between us and the object, we get a externalist and functionalist understanding of mental properties.

But Russell opened up the discussion for a new style of philosophy that was not idealistic. Pace the British idealists and some followers of Leibniz, there are material objects in the full sense of material. They are independent of any thoughts. Russell so clears the path for questions about meaning and reference, semantics, representation and so on, which are still with us.


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