Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2003
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

A Penny for Your Thoughts

Seeing the World As It Is
and Not As Indirect Evidence of Some Other Thing

The Penny Experiment:
In order to perform this experiment, you will need a penny. Put a penny in front of you where you can see it clearly. Put it on the desk in front of you or on a table. Sit down near and/or next to the penny, take out a pad of paper and note down what you see. Look at the penny. What do you observe? The penny?

Well, no, that doesn't seem to be quite right. Look at what you call the penny. Leave it on your desk or the table, or wherever you have set it down, and move it around a bit, all the while looking at the penny. Be careful when you do this. Do not trip over the wastebasket or knock over the lamp or trip over your chair. Now what do you observe; what do you actually see, as you move it about? What you see is a brownish, copperish expanse that constantly changes its size and shape as you move it, no? Most of your observations of this copperish expanse will - in all liklihood - be elliptical in shape unless you climb up onto the table or onto your desk and look directly down onto the penny.

But a penny is not the sort of thing that constantly changes it size and shape and that is elliptical or oval rather then round. So what you observe, what you actually see changes its size and shape, but a penny does not change its size and shape. A penny is a penny. It, therefore, follows that what you observe is not a penny.

Now here you might object. You may wish to note down in your notebook: "What I'm actually seeing is a brownish, copperish expanse from various angles and distances." You might wish to say that. But, in fact, if you consider carefully what you are observing, you are not observing a brownish, copperish expanse, simply, so. You are observing a brownish, copperish expanse that changes its size and shape. You do not see a brownish, copperish expanse that remains unchanged. What you see does change. So, it still follows, since the penny itself does not change, that what you see, whatever else it might be, it is NOT a penny!

How do you know that what you are looking at is a penny, if all you actually observe, all you actually see, all you actually experience are many different impressions? Well, you might say that your belief that there is a penny there in front of you is an inference from what you observe, that is, an inference from your impressions to something that is distinct from your impressions that happens to cause them, i.e., the penny. But there's a problem with that line of reasoning. You never observe or are in any way in contact with anything that is distinct from your impressions. You never observe a connection between your impressions and the penny.

So how can you possibly claim that it is the penny that causes your impressions? Might it not, in fact, be more accurate to say that you have never met a penny, never encountered a penny "up close and personal," as some are wont to say, that the "reality" of a penny has always eluded you?

So much for the penny and for pennies.


[PHIL 1A] [Syllabus] [Handouts] [Home] [Bio] [CV] [PHIL DEPT.] [E-MAIL]

Send comments to: Andreas Teuberr
Last Modified: 03/26/02
Instructor's Toolkit
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College