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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The general sense of the contrast between appearance
and reality would be any difference between what is
the case and what appears to be so. Thus, the ordinary
appearance of a person frequently conceals his real
feelings and thoughts, the appearance of a village may
be one of tranquility, but the reality one of turmoil,
hatred, etc. The more specific sense of this contrast
arose out of philosophical concerns about the nature
of the world. The concept of “world” and of “reality”
in this philosophical concern is related to but different
from the ordinary concept. Early Greek cosmologists
interpreted the perceived world in terms of causal and
intentional forces of the gods. Pre-Socratic philoso-
phers, searching for secular explanations, came to draw
a sharp contrast between the perceived world and the
ultimate “real stuff.” Water, air, atoms, abstract notions
like “unlimited” or “boundless,” and “mind” were
offered as the stuff of which the world is really made
or in terms of which understanding of the world must
be made. Greek atomism is a prime example. All
observed properties and qualities of objects were
explained in terms of the shape and motion of insensi-
ble material particles. This account of reality was not
only important in itself, it was, at least to Lucretius
later, of ethical and emotional value in leading man
via understanding to happiness (cf. Spinoza).

The atomistic way of thinking of the cause and
ground of the perceived world is easiest for us to accept
since it fits in well with the early forms of atomism
in modern physics. As recent science has moved to
more and more abstractions, e.g., energy, force, fields,
etc., the analogy of real world to the perceived world
has given way. Those abstract concepts in Greek
thought—the boundless, Parmenides' One, Plato's
Forms—likewise required a different mode of thought
for their understanding. Even though Parmenides may
have thought of the One as in some way physical, the
geometrical concepts easily emerged from his concep-
tualization of the One. The contrast between what
appears to be the case and what is in fact so is sharp
and striking. Parmenides' recommendation, again as
much for moral as for intellectual reasons, was to turn
our backs on the way of appearance and to contem-
plate the way of truth and reality. The contrast was
so complete that sense experience was contradictory
to reality: what the senses report cannot be true since
motion is unreal. The paradoxes of Zeno simply played
upon this Parmenidean contrast of appearance and
reality. The senses are denied, are unreal.

This striking Parmenidean contrast set many prob-
lems for Plato and subsequent philosophers. The chal-
lenge of the paradoxes had to be met, one cannot carry
out Parmenides' radical denial of all that our senses
report. The most fundamental difficulty in a concept
of reality such as Parmenides advanced is the implied
if not explicit denial to the perceived world of any
status in reality. Bradley was much later to point out
that, no matter how different our philosophy may make
appearances from reality, there is an important sense
in which the appearances must occupy some place in
reality. The Bradleyan concept of reality owes much
to Hegel, where radical contrasts and differences tend
to disappear in a dialectical flow: reality becomes the
totality of that which is, Spinoza's facies totius Universi
(“the whole aspect of the universe”). But quite apart
from such an Hegelian transformation of the concept
of reality, there is an important truth in the insistence
that anything, appearances as well as nonappearances,
are in some sense. At least the status is that they exist
as appearances. Plato put the point trenchantly in
having Socrates ask (Republic V, 476D), “When you
know something, do you know something that is or
something that is not?” The conclusion from this ques-
tion has to be (as both Plato and Parmenides agreed)
that that which is not can neither be nor be conceived.

To make room for sense perception which reveals
a world of change and motion, of diversity and differ-
ence, Plato elaborated a conception of different
degrees and kinds of realness. The most real—his
Forms—fulfill the role of reality in the more simple
notions of appearance and reality: the Forms play
causal, semantic, and moral roles. The intellectual
understanding of the Forms has an alternate, aesthetic
mode. Both modes are sought for social, political, and
ethical enlightenment and guidance. Plato stresses a
pattern frequently repeated in the history of this idea.
While it is reasonable to conclude that it was the moral
fervor of Socrates seeking definitions of ethical con-
cepts which led Plato to the notions of permanent,
unchanging standards, the intellectual puzzles of
Parmenides and Zeno influenced the later development
of Plato's doctrine. Ideas of Sameness, Difference, and
Existence found their elaboration in the later doctrine
of Forms, always as a way of explaining and accounting
for the appearance of development and change in our
sensory experiences. Moral dilemmas in the earlier
dialogues gave way in the later ones (Parmenides,
Sophist, Statesman
) to logical puzzles and challenges.

