I need a word, or philosophical term that means nothing can be taken at face value or below its surface. It should convey that people's characters cannot be judged even by a book's first chapter.

Despite infobesity, the media's obsession with celebrities, and the widespread coverage of those who hold positions of power and influence, we are fed only birdseed. By its very nature, and in order to drum up interest (and boost sales), today the media is more biased than ever. Articles and TV reports paint an either rosier or greyer picture than what we call ‘reality’. Similarly, social media is manipulated by press agents and public relations, and so the public can never really discern what is truth or what is fictional. We are living in a post-truth era. In other words, although a person's moral code and overall behaviour may appear to be exemplary, the opposite is often tragically true.

For inspiration, think of how admired, respected, and in a some cases even adored, the following figures were: Jimmy Savile; Bill Cosby; Michael Flynn; the ex Prime Minister, Tony Blair; if you're an alt-right supporter, Hillary Clinton, and the fictional character O'Brien. It would be an added bonus if this word, or expression could suggest that we, the public, are often in self-denial. We are all guilty of downplaying the faults of our heroes, not only to outsiders but also among ourselves.

Pretence is close, but it is inexorably linked to volition and implies deception whereas it seems to me that the aforementioned figures would never call themselves traitors, liars, or criminals. The introspection gene is conspicuously lacking in their psyche. Additionally, the ‘general public’ appear to be unaware of their own prejudices, hypocrisies and corrupted moral code. Lastly, everyone without distinction, is oblivious to the ________ , and as a result, the events which unfurl daily become all the more disquieting.

I want to say to any political supporter, regardless of their political leaning, the following:

No, you think you know who this public figure is but you don't. Not even they know who they really are. We are being fed illusions.

I am looking for a philosophical, psychological or sociological term, but it eludes me.

Double standards, hypocrisy are close, but duplicitous, deceitful are unsatisfactory because they lean more towards a dishonesty that is conscious, and for me it's much more worrying and complex than that.

I am not looking for an idiom, proverb, or cliches. Ergo, the answers: All that glitters is not gold, You can't judge a book by its cover, and Beauty is only skin deep are unsatisfactory.

I am asking for a more technical term (if it exists), or expression, possibly in the field of philosophy, sociology or psychology.


18 Answers 18


One of the many philosophical names for this position is Nominalism. It distinguishes between naming, which is an arbitrary, personal, human response, and description, which is supposed to have some consistent -- or at least recognizable -- relation with what others experience of reality.

As Alexei (and no doubt also Cory) Panshin put it in Masque World,

"There is a long-standing split among philosophers on the subject of names. Realists take them seriously, believing them to be things. Nominalists take them lightly, believing them to be means, believing them to be convenient labels. Every person in the world is either a Realist or a Nominalist. Give yourself a test: if someone called you a gigger or a fell-picker, and you knew it wasn't true, would you hit them or smile? That's how easy it is to tell.

"Valuing names as they do, Realists are sparing with them. They are likely to be known only as Joe or Bill or Plato. And they don't smile much. Nominalists have more fun. They are known as Aristotle or Decimus et Ultimus Barziza, or as Edward John Barrington Douglas-Scott-Montagu, or perhaps by one name in childhood and several others in the course of life.

"A firm Realist misses out on one of the most satisfying of human activities -- the assumption of secret identities. One who has lived and never been someone else has never lived.

"It is true that sometimes there can be embarrassment in secret identities, but only a Realist will take the whole thing seriously enough to hit you. So have your fun, and avoid Realists."


How about 'paramnesia'?

Paramnesia - A distortion of memory in which fact and fantasy are confused

Essentially influenced by the distorted views, people are unable to weed out the lies they have told themselves, the lies that are told to them and the actual truth. Hence they are oblivious from the paramnesia that they suffer from.

  • 1
    I'd say this lies too heavily in the area of more basic mental difficulties. Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 8:08

This is a great question. You said:

I need a word, or philosophical term that means nothing can be taken at face value or below its surface. It should convey that people's characters cannot be judged even by a book's first chapter.

