Essence and Appearance

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Essence and Appearance


philosophical categories reflecting the universal forms of the objective world and man’s knowledge of that world. Essence—the internal content of an object—represents the unity of all the manifold and contradictory forms of an object’s being, while appearance is any particular manifestation of an object—namely, the external forms of its existence. The categories of appearance and essence reflect the transition of thought from the diversity of manifested forms of an object to its internal content and unity, or concept. It is science’s task to comprehend the essence of an object.

In Greek and Roman philosophy, essence was thought of as the principium for an understanding of things and at the same time as the source of their actual genesis, while appearance was referred to as the evident and illusory image of things or to that which exists only as an object of opinion. According to Democritus, the essence of a thing is inseparable from the thing itself and is a product of those atoms of which the thing is constituted. For Plato, essence, which he called idea, is not reducible to corporeal and sensible being—namely, to an aggregate of actual appearances; rather, it is beyond sensibility, nonmaterial in nature, eternal, and infinite. In contrast to Plato, Aristotle held that essence, or the form of things, does not exist separate and apart from individual things, although he also believed that matter of which a thing is made up does not constitute its essence. In medieval philosophy, essence was sharply distinguished from appearance: essence was that which was invested in god, while earthly existence was understood as false and illusory. In modern philosophy, the opposition between essence and appearance assumed an epistemological character and was expressed in the notion of primary and secondary qualities.

I. Kant recognized the objectivity of essence with the term “thing-in-itself,” holding to the principle that man cannot apprehend essence in its innermost being. According to Kant, appearance is not a manifestation of objective essence but merely a subjective representation evoked by the latter. G. Hegel overcame the metaphysical opposition between essence and appearance by asserting that essence is, while appearance is the appearance of essence. At the same time appearance, in Hegel’s dialectical idealism, was interpreted as a concrete and perceptible manifestation of an “absolute idea,” which led to insoluble contradictions.

In 20th-century bourgeois philosophy, essence and appearance are interpreted from the idealist standpoint. Thus, neopositivism denies the objectivity of essence, accepting only appearances, or “sense data,” as real; phenomenology interprets appearance as self-revealed being, and essence as a purely ideal concept; and finally, in existentialism, the category of essence is supplanted by the concept of existence, and appearance is interpreted from a subjectivist point of view.

Marxist philosophy was the first to reveal the true content of interrelations between essence and appearance. Essence and appearance are universal objective properties of the material world; they can be seen as representing cognitive stages in the comprehension of an object. The two categories are always indissolubly linked: appearance constitutes the form in which essence manifests itself, essence being revealed in appearance. However, the unity of essence and appearance does not mean that the two coincide or are identical: in Marx’ words, “if the form of manifestation were exactly correspondent to the essence of things, all science would be superfluous” (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 25, part 2, p. 384).

Appearance is richer than essence, since it incorporates not only the revealed inner content and essential connections of an object, but also all its possible random relations and particular features. Appearances are dynamic and changeable, whereas essence constitutes that which is preserved through all changes. For example, under capitalism the price of a particular commodity varies constantly, while its value will remain unchanged over a period of time. Nevertheless essence, which is stable in relation to appearance, also changes: “not only are appearances transitory, mobile, fluid,... but the essence of things is so as well” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29, p. 227). Theoretical knowledge of the essence of an object is linked to discovery of its laws of development: “law and essence are concepts of the same kind ..., expressing the deepening of man’s knowledge of phenomena, the world” (ibid., p. 136). Describing the development of human knowledge, Lenin stated: “Human thought goes endlessly deeper from appearance to essence, from essence of the first order, as it were, to essence of the second order, and so on without end” (ibid., p. 227).


Il’enkov, E. V. Dialektika abstraktnogo i konkretnogo v “Kapitale” K. Marksa. Moscow, 1960.
Bogdanov, Iu. A. Sushchnost’ i iavlenie. Kiev, 1962.
Naumenko, L. K. Monizm kak printsip dialekticheskoi logiki. Alma-Ata, 1968.
Istoriia marksistskoi dialektiki. Moscow, 1971. Section 2, ch. 9.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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I am aware of the philosophical difficulties of distinguishing between essence and appearance, and the consequent ambiguity of the notion of authenticity.