To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Anyone else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise, but as soon as we try to be more precise, our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same color all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different so that the apparent distribution of colors on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colors because no two can see it from the same point of view, namely that cannot see its reality, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.
For practical purposes, these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the color that common sense says they ‘really’ have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have the beginning of one of the distinctions that causes a great deal of trouble in philosophy—the distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality,’ between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are, but the philosopher’s wish to know this is stronger than the practical man’s and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question.
To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no color that preeminently appears to be the color of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table—it appears to be of different colors from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its color than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the color will seem different by artificial light, or to a color-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no color at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This color is not something that is inherent in the table but is something that depends upon the table, the spectator, and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the color of the table, we only mean the sort of color that it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colors that appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favoritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular color.
Our simple example of an ordinary table brings to light these questions of appearance and reality, questions that taken up with any degree of intellectual honesty are bewildering, and it is difficult to know that even the strangest hypotheses may not be true. Thus our familiar table, which has roused but the slightest thoughts in us before, has become a problem full of surprising possibilities. The one thing we know about it is that it is not what it seems. Beyond this modest result, so far, we have the most complete liberty of conjecture, and this point is where the student of philosophy begins their journey.
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