The year 1865 - in which F. H. Bradley first came up as a student to University College, Oxford - was a crucial juncture in the history of British philosophy, and one which must be understood in order to appreciate his subsequent philosophical career. For a long time the dominant school of thinking had been empiricist, following either the English scientistic school of John Stuart Mill or the Scottish common-sense school of William Hamilton. Both moved within small circles of familiar questions and were marked by an insular indifference to continental patterns of thought. Yet not all philosophers were content to leave matters thus. Two brilliant young men, T. H. Green and Edward Caird, bringing the views of Kant and Hegel to a heightened level of public awareness, had begun to breathe fresh life into this moribund state of affairs, and, together with their pupils, were forming a new idealist school of philosophy.
Bradley was in no doubt on which side the future lay, but he was equally unwilling simply to follow these trailblazers as a mere disciple. Instead he took their thought and transformed it into something quite his own. It is for this reason that he earned his undisputed place as the foremost thinker of the new school. For he ensured that what followed was no mere 'Back to Kant and Hegel!' revival, but rather a new style of philosophical thinking with a very real identity of its own.
In outward terms at least, his life was uneventful. In 1870 he won a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, terminable on marriage or death, which, never marrying, he held until he died in 1924. With no teaching duties, he devoted his energies to writing, and was in fact rarely seen outside of his college. Yet if these brief biographical details suggest a dull, or isolated and sterilely academic life, his posthumously published Aphorisms, together with some of the details to be found in G. R. G. Mure's sketch of his life,1 begin to hint at another side to his character.
Though not its originator, Bradley was universally considered to be the supreme exponent of the new idealism, and in the year of his death he was awarded the Order of Merit, a rare honour, in recognition of his great contribution to philosophy. However, idealism was never as dominant as histories of the movement might suggest, and it is necessary to take into account a context of philosophical criticism from very early on. After his death this criticism went largely unchallenged, and there followed a long period in which his views were either misrepresented, dismissed without hearing or simply neglected.2 In recent years, however, there has been a reassessment and growing appreciation of his work. As a consequence of his fallen reputation many of Bradley's works are often hard to find. Bringing them all together for the first time (with, in a companion collection, his unpublished remains) will, it is hoped, stimulate the study of his thought.
This essay, which makes no pretensions beyond that of providing an introduction, will highlight and explain the key elements of his thought as well as examine some potential dangers and common misunderstandings.
The first philosophical work that Bradley published was a short pamphlet entitled The Presuppositions of Critical History which appeared in 1874. The significance of writing about 'critical history' at this date would not have been lost on Bradley's readers, but it perhaps needs to be spelled out today. Europe was at that time still reeling from the blow struck by Strauss and Baur's works of biblical criticism; examples of precisely the 'critical history' of Bradley's title. But although Bradley certainly has these challenges to the Christian faith in mind when he chooses to write about history, they remain in the background. What results is not philosophy of religion but a seminal work in the philosophy of history.
The most epistemological of all Bradley's works, it begins by taking apart the naive idea that history might consist in a 'simple record of unadulterated facts' (CE 9).3 We never can, he argues, get at any such facts free from inference or interpretation, for the historical material is contradictory and incomplete, and its source no longer available for reinspection. This means that the historian's fact is always the conclusion of numerous judgements, always 'the offspring of the mind' (CE 13). But if history has no choice but to be critical, the question remains what presupposition, or critical criterion, should it employ? Bradley suggests that its ultimate criterion must be 'the essential uniformity of nature and the course of events' (CE 21). More specifically, he tries to argue that since we simply have to subject all input to rational interpretation before we can believe it, by extension, we can accept the testimony of others only so far as we can view their interpretations as rational by our own standards. Thus in the end, he says, the ultimate standard of acceptance of historical testimony must be by analogy to what we know in our own experience (CE 25). We are entitled to believe about the past only that which bares some analogy to our own experience.
The interest and value of this early pamphlet are twofold. Despite its imperfections, it remains to this day an important and seminal work in the philosophy of history. For example, it much influenced Collingwood. But history aside, it is important also because it contains the earliest statement of some of the main logical and philosophical principles that Bradley held throughout his career. For example, the impossibility of our ever encountering uninterpreted facts was a position from which he never deviated.
