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What does "the appearances" mean in this passage?

Does it mean superficial features or arguments that appear to support a particular opinion on a surface level, but have no substantial value upon closer examination?

But, some one may say, "Let them be taught the grounds of their opinions. It does not follow that opinions must be merely parroted because they are never heard controverted. Persons who learn geometry do not simply commit the theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the demonstrations; and it would be absurd to say that they remain ignorant of the grounds of geometrical truths, because they never hear any one deny, and attempt to disprove them." Undoubtedly: and such teaching suffices on a subject like mathematics, where there is nothing at all to be said on the wrong side of the question. The peculiarity of the evidence of mathematical truths is, that all the argument is on one side. There are no objections, and no answers to objections. But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

---J.S. Mill from On Liberty https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34901/34901-h/34901-h.htm

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    I believe that "appearances" refers to arguments apparently sensible, but that may be disproved by some other reasoning, the debater trying to assess that the argument has just a semblance of validity.
    – Graffito
    Jul 21, 2023 at 11:32
  • @Graffito: Your "apparently sensible" implies that the arguments in favour of some (contrary) position are in fact flawed, but Mills intends no such "slur". It may be that any "appearances" being dispelled actually represent the true position - he's just talking in general about how people tend to demolish contrary explanations rather than actively promote the arguments in favour of their own position - regardless of where the truth might actually lie. Jul 21, 2023 at 12:05

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The passage is making a point that opinions ought to be based on practical demonstrations in reality rather than just theory:

Persons who learn geometry do not simply commit the theorems to memory, but understand and learn likewise the demonstrations.

Look at your words in question in their full context:

three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it.

I understand "the appearances" to be material demonstrations — 'evidence' — that supports an opinion. In other words, to dispute someone's evidence-based opinion you would have to dispel the material evidence supporting it.

It is slightly unusual English; perhaps academic language rather than everyday speech.

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  • I think you've summarised what Mills is saying in the earlier part of the text. But the final sentence (starting at But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated...) is saying something different. Probably because in those more complicated subjects, we can't usually make bulletproof observations to back up our positions - so instead we devote our energies to rubbishing the opposition's observations, evidences, and hypotheses. Jul 21, 2023 at 17:12
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First, this is a difficult passage for an English learner to be reading, so don't be discouraged! It uses complex and at times archaic language.

Grafitto's comment above is correct. "Appearances" here is used in the sense of "false appearances" - evidence that superficially seems to support the truth of a particular idea, but on deeper inspection are revealed to be misleading.

This happens all the time in the the sciences; it is the main way theories are refined. This is why the author draws a contrast by saying "in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts". The appearances, or evidence, that grounded the "phlogiston" theory of his day were seen to lead to wrong conclusions as the phlogiston theory was replaced by the "oxygen" theory - which now represents the current best understanding.

Likewise, he is suggesting that most arguments of "moral philosophy" (spanning what we would today variously call 'ethics', 'epistomology', and 'politics') are concerned with a similar process. These arguments therefore aim to demonstrate that the "appearances" that lead a person to a certain position are false or misleading, so that he or she will see them in a new light or consider other evidence to reason an opposing viewpoint.

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  • Thank you. I was looking up the phrase "dispelling the appearances" and stumbled across this sentence. It seems to me like "the appearances" here is used in the same sense as you suggested. What do you think about this?
    – noolodig
    Jul 25, 2023 at 12:33
  • "It was because the Lord possessed, in states of glorification, a Divine perception of all things which were taking place,-in heaven, on earth, and in His own mind and body,-that He was able to meet and subjugate the bells, gradually dissipating their fallacies, dispelling the appearances of truth by which they deceive men ..." link
    – noolodig
    Jul 25, 2023 at 12:33
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    Exactly, this is a similar usage.
    – BadZen
    Jul 25, 2023 at 13:10
  • So it's not exactly the same but just similar?
    – noolodig
    Jul 25, 2023 at 13:17
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    It's exactly the same meaning and sense of the word 'appearances'. ("Similar" use in that the exact phrase is different!)
    – BadZen
    Jul 25, 2023 at 13:45
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In its entry for appearance, the full Oxford English dictionary has this definition 12c...

save the appearances Originally Astronomy
[compare Middle French, French sauver les apparences (c1400 in astronomy; c1377 in Middle French in more general use in the sense ‘(of a hypothesis) to account for observed facts’), Italian salvar le apparenze; compare also earlier to salve the appearances (see salve v.2 1) and to solve the appearances (solve v. 3b) and discussion at those entries] : said of a hypothesis which satisfactorily explains the observed facts. See also salve v.2 1. Cf. to save the phenomena at phenomenon n. Phrases.

Their earliest citation is 1667 (in Milton's Paradise Lost), and I initially thought it was at least "dated", if not archaic. So I was somewhat surprised to see this for their most recent citation...

1981 His single professional aim is to perceive order in the physical world, not merely to save the appearances but to discover an ordered reality.
Country Life 26 February 528/3

Mills is talking about demolishing rather than "saving" the appearances, but essentially, dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it means brushing aside any justifications for contrary opinions (arguing against opposing opinions, rather than for one's own position).

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    No. Appearances refers to a hypothesis which satisfactorily explains the observed facts, as the definition says. Jul 21, 2023 at 16:08
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    ...Don't forget Mills is only making his claim (about arguing against opposing opinions, rather than for one's own position) in the specific context of "more complicated subjects" (morals, religion, politics,...) where it's actually quite difficult to produce "evidence" to back up one's position. And I think he's implying that precisely because that's difficult in those subject areas it's easier to simply rubbish your opponents "evidence", rather than produce your own. Jul 21, 2023 at 16:15
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    Bear in mind very few native Anglophones would really be able to understand the text right down to the level of What exactly does the word "appearances" mean here? I'd have no chance if I didn't have free access to the full OED, and I certainly won't bother to remember it. The text might be useful to someone studying the history of philosophy, but it's not really relevant to "learning English". Hardly anyone would be able to understand you if you ended up learning to write like Mills! Jul 21, 2023 at 16:24
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    That's not how I read it. note that the definition says "saving the appearances" is said of a hypothesis which satisfactorily explains the observed facts. The way I see it, Mills is deliberately and specifically "riffing" off that usage with dispelling the appearances as opposed to saving the appearances. Jul 21, 2023 at 17:01
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    But this is barely about English in its normal sense any more. You've got the full OED definition there, for what use you can make of it. Also bear in mind that in "normal" English, there's no meaningful connection between save, solve, and salve, and I'm sure the OED's entry for to save the phenomena would muddy the waters even further. Jul 21, 2023 at 17:03

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