Your fill in the blank sentence:

The ‘general public’ appear to be unaware of their own prejudices, hypocrisies and corrupted moral code. Lastly, everyone without distinction, is oblivious to the pseudo-reality, and as a result, the events which unfurl daily become all the more disquieting. (Other possible choices: simulation, hyperreality)

I say:

Pseudo-reality is the best single word answer to your question. It has a good basis in the way others have discussed this phenomenon, especially Daniel Boorstin, who coined the term, pseudo-events in 1962. Recently, Atlantic Magazine made the same connection I made with an article titled, The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality.

Another strong contender is hyperreality. It comes from postmodernism and semiotics and was coined by French scholar, Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation in 1981. Umberto Eco also used this term in his book, Travels in Hyperreality, 1995, a series of essays taken from earlier books.

ACCORDING TO BAUDRILLARD, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world.

The Image in the Age of Pseudo-Reality in Atantic Magazine, December 2016 will give you more conceptual vocabulary for discussing what interests you.

Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 classic on celebrity, fame, and America’s tenuous relationship to facts remains as poignant as it is prophetic. ... Barnum was one of the original creators and commercializers of the pseudo-event, the vaguely real-but-also-not-real thing that, the historian Daniel Boorstin argues, has been the fundamental fact of American culture since the days of Barnum himself. Or, at least, in the years between those days and the days of the mid-20th century. Boorstin’s book on the matter, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, was first published in 1962.

I also considered simulation as shorthand for simulated reality or simulation of reality. . We live in the age of simulation and an age of contrivance in which pseudo-events and image replace reality. Psychologically speaking, there is conscious manipulation of reality on the one hand and on the other, acceptance of surface appearance. As a culture we have poor reality testing. Overall, we are living in a world of pseudo-reality.

You can read a nice compendium of essays about this phenomenon on a website called Transparency. Read Faking It, written by the founder of the website, a journalist based in Boston, Ken Sanes. Below you is a quote from that essay and an essay about Daniel Boorstin's book, published in 1961, titled The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

He [Daniel Boorstin] claimed that America was living in an "age of contrivance," in which illusions and fabrications had become a dominant force in society. Public life, he said, was filled with "pseudo-events" -- staged and scripted events that were a kind of counterfeit version of actual happenings. Just as there were now counterfeit events, so, he said, there were also counterfeit people - celebrities - whose identities were being staged and scripted, to create illusions that often had no relationship to any underlying reality.

Also, from Transparency, from an essay called Faking It:

Our attempts to avoid confusion are also generating a new problem: We increasingly suspect the real and the authentic of being fake. We are thus witnessing one of the many ironies of the age of simulation: Fakes are being mistaken for the real thing and the real thing is in danger of being mistaken for a fake.

I think it is hard to come up with just one single word term to encompass a very big idea. Perhaps a vocabulary of related words is needed to discuss the broad issue of how one's sense of reality is changed by living in a media-saturated, image conscious culture. Others have suggested that there is confusion about reality that might even be called delusional. I agree.

  • Hello, I didn't upvote your 2nd answer not because I didn't agree with it, but because I thought it was rather similar to this one.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 15:59
  • @Mari-LouA, yes, I mistakenly posted twice and deleted the 2nd one. I just changed my best answer from "simulation" to "pseudo-reality".
    – user227547
    Commented May 3, 2017 at 16:12
  • This is very interesting - I've been off pondering philosophical works about postmodern epistemology, so was coming at this from a very different point of view. I think your answer fits well on many levels. Commented May 3, 2017 at 20:12
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA, thanks for the 50 points. If you're interested in the terms and concepts that come from semiotics-, i.e."hyperreality","simulacrum" and "simulation", you may need to do further research. I liked "pseudo-reality" better as a general cultural term. . NB: after answering I also found an art reference to "hyperrealism".
    – user227547
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 11:31
  • @Kiloran_speaking, thanks for the validation from someone who thinks about these things in a very serious way.
    – user227547
    Commented May 9, 2017 at 12:39

A missummation occurs when something is summarized incorrectly. The sum of one person might be said to be all of their actions, thoughts, speech, and motivations. Even without all of that information, the perception of this total picture (perhaps: the gestalt) can be concluded upon by an individual and used for the purpose of argument. If the conclusion is wrong, the argument argues a missummation of the person. Furthermore, if what's being summarized is instead a persona (crafted by someone else for some purpose), the argument may even be arguing a mischaracterization.