Bradley next turned his attention to moral philosophy. He wrote a few isolated papers on aspects of ethics (later brought together in the Collected Essays), but his main discussion of the subject is to be found in his first full-length book, Ethical Studies, which appeared in 1876. A highly polemical attack on the then current orthodoxy, this was the work that first got him widely noticed. Nor was its considerable impact wholly negative; it was a vanguard work, the earliest example of original philosophical thinking in the new 'Hegelian style' - Bosanquet later called its appearance an 'epoch-making event'.4 It has often been noted that Ethical Studies was in fact the most Hegelian of all Bradley's writings. This is so in two respects. Firstly, and in contrast to the highly individualistic thinking of the time, it urges the typically Hegelian thesis that neither individuals nor their ethical duties can be understood except in the context of the wider social whole in which they occur. But secondly, the Hegelian influence extends beyond the book's content to its very structure. It has an explicitly dialectical form in which positions are advanced, criticized and then modified in an ever-advancing sequence, which is why Bradley insisted that 'the essays must be read in the order in which they stand' (ES viii). Another notable feature of the book is its respect for everyday moral thinking. This emerges clearly in the opening chapter in which Bradley argues that the deterministic and indeterministic philosophies are both irrelevant, since neither is able to capture the common sense, or 'vulgar', notion of responsibility that they seek respectively to attack or defend. Yet the choice is not simply one between philosophy and common sense; what is needed is rather 'a philosophy which thinks what the vulgar believe' (ES 41).
The book proper opens with a consideration of the question 'Why should I be moral?', which Bradley rejects as senseless on the grounds that morality neither needs nor admits of any external justification; it is the very essence of moral action that it be done, not with some other end in view, but for its own sake. But this response still leaves plenty of room to enquire into the precise nature of the moral end and its relation to the other ends of life. In its very broadest terms Bradley suggests that we may find the end of all action in the notion of self-realization. He does not offer to prove this, in part because that would require a completed metaphysical system (something he was not yet prepared to give), but also because it is to some extent simply a blank formula, something to be filled in and rendered plausible in the chapters that follow. He then considers two standard ethical positions, both of which could be thought of as ways of fleshing out this bare pattern: hedonism or 'pleasure for pleasure's sake', and Kantianism or 'duty for duty's sake'.
Bradley's attack on the hedonistic or utilitarian orthodoxy of his day has become justly famous. In his eyes the fundamental problem with hedonism is its inability to provide us with any solid or realizable goal for our lives. In conceiving of pleasures as mental states isolated from the means by which they are arrived at, it fixes on merely subjective and transitory feelings, and reduces the good life to nothing but a series of such 'perishing particulars' (ES 96). Moreover the idea of the total or greatest pleasure is a piece of illusory nonsense, since such a series has no end and thus no sum. What is needed instead is 'some concrete whole that we can realize in our acts, and carry out in our life' (ES 95), something with a persistent overall cohesive pattern and not simply a haphazard series of disconnected individual elements. For this reason the self to be realized can never be 'the mere feeling self of this or that moment, or of any number of such moments' (ES 160n). At the time of his writing this critique the principle statement of hedonistic theory was still John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, but before the book went to press, Henry Sidgwick brought out his important Methods of Ethics, which also advanced a utilitarian view and with much greater sophistication and detail than Mill. Bradley added a short note to the end of his discussion of hedonism in response to Sidgwick's book, but, feeling he had not done the matter justice, he also published a pamphlet the following year entitled Mr Sidgwick's Hedonism. This detailed critique adds little new with regard to Bradley's views on hedonism, but it does provide us with a memorable view of the polemicist in perhaps his fullest flow.
Bradley's critique of Kantianism is more familiar and much swifter, but no less biting. Its weakness lies, he urges, in the excessively abstract or formal nature of its conception. No act can be the mere carrying out of an abstract principle of duty, and we cannot will without willing something definite. Any act whatsoever can be shown to be in accordance with such abstract principles, yet there is no way of passing from the mere form of duty to any particular duties themselves. In short, the theory tells us to do the right thing for the sake of the right, but it does nothing towards telling us what that is.
