Truth and Appearance

The truth of appearanceā€¦and the appearance of truth.

The truth of appearance involves an interrogation of appearance as potentially alien to truth. The suspicion of appearance.

The appearance of truth raises the problem that truth, which aims to distinguish itself from mere appearance, must nonetheless appear. This creates problems for a separate field of truth that is somehow unaffected by the problem of appearance.

But what is appearance? For Hesiod, appearance is associated with the stomach. It is base and corporeal. It is opposed to the lofty and incorporeal field of truth. There is evident here then, well before Plato privileges abstract ideality and Kant the non-appetitive character of aesthetic experience, a sense of the fundamental incompatibility of the physical and the metaphysical, of body and mind, of their essential incommensurability and difference. Yet if the stomach provides the model for everyday experience – for its blindness, will and alienation from truth – how does it become associated with appearance? Appearance is peculiarly positioned, linked to corporeal experience and yet also taking shape as a complex phantasm – the complex product of sense, memory, understanding and imagination. In this respect, appearance is associated not only with blindness but also with a work of showing (with light as well as darkness). How can these opposing tendencies be reconciled? The usual explanation is that appearance itself – on its own – is weak and unschooled. Something takes shape – appears – but without the intervention of logical reason. Leibniz speaks of a clear but confused impression – one that has persuasive force, but that involves no element of precise definition or logical delineation. In this sense, operating separately to reason, appearance is characterised by the constitutive contradiction of its opposing aspects.

Interesting that, conceived in these terms, appearance preserves a relation to the otherness of unconscious being. It is an involuntary image. What appears is essentially a form of darkness (alien and unreflective) and the play of light within appearance is ultimately blindly determined. Kant will question this space of exteriority, arguing that appearance is bound by a fundamental circularity; what appears is only that which our a priori faculties of understanding make available to us. The thing itself – in its blindness and alterity – inevitably escapes. So in this sense appearance will never be appearance itself, but rather a kind of blind anticipation. Blindness remains, but reveals nothing and engages with no exterior field of otherness. Instead the blindness has its basis in our own internal work of shaping the conditions of appearance, which cannot quite see this work, which constantly mistakes its own projections for the world itself. At this point, within the context of the Kantian questioning of any direct intuition of the world, appearance becomes even more uncertain. It had seemed to lie on the side of corporeal experience – and of the alienation that this represents – now it emerges as a product of inner conceptual faculties, so that appearance is only ever the fiction of appearance, the misrecognition of an internal for an external light.

But the problem becomes more complex. It is not only a matter of an impossible appearance seeming to proclaim an alien truth – slipping away from reason (never being bound by reason) to show things in a sphere of apparent daylight that belongs properly to darkness and night – but also, more seriously, of a rationality that depends upon appearance. The rational itself must appear. It must run the risk of all appearance – of impression, of semblance, of illusion. In this manner the theatre of rational truth is affected by the dilemmas and aporia of appearance. Who is to say that the self-evidence of a deductive truth is not simply a species of illusion lifted up a degree – more convincing, more persuasive, but ultimately still an apparition?

Hence all the efforts, for instance, of the Pre-Socractics to distinguish truth proper from the realm of appearance. But how is this done? Through stories of the intercession of goddesses (the chariot ride of Parmenides), through magical acts (the golden thigh of Pythagorus) and through the prophesying of an eclipse (Thales). That is through all kinds of theatrical means that render images and stories, that trade on appearances. Even if we were to dispute this relationship between magic and logic in the Pre-Socratics, even if we were to bracket all the picturesque distractions and just focus on the currents of clear logical argument, we would still encounter the problem of appearance. A key concern of the Pre-Socratics is to identity the fundamental stuff of the world. Thales spoke of water, Anixmander of air, Heraclitus of fire. All of these images, all of these metaphors, are central to their philosophical arguments. They are not extraneous features, but key to the articulation and envisaging of particular philosophical schemes. Finally, beyond this, there is also the verbal play of the Pre-Socratics – their endless riddles and paradoxes – which represent a meta-level sphere of appearance. As a rhetorical field, Pre-Socratic philosophy emerges as a play of veiling and unveiling, disappearance and manifestation.

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