It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them.

[Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Chapter I]

I don't understand the bold text. Could you explain it for me? Does "them" refer to the sensations?

1 Answer 1


I'll try and break this whole paragraph down as I understand it, then we can tackle your question.

Russell is describing what you feel when a part of your body presses against something solid, such as a table. He says you feel that the table is "hard".

What he is then saying is that how the table "feels" to you differs depending on two other things: firstly which part of your body you press against it (for example your finger, your elbow etc); and secondly how hard you press (the amount of pressure exerted).

To summarise, he is saying that there are three different things contributing to what you "feel" - the table, your body, and the amount of pressure.

This is where it gets a bit philosophical. Russell appears to be saying that the "sensation" or "feeling" is not a single feeling, but multiple sensations. I suppose for example you have one feeling that your mind interprets as a measure of how hard, or solid the table is; you may also get a corresponding feeling in your body, perhaps a numbness or even a degree of pain from the pressure. There are possibly other feelings too. Russell then appears to be suggesting that this "collection" of feelings are not caused by any single one of the three things mentioned earlier, but by a "property" which you could not attach to any single one of them.

So to answer your question directly, I understand "them" to refer to the individual sensations which collectively contribute to your overall feeling, but none of which individually "contain" this collective "property" that causes them.

Reading The Problems of Philosophy beyond your quotation, Russell questions whether the table is real or not. So remember he is trying to get people to think abstractly, and separate physical object from the feelings you get from it.

  • I don't see how them would refer to the two factors (what body part presses on the table and how hard it presses); it rather refers to the sensations. They're saying the sensations themselves don't directly reveal an actual property of the table.
    – user3395
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 12:24
  • 1
    @userr2684291 I think you are right, I have adjusted my answer. It is a complex paragraph owing to the subject matter. Viewing something "abstractly" as the author is trying to do makes it difficult to separate things. He speaks of the feelings both singularly and collectively. I'm confident the answer is correct now.
    – Astralbee
    Commented Sep 21, 2018 at 12:29

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