Hedonism was found excessively particular, Kantianism excessively universal. Both errors, argues Bradley, arise out of a false abstraction, in the one case of pleasure itself apart from pleasant acts, and in the other of the general form of duty apart from individual duties themselves. What is needed is a middle path between these two extremes, a reconciliation which can at the same time hold on to their other valid insights. This is precisely what Bradley offers in the chapter entitled 'My Station and its Duties'.
There he argues against any attempt to understand the individual moral agent or his duty without considering the social whole in which they are to be found. The agent must not be abstracted out of this context and considered apart from his social relations, for it is they that work to constitute his very identity.
To know what a man is…you must not take him in isolation. He is one of a people, he was born into a family, he lives in a certain society, in a certain state. What he has to do depends on what his place is, what his function is, and all that comes from his station in the organism. (ES 173)
The self which we are to realize is thus our social self. As something pertaining not simply to the individual but to the wider organic whole, and as a unified whole rather than a disparate set of particulars, this goal is 'universal'; yet it is in no way formal or abstract, existing as it does only through the concrete details of the actual duties of any given station. It is thus what Bradley calls a 'concrete universal' (ES 162). This is an important idea. For although the term itself falls out of use in his later writings, the basic notion of a whole which incorporates diversity, 'a perfect unity of homogeneity and specification' (ES 188), remains central throughout his philosophy.
Bradley's strong endorsement of this holistic conception, together with the fact that 'My Station and its Duties' has, as a single chapter, been widely anthologized, has tempted many into the mistake of supposing that it represents his final position. But in fact nothing could be further from the truth and in the last few pages of the essay he himself lists a series of 'very serious objections' (ES 202) to the theory. He notes that the social whole in which an agent finds himself or herself 'may be in a confused or rotten condition, so that in it might and right do not always go together' (ES 203), and of course in so far as my society and the role that it assigns to me may themselves be immoral the theory must break down. He also points out that 'the content of the ideal self does not fall wholly within any community, is in short not merely the ideal of a perfect social being' (ES 205). In other words, there is more to ethics than just my station and its duties.
Just what more emerges as we move on to consider the next stage of the dialectical journey, which Bradley designates 'ideal morality'. Evolving out of the previous stage by retaining its genuine advances at the same time as correcting its flaws, the content of the good self to be realized at this level can be placed under three different heads. The first, and still most important, is one's station and its duties; to this is added a second element, which although still social, covers our aspirations 'beyond what the world expects of us, a will for good beyond what we see to be realized anywhere' (ES 220). The third region concerns duty which, although a recognizable moral imperative, such as the pursuit of beauty or of truth, 'in its essence does not involve direct relation to other men' (ES 222).
Although the most plausible and complete account of morality that can be given, ideal morality is, thinks Bradley, no more dialectically stable than its predecessors and it too must give way to a higher state. Yet in a sense the problem here is deeper than any yet encountered, for it affects the whole notion of morality itself and will catapult us right out of the moral sphere altogether. Bradley's expresses the problem thus: 'No one ever was or could be perfectly moral; and, if he were, he would be moral no longer. Where there is no imperfection there is no ought, where there is no ought there is no morality' (ES 234). In other words, the notion of morality only makes sense where there is a gap between what is and what ought to be, but in attempting to realize the latter, morality attempts to undermine this separation, the very precondition of its own existence. Bradley's solution is a radical one: 'Reflection on morality leads us beyond it. It leads us, in short, to see the necessity of a religious point of view' (ES 314). Bradley suggests that religion and morality share a common ideal, but whereas for morality it is something which ought to be but is not, for religion it is something that not only ought to be but actually is, and this is what permits religion to complete dialectically what morality could only begin.
For many years Bradley declined to republish Ethical Studies. This was due as much as anything to its highly polemical nature and 'the decay of those superstitions against which largely it was directed' (ES 356n); the need for such a book had simply passed. But in the year of his death he began preparing additional material towards a new edition. Although the task was unfinished, and consequently we cannot assume that these are the only changes he would have made, the revisions which were subsequently published in a second edition of 1927, were neither very serious nor very numerous. They concern, for the most part, psychological matters (reflecting the growing emphasis that psychology had come to play in his thinking).