Conceiving of the reality of abstractions like Same-
ness and Difference, the Large and the Small, Justice
and Beauty, is difficult if we use the familiar world
of perception as our touchstone for reality. What
Plato's notion of degrees of reality can do for us is
to lead the way to viewing the world as composed of
a wide variety of things. We need not go all the way
with the Great Chain of Being, from lowest and earliest


cells to Angels and God, but it is important for a proper
understanding of our many-faceted world to have a
way of fitting everything into a coherent view of real-
ity. The concept of degrees or kinds of reality enables
us to do just that, to see that anything experienced
or mentioned, observable or conceivable belongs to the
world in some way. We may want to make some
distinctions, to place some items in our scheme of
things in more prominent, more basic places, to order
and relate the ingredients of our world in particular
ways. What we cannot do is to label some items “ap-
pearance,” if we intend thereby to exclude them from
the real. This is not to say that the pressures leading
philosophers to contrast appearance with reality are
any the less forceful and demanding. It is only to say
that, however we view the contrast between sensing
and conceiving, between concrete particulars and ab-
stract concepts, we have to recognize that that contrast
is itself made within reality.

The Platonic doctrine of degrees of reality lends
itself to religion in two different ways. In the hands
of Plotinus it leads to a mystical metaphysic with a
divine One as the culmination of the scale of being.
All else is conceived as emanations from this One.
Spinoza gave voice later to a similar metaphysic of
totality—as Parmenides did before—but with more
intellectual and less mystical content, though Spinoza's
goal was also moral and religious. The doctrine of
degrees of reality also lends itself to the intellectual
attempts to articulate and justify a belief in God. Both
Saint Anselm and Descartes made use of this notion
in their proofs for God's existence. This use of the
notion is, however, not central to the idea of appear-
ance and reality. What is central and characteristic of
much seventeenth-century philosophical use of this
idea is Descartes' insistence that physical reality can
be understood, not sensed or imagined. What the un-
derstanding reveals is a world of geometrical proper-
ties, extension being the essential category. The famous
wax example in his Meditations (Part I) echoes the
Greek rejection of the sense-world as real; his proof
for body concludes that there is body but that it may
not be as it seems to our senses.

A strong motive behind the metaphysic of Descartes
was the concern to find a conceptual basis for the
formulation and understanding of science; he sought
to provide the categories and the method for seeing
the world in scientific terms. The category of extension,
like its corresponding category of thought, was a non-
sensory concept. Descartes did not think of sense expe-
rience as less real (though he exploited its possibilities
for deception), but he insisted that sensation will not
yield a knowledge of matter or mind. Importance is
clearly given to the nonsensory. The basic principles
of science were to be found in the basic simples (the
simple natures) of his metaphysic.

The seventeenth-century philosophers were particu-
larly concerned with science. Leibniz is equally repre-
sentative with Descartes. The concept of monads—
immaterial atoms, each very much like Parmenides'
One—was Leibniz' metaphysical way of capturing
some of the principles he thought science needed to
explain and formulate the nature of body and motion.
Activity for him was a basic scientific and metaphysical
category. Leibniz' program is especially important in
the history of this idea of appearance and reality be-
cause of the way in which the philosophical expression
of that idea in his metaphysical writings was antici-
pated by his own attempts to deal mathematically and
intellectually with the science of motion. The threefold
appeal of this idea in the history of thought—the reli-
gious, the scientific, and the metaphysical—is at work
in Leibniz. He liked to say that the experienced phe-
nomena (the appearances) were well-founded: just the
sort of phenomena we would expect if the world was
really composed of the immaterial atoms he said it was.
At the metaphysical level, we find in Leibniz a whole
series of translations from ordinary language and expe-
rience to the language and reality of monads. The
world conceived as colonies of different kinds of
monads has God as a sort of super-monad. Immate-
riality and self-contained actions are the basic features
of the world at the real (i.e., monadic) level.