Example for missummation:

Claims that the person was guilty of misconduct grossly missummarized the person's actions at the time.

Example for mischaracterization:

People have been known to mischaracterize an actor by the actor's roles.


The term mystification has been used in ways that might come close to what you want. For example

In rhetoric:

The use of language to deceive others or to disguise the conditions of our social existence. This use of the term mystification (from the Latin, "mystery") was introduced by Kenneth Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives (1969).
Richard Nordquist, "mystification (language)", ThoughtCo.com's Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms, 2015.

There are a number of illuminating quotes with this usage in the article.

In sociology:

MYSTIFICATION is the process of masking or covering up central aspects of society or of social relationships. Conflict or critical theorists are interested in the ways in which forms of social domination based on sex, social class or colonialism are camouflaged so that these social structures, and the state which assists in their reproduction, are seen as legitimate. Mystification allows for domination that is not based on evident coercion or force, but is maintained by a wide variety of social institutions and cultural values.

In Marxist thought:

1.b : an obscuring especially of capitalist or social dynamics (as by making them equivalent to natural laws) that is seen in Marxist thought as an impediment to critical consciousness

(I believe this was the original usage that led to the other technical usages noted above, though of course the non-technical word has been around for much longer. This concept is closely related to the Marxist idea of false consciousness—see Wikipedia.)

Alternatively, to the extent that you want to talk about unconscious deception and even self-deception at an individual (rather than systemic) level, then perhaps you want to delve into the realm of cognitive biases. From Wikipedia:

A cognitive bias refers to the systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment, whereby inferences about other people and situations may be drawn in an illogical fashion. Individuals create their own "subjective social reality" from their perception of the input. An individual's construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.

The general concept may work for you, or particular instances of biases or logical fallacies might fit better for particular uses.


There's a fundamental question in philosophy: How do we know what we know?

It seems increasingly that we live in the OED's post-truth world where facts and information matter less in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs. We are fed only birdseed by the media and those with power, according to the OP.

Of no less concern is the increasing advocacy of the providers of information, from reporters through writers and editors and publishers. The personas of our politicians and those we hope are statesmen also have a gloss of careful construction mediated by the media.

The increasing advocacy in media, and the media that mediates the personas of the heroes/politicians/statesmen/preachers, is divisive. On many issues sides (usually two, in the United States) are taken; those on one side distrust the data, motives, and character, and ultimate goals of those on the other side.

Some of those on each side have are so confident in their own moral compass and the rightness of their own moral view that they are virtually unshakable in their hubris and arrogance, their confidence in their moral superiority over those who came both before and after them. (This may be especially true of the those who were in schools and universities from the mid-sixties to the early seventies--the cohort that objected to the Vietnam War (and the draft) and who were a major force in the Civil Rights movement in the United States.)

Meanwhile since the turn of the millennium economic growth in both the United States and Europe (or most European countries) has slowed to under 2% real average annual growth in GDP per year, versus a rate of about 3.74% from 1983-2000. (The Reagan-Bush I-Clinton years in the U.S. versus the Bush II-Obama years.) This weaker performance has a variety of consequences--fewer jobs, fewer people in the labor force, earlier retirements, more people needing support, and hence the development of resentment against perceived policy failures and unfair practices in two areas especially--immigration and trade. There is also less revenue; and more polarization of the political parties, which, with less revenue and more demands, cannot find compromises on what to fund out of the government budget, which in turn feeds and is fed by media advocacy, increasing the suspicion that the "other side" has ulterior motives and goals; and then, the consequent deprecation and distrust of the politicians and leaders.

With the advocacy press (and the effects of technology on the diversity of communications and the media), it becomes harder to find the reality underneath the advocacy and the hype. Our own arrogance--our confidence in our moral stance and world view--makes it harder to perceive reality and find common ground. Each side (or multiple sides) lives in its own bubble, its own echo chamber. It becomes harder for us to know what we know, and yet we become more confident of our own judgments.