The Principles of Logic, which first appeared in 1883, is not an easy book. In it Bradley set out his views of the nature of judgement and inference. Though less so than Ethical Studies, it too is a polemical work; its theses arising out of, and deriving much of their force from, criticisms of contemporary logical and psychological positions, now long forgotten. And again, though less so than Ethical Studies, it too is a dialectical work, Bradley's position on matters evolving through the criticism of numerous provisional formulations sometimes over more than one chapter. The book is largely lacking in the kind of helpful formalization we might expect from a logic text today, but equally absent is the use of illustrative example that we might hope to find in its place. But for all that The Principles of Logic is an exciting book, for the positions it advances are ones absolutely foundational to Bradley's whole philosophical system - indeed, it has been said, and at the deepest level this is true, that his metaphysics is a closed book to anyone unfamiliar with his logic.5
Logic, for Bradley, studies 'judgement', its forms and use in inference. He thus begins with a discussion of the components of a judgement, that is, 'ideas'. Bradley's archaic terminology here might tempt us to dismiss his views from the start as simply too old-fashioned, but that would be a mistake. For reformulated in the more up-to-date jargon of word and concept, sentence and proposition,6 much of what he says has a surprisingly modern ring to it. For instance, his position on ideas, in opposition to the prevailing view of the day, was anti-psychologistic, a line that through the work of Frege and Russell is very familiar today. Ideas are symbols or signs, he argues, not mental events; they are abstract, not particular. A meaning, he urges, 'can not as such exist…can not be an event, with a place in the series of time or space…can be a fact no more inside our heads than outside them' (PL 7). He expresses this same point elsewhere by saying everything has both existence and content, or as he memorably puts it, 'that' and 'what' (AR 143), and in thinking or using ideas we abstract from a thing its general character or content which we then use to describe some other part of the world.
Ideas occur in judgements. But what is a judgement? We can go a long way towards grasping the heart of Bradley's conception of judgement through a consideration of two theses which he wishes to advance about its structure.
The first is his denial of the subject-predicate view of judgement. This account, the prevalent one in Bradley's day and going back ultimately to Aristotle, held that all judgement has the role of saying something about something else, of attributing a predicate to some subject. Bradley opposed this conception, arguing instead that we need to think of judgement as containing but one single idea, referred to reality as a whole. One argument that he advances for this thesis is that the copula which is supposed to connect ideas (the 'is' in, for example, 'The rose is red'), in fact only symbolizes the actual connection of the things represented (as one thing painted on top of another symbolizes one thing standing in front of another), so that symbolically the whole judgement is on a par (PL 11). Another important argument that Bradley offers follows from his conception of ideas. He urges that since all ideas are irredeemably abstract, they must be general in their signification, and hence that it is impossible for them ever to pick out any particular subject of discourse. The case is argued extensively, even for such apparently singular expressions as proper names and demonstratives.
In view of Bradley's strong opposition to this form of judgement it is ironic that he has been accused of accepting only subject-predicate grammar.7 But there is one sense in which Bradley does still think of judgement as a subject-predicate affair, for he thinks that all judgement predicates a single ideal content of the one great subject, reality as a whole. But this it should be remembered is a description of the function of the judgement as a whole, not any kind of account of its internal structure, or the role of its parts.
Bradley's second thesis is that there are no categorical judgements, but that all must instead be thought of as hypothetical. This is indeed a radical claim, for categorical judgement is the basic form in which we state that which is the case, hypothetical judgement dealing merely with what might or would be the case were something else to hold. We may first consider plural judgements, such as 'All elephants are grey'. Bradley argued that these are best seen as conditionals of the form 'If anything is an elephant then it is grey', for since they can hold also of merely possible instantiations, or indeed in the absence of any actual instantiation, they do not describe facts at all. Through Russell's acceptance of it, this analysis of universal statements has now become the standard one. With regard to putatively singular categorical judgements Bradley concentrates on what he calls 'Analytic Judgements of Sense' (those which confine themselves to describing the momentary given experience - the terminology thus has nothing to do with its more famous Kantian employment), for since all judgements depend on these, unless they be found categorical no others could be. Bradley argues that, taken at face value, such judgements are false because they abstract out but a fragment from a wider presented whole, but this he urges is an inevitably falsifying process. For every part gains its character through its contextual relation to other parts; it is what it is because of where it is. But this means that anything taken in isolation will be slightly different from how it seems in its true context. An illustration, familiar to anyone who has ever chosen paint, might be how different a colour can appear in situ from how it seemed when considered in isolation in the shop. Although false in and of themselves, singular judgements can express a kind of truth if it is remembered that, since nothing we pick out would be as it is were it not for the larger mass behind, what they say is dependent upon the presence of that background, in other words that they are really conditionals. Thus every judgement must be read as subject to a set of conditions reintroducing the presence of those factors so conveniently ignored - 'X is Y, but only if a, b, c…'. A worry might arise. Why should a statement whose truth is subject to conditions be taken to be irredeemably hypothetical in form? Could we not just add to the judgement a statement that the conditions are met, thereby returning it to categorical status? Bradley thinks this impossible, for on his view everything is the way it is only if something else is a certain way, so all we can ever manage is an unending series of conditions. We never can find any fixed point of unconditioned categorical fact.
