Appearance versus Reality in Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy

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Appearance versus Reality in Bertrand Russell's The Problems of Philosophy


Bertrand Russell's method of approaching his subject in Problems of Philosophy embraces the Cartesian technique of radical doubt, in which the author revokes any former assumptions about certain reality and existence. In the first chapters, Russell's enquiry into the nature of reality in comparison to appearance begins with the observation of his immediate surroundings. By examining a table, for example, he determines that the table's colour, texture, and shape are sufficient to prompt doubt as to whether or not the table exists. The sensations of these qualities are not fixed by a reality; they are apparent possibilities and each depends on the conditions of
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. Sense-data, as Russell says, are "the things that are immediately known to us in sensation" (Russell, 11). For instance, we have a sensation of greenness when we see a patch of green. "Thus, whenever we see a colour, we have a sensation of the colour, but the colour itself is sense-datum, not a sensation." (12)

Sense-data is therefore an important concept distinguished from the physical world full of physical objects; it is the only part of the world with which we have direct acquaintance. (To Russell, like most philosophers, a "physical object" is comprised of matter, and exists independently of the mind.) Although sense-data causes sensations of qualities in physical objects, the object and its sense-data are not co-dependent. While we doubt the physical existence of an object, we are not doubting the sense-data, which initially inspired the idea of the object's existence.

The difficulty with Russell's sense-data is its inaccuracy. He describes, "It has appeared that, if we take any common object of the sort that is supposed to be known by the sense, what the senses immediately tell us is not the truth about the object as it is apart from us, but only that the truth about certain sense-data which, so far as we can see, depend upon the relations between us and the object" (16). As the author explains in later chapters, sense-data can only be received…