Conceptualization of monads is not easy. Acceptance
of tiny imperceptible material monads or atoms has
always proved far easier. The Corpuscular Hypothesis
used by seventeenth-century scientists in England,
adopted by Locke in his philosophy, does not make
any unnecessary demands on our thought, since it
thinks of those corpuscular entities on analogy with
gross bodies. Whenever philosophers move into a
metaphysic of appearance and reality, where some of
the items ascribed to reality put a strain on our easy
conceptualization rooted in the perceptual world, spe-
cial problems arise about explaining what the real
status of those items is. In almost all cases, such tran-
scendent items can be seen to work well as explanatory
concepts. The difficulties appear when those items are
given an ontological status as well. Leibniz seems to
have recognized something of these difficulties in his
Discourse on Metaphysics (1686) where, at one point,
he suggests that talk of monads may only be a manner
of speaking. To conceive of almost any transcendent
abstraction as having ontological status, without
deifying it, is indeed troublesome.

One interesting way around some of these problems
is found in Spinoza's use of the distinction of appear-
ance and reality. What Spinoza did was to eliminate


from his metaphysic all transcendent items, including
the traditional God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Instead, the totality of that which is is itself deified.
Traditional divine attributes are still ascribed to this
totality, but Spinoza is very explicit in warning us not
to be misled by these ascriptions. God or Substance
is infinite, possessed of infinite attributes, cause of all
and cause of itself, but is not different from all that
is. What Spinoza's use of this idea requires is a shift
in our understanding, not an acceptance of any new
or strange metaphysical entities. Everything in the
world, the most common and ordinary as well, can be
viewed and understood in two different ways. From
the point of view of appearance and ordinary percep-
tion, this glass of water, this table, this book is finite,
in time, caused, subject to change, and possessed of
the sensory properties we sense it as having. But these
same objects can be placed in a different perspective
where their particularity does not disappear, but where
it is viewed from the perspective of the totality and
that particularity can be seen as modifications of the
totality. Viewing the world (better, the totality of
everything) as a whole, as a unit, very general categor-
ies can be used to encompass everything. Of all that
there is that we know (and Spinoza accepted the limi-
tation of human knowledge), it is either extended or
immaterial (i.e., thought). These categories are proper-
ties of the whole, but only insofar as there are particu-
lar extended and thinking things. Viewing particular
objects in this way takes us outside time and causation,
because time and causation are features of particular
objects only. The totality is timeless and uncaused.

Parmenides is obviously reincarnated but trans-
formed in this Spinozistic conception. The problem of
conceiving of transcendent entities has disappeared, to
be replaced by what may be a difference in kind of
predication. That is, when Spinoza says God or Sub-
stance is cause of itself, is “cause” being used in the
same way, with the same meaning, as in more ordinary
causal judgments? Clearly not, in part because causa
really means “uncaused,” in part because the
ascription of extension or thought to the totality which
is Spinoza's Substance is a tacit way of ascribing these
predicates to particular objects. Only particular mem-
bers of the totality change and are caused, occupy
space and time. But because these individuals taken
together constitute the totality, the totality—not as a
collection but as a whole—also has these properties,
but not in the sense that it occupies space and time,
changes, and is caused.

One cannot be sure to what extent the borrowed
meanings of his concepts from traditional religious
doctrine gave a religious flavor to Spinoza's demytho
logized metaphysic of Substance. Spinoza was an in-
tense, meditative man; his attitude towards life was
moralist and humane rather than coolly intellectual.
The concepts of his metaphysic were not fashioned to
deal with logical puzzles; they were to deliver him
and mankind from human bondage: “from his intellect
/ And from the stillness of abstracted thought / He
asked repose” (Wordsworth, “The Wanderer,” lines
313-15). Intellectual understanding is in the service of
enlightenment and well-being. The Ethics of Spinoza
offers us a way of life, not one that requires us to
forsake practice and action but one which adds under-
standing and peace of mind to our daily lives. But of
course, such a way to happiness and well-being is not
practicable or even feasible for many. The mental and
emotional state of mind requisite for finding, in this
abstract concretizing of appearance and reality, the
peace (one could almost say beatitude) that does not
pass but comes through understanding is rare in man-