How are these two theses about judgement related to one another? They might seem to conflict; for how if all judgement is hypothetical can it attribute a single idea to reality as a whole, and how if all are holistic can judgement be conditional? In answer to both of these puzzles Bradley admits that matters are not as black and white as first they might seem. On the one hand, though it is true that all judgements are hypothetical, it is no less true that all are in a sense categorical as well. For a hypothetical asserts that there is something about reality which makes it appropriate if one supposes one thing to suppose another, and that is in a sense to assert something categorically of reality - he describes it as a 'latent' quality of reality (PL 88). On the other hand Bradley argues that the judgement form 'If X then Y', although apparently complex, is in fact a single idea, thus leaving intact his thesis that any given judgement asserts but one idea of the real.
Although of no major significance in The Principles of Logic, in view of very great role it later plays in his metaphysics, it is worth drawing attention at this point to Bradley's views on negation. He makes two claims about negative judgement. In the first place, and contrary to the modern orthodoxy ushered in by Frege which holds negation to be only a symmetrical relation between a pair of propositions, Bradley believes that there is a distinct class of negative propositions. Affirmation and denial are two irreducibly separate ways of judging. His second claim is about what makes negative statements true. He argues that, although they do not themselves actually say this, their truth must be grounded in the existence of some positive fact incompatible with whatever it is that they deny. Thus the truth of the claim that there are no dragons in the cupboard lies, not in some undragonly quality of the cupboard, but, for instance, in the more mundane fact that it is already full of clothes. Bradley's line here has the significant consequence that any term and its negation must be viewed as contraries and not contradictories.
The bulk of the rest of the book, its most dialectical part, deals with inference. Against the associationist psychology of his day, he argues that inference is something active and primarily logical, not simply a matter of charting which ideas tend to follow which others within the field of human psychology. His general position on inference is that it has three components: initial material or premisses, some intellectual operation on that material, producing a result attributed to it. The result, he insists, must be something new yet at the same time continuous with, or developing naturally out of, the premisses. But he provides no formalized patterns of valid inference or 'fixed models for reasoning' (PL 268). This is partly because he views inference as a knack or skill for which one wants 'a good eye' (PL 259), but also because he thinks that there are a potentially infinite number of connections or special relations that might be found to hold (PL 268).
In 1922 there appeared a second expanded edition of The Principles of Logic, with additional chapter notes and twelve new 'Terminal Essays'. Many of these drew attention to important modifications in his thinking.8 Already announced in his 1906 essay 'Floating Ideas and the Imaginary' (which was later incorporated into Essays on Truth and Reality), the most significant of all the changes was his rejection of the notion that ideas could 'float', that is to say, be simply entertained without being somehow asserted, or referred to some reality or other. Also significant was the fact that he came to regard inference as something fallible (PL 619).9 This is because he came to see its validity as a primarily contextual matter, deriving from its ability to increase the overall coherence and comprehensiveness of a given set of beliefs.
In The Principles of Logic, in order to simplify matters for himself, Bradley had tried to avoid altogether questions of metaphysics, and it was to that subject that he turned in his next book Appearance and Reality, published in 1893. Indeed, he had already been straining at the bonds of this self-imposed limitation, for towards the end of The Principles of Logic he had raised issues that could only be settled in metaphysical terms.
