Appearance and Essence -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Appearance and Essence

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Most people realise that "appearances are deceptive." However, this is only relatively true. In order to arrive at an understanding of the essence of a thing, we must begin by a thorough acquaintance with precisely these "appearances," that is, with all the physical features, properties and tendencies we can observe. In the course of such an analysis, it will become clear that certain facts can be omitted as "unessential," and, gradually, we will arrive at the most fundamental characteristics of the object under consideration.

It is very common to say about somebody "yes, but he’s not really like that." The implication is that people are not what they seem to be. Appearance is one thing, but essence is supposed to be completely different. However, this is not quite true. If we only have a slight acquaintance with a person, then it is true that we cannot form an accurate impression of him or her on the basis of their conduct. It may be completely untypical. But if we have known people for a long time, we have sufficient reason to believe that we know them as they are. We precisely base ourselves on "appearances" because there is nothing else to base ourselves on. The Bible says "by their fruits shall you know them," and that is correct. As a man or woman lives and acts, so they are. There is nothing else to look for.

This was the fundamental error of Kant, when he tried to draw a line between appearances and some mysterious "thing" that lay beyond experience which was supposed to be forever beyond human knowledge. In fact, once we know all the properties of a thing, we know the thing itself. We may be limited at any given moment in time by lack of information, but, in principle, there is nothing which is forever barred to human knowledge, except one thing—to know everything about an infinite universe. This is no real limitation, but simply an expression of the dialectical relation between the finite nature of individuals, and an infinite universe, which is constantly revealing new secrets. And although the particular knowledge of one person is finite, from one generation to another, the sum-total of knowledge and understanding of humanity increases. The process of learning is never-ending. Precisely in this lies its fascination and its beauty.

We set out from what is known, in order to discover what is not known. On thing leads to another. A doctor, basing himself on all his knowledge of medical science and past experience, carefully examines all the available symptoms and arrives at a diagnosis. A sailor will study the wind and tides in order to guess the possibilities of putting to sea. In this way, essence is manifested through appearance, although it requires a certain skill and understanding to pass from the one to the other.

One of the greatest errors it is possible to commit when dealing with the processes that occur in society is to approach them as static and fixed, that is to say, from the standpoint of formal logic. One frequently comes across this kind of thing—narrow-minded prejudice masquerading as "practical wisdom." It is said that "people will never change," "things will always be as they are," and "there is nothing new under the sun." This kind of superficial thought pretends to be profound, but really only reveals the kind of ignorance which is content with itself. No rational reason is given for such assertions. Occasionally an attempt is made to give it a biological basis, with vague references to something called "human nature," from which we instantly deduce that the individual in question knows nothing whatsoever about humans or their nature.

This kind of mentality is strictly limited to its own narrow experience of the world of appearance in the most superficial sense. It is very like a man who is constantly skating on the surface, without bothering to inquire about the thickness of the ice. Such a person may get away with it nine times out of ten. One day, however, he finds himself drowning in icy water. At that precise moment, he begins to realise that maybe the ice was not as solid as it looked.

"A is A." You are you. I am myself. People are people. A peseta is a peseta. Society is society. The trade unions are the trade unions. Such sentences seem reassuring, but in fact are empty of all content. Insofar as they express anything at all, it is the idea that everything is itself, and nothing changes. However, experience tells us something different. Things are constantly changing, and, at a critical point, small quantitative changes can produce massive transformations.

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