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Things Are Not Always the Way They Seem to Appear

David Cowles

Jul 19, 2022

This alternative turns a simple, two-stroke process of alienation into a four-stroke process of alignment. How so?

"Things are not always what they seem,” you’ve heard it a million times, and it certainly is true…as far as it goes. It captures the separation of Being and Appearing, traditional in Western philosophy from Parmenides (Aletheia vs. Doxa) through Heidegger (Dasein vs. Wassein). But it also suggests that there is an almost primordial conflict between being (‘thing’) and appearing (‘experience’).

Many years ago, I heard this same basic concept formulated in a way I like much better: “Things are not always the way they seem to appear.” This alternative turns a simple, two-stroke process of alienation (above) into a four-stroke process of alignment (below). How so?

We start with things as they are, not as they seem to be to each other, not as they appear to be to an outside observer, but things as they are to each other, islands in the stream. Groups of things can form; call them ‘multiplicities.' Things in a multiplicity don’t necessarily have to fit together and very often they don’t. It would be more accurate to say that things in a multiplicity have a habit of frequently bumping into one another.

Things are, they seem, and as we shall soon see, they appear. But before they can do any of this, things need to transform from mere multiplicities into nexus (pl.). Things cannot ‘seem’ on their own. ‘Seeming’ lies between ‘being’ and ‘not-being’ or between ‘being’ and ‘appearing.' (Side bar: does that mean that ‘non-being’ and ‘appearing’ are the same thing? Check out Shakespeare’s Tempest for some ideas on this.)

Seeming can be a bit, well, for want of a better word, ‘unseemly.' Seeming is a social act and, therefore, requires a collective subject (i.e., a nexus). Seeming connects the solidary act of being with the communal act of appearing.

Seeming is fundamental to nexus. How a nexus ‘seems’ defines what that nexus ‘is.' Likewise, only a nexus can ‘seem’ so whatever ‘seems’ is a nexus. This is what is meant by ‘the way they seem:' it is a single act but with two opposite aspects. The ‘way’ is how things come together to form nexus (pl.) while the ‘seem’ is how the fully formed nexus projects itself in the world.

Finally, things ‘appear.' Whew! It’s been a long ride, but yes, you can finally say it, “We’re there now.” Appearing implies an audience: ‘Tom Jones is now appearing in Las Vegas.’ He wouldn’t be ‘appearing’ if there wasn’t at least the expectation of one tapped out gambler as an audience.

So, yes, we’re home now. The fat (sic) lady has sung! A ‘bud of experience’ (William James) has emerged from an undifferentiated background pool of potentiality. We have what Alfred North Whitehead would call, ‘an actual entity.'

Let’s retrace our steps. We started with things in themselves, solitary things, strangers in the night. Then we looked at the way those things come together to form a nexus. A nexus is the first step in seeming. The process climaxes in what we call an experience. The experiencing agent interacts with the nexus in question thereby transforming the nexus’ seeming into appearing, the contribution of the nexus to the experience.


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