While the naturalization of deity, characteristic of
seventeenth-century deists, easily lends itself to the
kind of romantic religious attitude toward nature found
in Wordsworth, it would be difficult to think of
Spinoza's deification of nature finding a direct appli-
cation in literature. One might expect to find something
like it in the metaphysical poets, but their conceits
were abstract and often contorted though not meta-
physical. For artists usually, for Wordsworth in partic-
ular, experience of nature, not abstracted thought,
provides the mark of reality. Sometimes the artist is
content to record the appearance of things, the sensu-
ous content is valuable enough. At other times, as in
Wordsworth's case, familiar perceptual objects are
seen as having an “inward meaning,” they reveal “the
one Presence, and the Life / Of the great whole” (The
II, lines 129-31). Unlike the academic studies
at Cambridge, which seemed to the poet of The Prelude
to take him away from the “sentiment of Being,”
experience of nature—the woods, mountains, lakes of
Windermere—enables him to converse “With things
that really are” (II, lines 412-13). The boundaries of
our perceptual world, the “cabinet of our sensations,”
can be transcended if we respond to “the latent quali-
ties / And essences of things” (II, lines 223-29, 344-45).
“To thee, unblinded by these outward shows, / The
unity of all has been reveal'd” (II, lines 225-26).

There is Platonism, of course, in Wordsworth. The
eternal Beauty of the Forms reappears, with the famous
“Ode—Intimations of Immortality” typifying this fea-
ture of his thought. But the important characteristic
of Wordsworth's poetry for the history of the idea of
appearance and reality is the deistic, natural religion


of his longer poems. The intellectual tradition upon
which Wordsworth drew in his nature poetry is the
same one to which deists and Spinoza belonged. No
sharp contrast between appearance and reality is
drawn, the totality of appearances and phenomena is
reality, but the perceptive person will come to view
those objects in a way which reveals the meanings
latent in them. Deists, Wordsworth, and Spinoza, in
their respective ways worked within a unified, non-
transcendent notion of reality but drew distinctions of
value within the one Being. All three did so for inspi-
rational purposes. Appearances are not rejected or
denied a place in reality, they become reality when
experienced and understood in the proper way.

William Blake is another interesting though obscure
example of a literary application of metaphysical con-
cepts. The interpretation of Blake is difficult. Platonism
and Berkeleyan idealism at least seem to have com-
bined to influence his literary and aesthetic convictions.
Northrop Frye (Fearful Symmetry...) cites those
passages where Blake clearly echoes Berkeley, e.g.,
“nothing is real beyond the imaginative patterns men
make of reality” (p. 19). Wordsworth's deism is mis-
leading for Blake, since it credits to nature the realities
of the imagination. The Platonism of Blake, which
G. M. Harper stresses in his study, The Neoplatonism of
William Blake,
finds expression in such passages as
“Imagination, the real and eternal World of which this
Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow” (“Jerusalem,”
in Blake, The Complete Writings, ed. G. Keynes [1957],
p. 717), and “There Exist in that Eternal World the
Permanent Realities of Every Thing which we see
reflected in this Vegetable Glass of Nature” (“A Vision
of the Last Judgment,” ibid., pp. 605-06). Harper cites
several passages which seem to show Blake giving
independent existence to the Forms discovered (or
created) by the imagination. For example, “Whatever
can be Created can be Annihilated: Forms cannot: /
The Oak is cut down by the Ax, the Lamb falls by
the Knife, / But their Forms Eternal Exist For-ever”
(“Milton,” ibid., p. 522). While Blake also seems to
retain something of the doctrine of “degrees or kinds
of reality,” e.g., in speaking of the worlds of vision,
sight, and memory, Frye insists that “These are not
three different worlds”; they are rather three different
ways of looking at the one world (p. 26).

Whether we view Blake through the metaphysics
of Berkeley or of Plato is not all that important, though
both ingredients seem to be there. What is important
to see—and Blake is an ideal case—is the way in which
metaphysical concepts are used but transmuted by the
literary mind. Blake was more interested in artistic and
aesthetic adaptations of Plato and Berkeley than in
their doctrines themselves. The concept of form as a
metaphysical entity is replaced by that of archetype.
The artist generally is one who, via vision working on
particulars, captures universal and archetypal forms.
Metaphysical idealism supplies the artist with an intel-
lectual justification of the truths he learns from his own
experience about the creative imagination and the
activity of the mind. Platonism enables him to give
more than a passing reality to the forms of the imagi-
nation. The Platonic real world becomes the world of
the imagination.

