I am uncertain as for meaning of at an arm's length in the following sentence. I have taken this example from an online philosophical magazine.

The answer seems clear at an arm's length, but let us trace the trajectory of the problem as it emerged prior to that opening question.

In my opinion, at an arm's length means, in this case, something like at first sight, so I would say that when something is or seems clear at an arm's length, that would amount to saying that because something is close to us, we would be able to distinguish it in a clear way. I have, however, consulted on this with a native speaker and he said that for him this expression would mean here that the answer seems clear from a distant viewpoint. In any event, he takes the expression to mean, in this context, something like from a long distance. In my opinion, such meaning would not make sense taking into account what is being said after the preposition but. Certainly the expression at an arm's length is here used metaphorically, but it seems that neither the literal nor the metaphorical sense of this expression could end up meaning something like "from a distant point of view". Or could this be the case?

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    This sentence is not the best example of the the phrase at arm's length. Yes, here it serves to imply a first impression without detail or background. Yes, there is no question that the phrase is not literal. But the phrase best serves the purpose of boundaries: You are you, I am me. If I sell my sister land at $1, rather than at market value, that sale is probably part of an illegal scheme. As family, we are one, but market price would be one set as strangers, at arm's length. Commented Oct 28, 2020 at 16:40

2 Answers 2


The answer seems clear at an arm's length,

= at a relatively close distance; on cursory examination.

This is to be distinguished from


(i) P2d (a) at arm's length. (idiom)

(i) As far as one can reach with one's arm; (hence) at a distance, remote, not on familiar or friendly terms.

1655 W. Gurnall Christian in Armour: 1st Pt. 68 He hath his weapon in his hand, with which he will keep the Preacher, and the Word he chargeth him with at armes length.

1999 J. Burchill Married Alive iv. 58 Your neighbours are easy enough to keep at arms length.


(ii) arm's-length adj. Conducted or agreed by independent parties not able to coerce or control each other; characterized by distance, independence, or impartiality.

1920 Jrnl. Polit. Econ. 28 241 A process of arm's-length bargaining.

2014 Real Estate Taxation 42 No. 1 26/2 If there are any transactions between the companies..they must be on an arm's-length basis.

and, of course, the literal meaning:

2020 Greybeard EL&U "She held the bucket at arm's length."


I have never seen "at arm's length" used in this context, but would understand the author to mean "at first glance". Keeping something or someone "at arm's length" normally means that you are deliberately avoiding close contact or intimacy.

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