Alternative points of view--questions about the legitimacy of public policy or its goals versus ulterior motives of those proposing them--make it harder to figure out what's true and what isn't, or even to have a discussion about what may or may not be the reality of a problem and the consequences of a policy--harder to know what we think we know, or to figure out if what we know is a surface reflection distorted by others' goals and preferences, or even to come to the point where we are not sure we know what we think we know.

There will always be some people who turn out to be very different from the way they presented themselves, much more duplicitous and of poorer character than we thought. We will feel betrayed, but we can handle occasional betrayal. More basic is the division among major groups.

So, with regret, I think it's too complicated for a phrase, especially a phrase that might change the effort people make to perceive what might be the reality under the distorted surface.


I am a scholar of both politics and philosophy, and I too have often found myself deep in thought about the worrying current state of this post-truth age. To find the correct term one must first pin-point what's going on. I think "engineer" is a fantastic word in this respect, due to it representing what, I think, has been a large constituent of post-truth. With algorithms, Facebook data etc., things like outrage, dismay, hatred (and therefore, voting behaviour) can all be engineered by code and computers and fake or highly biased news articles directed to these outraged parties. Engineering outrage, engineering celebration. These are highly technical facets of a current political process, doctored by data companies like Cambridge Analytic (owned by billionaire, Stephen Mercer), and countries like Russia with their fake news "troll factory" in Olgino aimed at toppling Clinton.

Another word which I find rather fitting, and which addresses "the effect" of this engineering ("the cause") is "delusion". Delusion is defined by the OED as

an idiosyncratic belief or impression maintained despite being contradicted by reality or rational argument, typically as a symptom of mental disorder.

Now, the lexical association with mental disorder is the only snag to using the word in this context, and to combat this I would simply refer to it as "engineered delusion". Because, truly, that is what is going on here. People are deluded, but it is being engineered. And you are right, this is not coming from the entities themselves, but rather by a complex digital web, supported by numerous powerful and highly technical parties.


Consider this specialised use of the word myth:

Myth noun 2.3 An exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing. ‘the book is a scholarly study of the Churchill myth’ - ODO

This speaks to the face-value perception with a strong connotation of being incomplete or inaccurate, though not necessarily maliciously so, nor necessarily with fraudulent intent.

Here's an example of its use:

New Steve Jobs doc examines the myth of the man who made Apple - Devindra Hardawar, engadget

(Note: myth doesn't fit the blank in your example: "Lastly, everyone without distinction, is oblivious to the ________ ...". That blank seems to call for a complementary term to what you're after, and would be more aptly filled with something like reality.)


There are at least three ways I can look at your request and I'm not sure which you want. Is it the philosophical issue that we don't have access to "reality", only to our perceptions of it? Is it the deliberate creation of public personae to advance one's personal or political agenda? Or is it the naive (to me) belief of many people that the judgements they make based on the data they receive through the mass media are "true"? One expression can't capture all of these. If it's the last of these you're interested in, I propose "false consciousness". It was coined for use in Marxist analysis but the term can be generalized. WIkipedia's definition, which is reasonably accurate, is "False consciousness is a term used by sociologists and expounded by some Marxists for the way in which material, ideological, and institutional processes in capitalist society mislead members of the proletariat and other class actors. These processes are thought to hide the true relations between classes and the real state of affairs regarding the exploitation suffered by the proletariat."


"Spurious" fits your conditions as it can be used to describe an unintentional insincerity, falsehood, etc.


"Just because truth has been omitted, does not mean that truth is not true. Just because reality has not been perceived, does not mean that it is not real." - Stan Moore

Perception is defined as the "process by which individuals select, organize, and interpret the input from their senses to give meaning and order to the world around them".- George, Jennifer
Chapter 4: "Perception, Attribution, and the Management of Diversity"

Perception management: an attempt to control the perceptions or impressions of others.

Additionally, the ‘general public’ appear to be unaware of their own prejudices, hypocrisies and corrupted moral code. Lastly, everyone without distinction, is oblivious to the perception management being carried out , and as a result, the events which unfurl daily become all the more disquieting.