Kant's philosophy provided many of the Romantics,
especially Coleridge, with an even stronger and more
attractive philosophical understanding for their artistic
activities. Schiller's aesthetic interpretations of Kant
probably had a strong influence upon the conceptuali-
zations of the romantic imagination. Kant provided a
different kind of merging of phenomenal and real from
that of Spinoza. Working with the same totality of
things, Kant gave to the mind the fundamental forma-
tive and shaping powers of the world of experience.
The real world just is the world we experience, but
its structure and order are not contingent and external
to mind, for they are necessary products of mental
activity. Kant's moral philosophy might seem to retain
a separation between phenomenal (appearance) and
real, with its appeal to an intelligible world as a way
of explaining how human action can break out of the
causal uniformities of nature, but the conceptual
grounding of the Metaphysical Foundations of Morals
(1797) should more properly be seen as a recognition
of the difference in the causality of events and actions.
The causality of agency in action (and by extension,
of creative imagination) was an important philo-
sophical prop for artists, especially poets, of the
eighteenth century, in freeing them from what was
believed (albeit falsely) to be Locke's failure to recog-
nize the activity of mind in his influential account of
the human understanding.

Interestingly, the philosophical recognition of men-
tal activity, even to the extent of giving to mind form-
ative and determining functions of reality, emerged out
of a metaphysic which rejected the sharp separation
of appearance and reality. Where artists interpret their
goal as capturing reality, dualisms which place reality
in a realm separate from direct experience of phenom-
ena place a barrier in front of artistic activity. Platonic
visionaries could claim access into the realm of Forms
(experience of beauty was one path to the Forms rec-
ognized by Plato), Wordsworthian and Spinozistic
deists and pantheists could claim the ability to capture
the living forms in nature. But still more attractive is
the notion that the creative imagination takes its place


alongside the other mental apparatus elaborated by
Kant and plays a formative role in determining the
real. Since Kant, most literary and artistic support in
philosophy has come from the Kantian and Hegelian
merging of appearance and reality.

Hegel gave the most grandiose construction to this
new metaphysics. The Phenomenology of Mind (1807)
is a rich and, in its own way, artistic work. The philo-
sophical tradition is that of Spinoza, deists, and pan-
theists, with many a debt to Kant. No sharp breaks
in the scale of being, smooth transitions from one level
or kind to the next, until in Absolute Spirit we have
Hegel's attempt to formulate in abstract and semireli-
gious concepts the unified totality of all the levels and
kinds of reality and appearance. Unlike the aesthetic
approach of Wordsworth, which revealed the most
abstract truth of reality by sensory exposure, Hegel's
conceptual genius enables us to apply the concepts of
his metaphysic to sensory, social, political, and religious
experiences. We find in Hegel an application of meta-
physical concepts to illuminate life, not just art. The
social tensions of master and slave, of ruler and ruled,
the intellectual tensions of experience and under-
standing, of change and law are viewed through the
dialectic and structure of his metaphysic.

The Hegelian influence was massive, even within the
English-speaking world. It also was largely responsible
for the decline and rejection of metaphysics in
twentieth-century English philosophy: those who were
opposed to metaphysics took Hegel as their example,
even though few of the positivists and scientific empir-
icists had any intimate understanding of Hegel. Never-
theless, even within these new forms of empiricism,
with their reliance upon logic and science, dualisms
of appearance and reality emerged again. Philosophers
saw science as the authority on the nature of the world;
but, since the scientific account talked of unobservable
particles, the world of ordinary human experience had
to be given some place in reality. The sense-datum
theories of Bertrand Russell, G. previous hit E next hit. Moore, C. D. Broad,
and H. H. Price tried to relate appearances to reality
as effect to cause. Human knowledge was immediately
and mainly of sense qualities, indirectly and inferen-
tially of the scientifically designated causes. Knowledge
by acquaintance and knowledge by description (a dis-
tinction first made by William James in Principles of
New York [1890], I, 221) was Russell's way
of formulating the epistemic access we have to ap-
pearances and reality. The transitions and develop-
ments of dualism and phenomenalism of previous cen-
turies now reappeared (almost as Hegel's dialectic
predicted) in the new but transformed garbs of New
Realism, Critical Realism, and Common Sense Direct
Realism. These have been almost exclusively English
and American formulations, debates still not com-
pleted. (See R. J. Hirst's The Problems of Perception
for a good summary and discussion of many of these