My brother and I were walking home from school one beautiful spring day. We were in our mid teens. Goofing off, joking, having fun like brothers do. When we got home, things changed. I won't go into detail because I don't know if my details are correct. I thought I did. The events of that afternoon were never brought up or discussed after that day. That is, until we were in our late 50s. At a family gathering, he was retelling the events of that day. I couldn't believe my ears! Nothing he was saying about that day was true. I called him on it and told my version of what happened that day. When I had finished, he said, "Are you nuts!? That's not how it happened!". We did agree on two points, 1. he did try to stab me with a 12in long kitchen knife and 2. he went to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. We were both there, the argument was between us, and yet we perceived the events of that afternoon totally different. I don't think you need some fancy psychological, physiological or philosophical word to describe this. It is pure and simple and it is this: PERCEIVED REALITY It's like that old game, Telephone. Where people sit in a circle and the first individual whispers something in the ear of the person next to them and they in turn whisper into the next persons ear what they were just told and so on around the circle, until the last person says aloud to the whole group, what was just whispered in their ear. It is rarely even close to the original statement. The people in the game are not repeating what they had just heard, they are repeating what they perceived they just heard. Perceived Reality


This sounds synonymous with the English metaphor :

You can't judge a book by its cover:

said to show that you cannot know what something or someone is like by looking only at that person or thing's appearance.


So you could say:

You're judging a book by its cover:

Also on Wikipedia:

The English idiom "don't judge a book by its cover" is a metaphorical phrase which means "you shouldn't prejudge the worth or value of something, by its outward appearance alone".

  • Yes, the title was deliberately inspired by the proverb. I am saying it's not enough to read even the first chapter/s to have the full picture. We think we have access to information, but in reality we don't.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 7:48
  • You should have obviously mentioned the metaphor if you were aware of it and didn't want it to appear in an answer...
    – Gary
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 7:52
  • It looked pretty obvious that I knew the metaphor. But if you want to edit and state why there is no better alternative, in your answer I'm all ears.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 8:50
  • Not getting into a pointless discussion, sorry.
    – Gary
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 8:50

What springs to mind are stereotypes.

In social psychology, a stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. These thoughts or beliefs may or may not accurately reflect reality. Wikipedia

If you look at the origin of the word:

You can see it comes from printing.

It is used there to make a copy of something. However only the front counts for printing. The back could in theory be of any kind of shape, size or material.

Cliché apparently is another word for stereotype.


The person is putting on a facade (Google):

an outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality

The examples given seem to cover your description:

"her flawless public facade masked private despair"

"a facade of bonhomie"

Of the synonyms:

show, front, appearance, pretense, simulation, affectation, semblance, illusion, act, masquerade, charade, mask, cloak, veil, veneer

masquerable and charade also fit.

I would also add superficial (Google):

appearing to be true or real only until examined more closely


A bit niche, but how about 'gilt'? Collins gives one meaning as

superficial or false appearance of excellence; glamour

And Merriam-Webster has the almost as good

superficial brilliance

As an aside, although you don't want idioms, if you were accepting them Feet of clay would be a strong candidate.


Oxford English Dictionary defines apriority as

The quality of being original and underived from experience; innateness in the mind.

Here is the attested use from The Writings of Charles S. Pierce:

The researches of Lobatchewski furnish no solution of the question concerning the apriority of space. For though he has shown that it is conceivable that space should have such properties that two lines might be in a plane and inclined to one another without ever meeting... he has not shown that the facts implied... are inconsistent with supposing space to retain its present nature and the properties only of the things in it to change

It derives from a priori, the concept of knowledge that is deduced with reason, rather than through experience.

This seems to fit with the examples you provided about public figures who we believed we understood, but about whom we were wrong, like Michael Flynn, Bill Cosby, etc. All the knowledge (or beliefs) we ever had about those public figures was ascertained second-hand after being processed by the media. We are not judging based on actual experience or empiricism.

Consider this 1841 use of a priori:

Sir W. Hamilton in Reid's Wks. 762/1 -- The term a priori, by the influence of Kant and his school, is now very generally employed to characterise those elements of knowledge which are not obtained a posteriori,—are not evolved out of experience as facticious generalizations; but which, as native to, are potentially in, the mind antecedent to the act of experience.


I am reading you to say that everything has meaning relative to it's context...and there is a word for that:

contextualism https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/contextualism NOUN


A doctrine which emphasizes the importance of the context of enquiry in a particular question.

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