Continental metaphysical concerns during the
twentieth century have stayed strictly within the
Kantian and Hegelian tradition. Edmund Husserl's
phenomenology became the dominant mode. Two fea-
tures characterize Husserl's philosophy: a method of
analysis and a new ontology of meaning. The meta-
physical dictum here is “the world is my world,” the
world of lived, human experience. The whole realm
of experience becomes a field for analysis, everything
now becomes phenomena. Perhaps more stress has
been placed by Husserl's followers upon the method
of analysis—supposedly unbiased and free from all
ontological prejudices—than upon the ontology. Ques-
tions of reality are supposed to be set aside as useless,
attention is then free to look to the descriptions of all
and any phenomena. But there is a metaphysic here
all the same, a metaphysic of experience which is
clearly Kantian and Hegelian. Since the stress is upon
experience as lived and interpreted by men, meaning
becomes the central concept, meaning for me. The
union of reality in and for itself (en-soi et pour-soi),
upon which the phenomenological metaphysic of ex-
perience rests, has been reformulated by Sartre in
Being and Nothingness (L'Etre et le néant, 1943). That
union is possible only because man is the center of
this world.

Sartre and other existentialist writers, in their liter-
ary productions, seized upon the emotions of man as
the most significant definers of reality: anguish, dread,
loneliness. The reality of a life can be experienced best,
they believe, in confrontations with death, fear, and
dread—a far cry from the tranquility and peace of
Wordsworth's real world. Husserl's phenomenology has
had widespread impact upon literature, psychology,
psychoanalysis, religion, and philosophy, even upon
social science and education. Moreover, that impact
has finally been felt in the English-speaking world. But
the existentialist writers—and the art of the absurd in
general—have narrowed the scope of reality so much
that some of them are close to denying all reality.
“Authentic” experience is privileged and rare, perhaps
impossible; reality as meaning for a person may be
slipping from our grasp: such seems to be the message
of much of existentialist writing. They are close to
presenting us with the negation of the romantic striving
for and belief in a new and better reality in or behind
appearances. Samuel Beckett's noncharacters find no
meaning and very little reality in their experience. It
makes little difference whether Godot is given a reli-
gious interpretation, or whether it is secularized and


taken to signify a meaning for the world. Beckett's
early characters are waiting for meaning to appear out
of the routine concatenation of ordinary events. His
later characters have given up entirely on Godot, and
merely live out their meaningless experiences in absurd
and unreal environments. Autonomy, creativity, and
value have been replaced by one-dimensional man
living out his time in a controlled but meaningless
world. Parmenides' denial to appearances of any status
in reality has found its contemporary formulation
within a metaphysic which identifies reality with ap-
pearances. The total annihilation threatened by the
bomb has found its literary and philosophic counterpart
in this denial of reality to the only reality left, the
reality of lived human experience.

It is difficult to predict the future of this idea of
appearance and reality. Its apotheosis in metaphysics
and literature has had a parallel in religion and theol-
ogy: the transcendence of God has struggled with the
meaningful immanence of human life. In many modern
theologies, religious meaning seems to have followed
the direction of existentialist writers, being located in
personal attitudes towards man and the world. The
metaphysic of transcendent entities thus seems on all
fronts to have given way to the phenomenological
categories: reality is as it is interpreted as being in
human experience. What there is has become a func-
tion of what man finds meaningful and valuable in his
experience. Parmenides denied reality to appearances.
Our contemporaries are close to denying reality to
reality. Such an ultimate denial would be the complete
reversal of the appearance-reality distinction.


F. H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, A Metaphysical
(Oxford and New York, 1930). Dorothy M. Emmet,
The Nature of Metaphysical Thinking (New York, 1945;
London, 1949). N. Frye, Fearful Symmetry, A Study of
William Blake
(Princeton, N. J., 1947). G. M. Harper, The
Neoplatonism of William Blake
(Chapel Hill, N. C., 1961).
G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B.
Baillie (London, 1931). R. J. Hirst, The Problems of Percep-
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[See also Atomism; Causation; Cosmic Images; Creativity
in Art; Deism; Existentialism; Neo-Platonism; Platonism;
Romanticism; Structuralism.]