Considering his account of thought and the Hegelian identification of the real with the rational that might be brought in to guarantee its validity, he instinctively hesitated. Yet how could he possibly maintain the thesis that reality was more than just thought? Would not the very attempt to conceive a reality beyond understanding bring it within that compass? 'This dilemma', he tells us, 'was long a main cause of perplexity and doubt' (AR 492). The ingenious solution that he offers in (chapter fifteen of) Appearance and Reality is that although thought cannot indeed say that there exists anything beyond its range, it makes demands that it is itself unable to meet, and in so doing it points towards a deeper reality.
To explain the matter in more detail, we should note that whether or not they hold it to exhaust the realm of what is, most philosophers regard thought as something real. Bradley by contrast sees thought, not as a genuine component of the real, but as a mere abstraction from it which, like all abstraction, if taken as independently real can only betray its own inner self-contradiction, that is to say, its inability to meet its own goals and standards. But in thus revealing its own inadequacy, thought at the same time provides a positive criterion for what would be required to merit the status of ultimate reality since, as we have seen, every negation is grounded in some incompatible but positive affirmation. This is the idea that lies behind Bradley's fundamental criterion, that 'Ultimate reality is such that it does not contradict itself' (AR 120). Since thought is inevitably contradictory, such a harmonious reality could never be thought, but this very inability proves that it must indeed exist. In so far as it is thought itself that reveals to us a world beyond thought, Bradley has produced a unique system that undermines the traditional dichotomy between reason and mysticism.
In urging his claim that the world of finite thought is hopelessly self-contradictory, Bradley diagnoses as its more specific fault its pluralism, or use of the notion of relations. (Since distinct things are necessarily related these are really two different ways of saying the same thing.) Thought through, he urges, relations are, by their own lights, simply incoherent. But if they fail, so must everything which involves them, and hence he also rejects substance-property metaphysics (what is predication if not a relation?), space, time, cause, the self; in short, the whole of finite experience which these concepts go to make up.
Bradley's critique of relations has attracted much attention and much criticism. Moreover there can be no doubt that it has a degree of central importance inversely proportional to its tantalizing briefness. The essence of his argument could be set out like this. What is a relation? A first thought might suggest that it is nothing but a way of speaking, for what more is there to the fact that, say, A is darker than B than A and its colour together with B and its colour? This will not do, however, for what difference then would there be between the relation and the things related? And how can a relation be its own term, or a term its own relation?10 Yet we cannot take the relation to be any kind of extra element, for we would then have to ask how it is related to its terms, introducing two new relations, and launching ourselves on an infinite regress. The mistake would be analogous to thinking that one needed a new link to join any two links in a chain. Unable to make sense of either alternative Bradley concludes that relations are unreal. With regard to the comprehension of everyday experience they are no doubt as useful as they are unavoidable, but theoretically they are quite unintelligible.
Much error has resulted from taking Bradley's arguments out of context. For instance, it has been said of his chain argument above that it makes the mistake of treating the relation as just an extra term.11 But this fails to see that Bradley's case here is one stage in a more extended treatment, in which he explores the available conceptual territory but can find nothing able to meet his needs. He is never saying 'This is what relations are', merely considering the consequences of taking them in that way.12 But neither this, nor any other account, seems able to deliver all that is required. Understanding this allows us to see the futility of another response which urges that it is simply the business of relations to relate, in other words that they must just be accepted as irreducible and basic entities. This certainly will not do, for mere words cannot perform magic or create conceptual room where there is none.
Another source of great confusion regarding Bradley's view of relations has concerned the issue of internal and external relations. Although not in Appearance and Reality, but in the Appendix added for the second edition, in some later published papers and the posthumously published essay on relations, Bradley appears to argue against external relations and in favour of internal ones. Squaring this with his erstwhile denial of all relations, in the midst of great confusion about the precise meaning of these terms, the waters have at times become much muddied, but the facts of the matter can be set out quite straightforwardly as follows. The difference between internal and external relations is broadly that considered above between the two ways of understanding a relation, as either bound up in the nature of the terms themselves or something more or less brought in from outside and placed between them. The problem, for Bradley, is that the two conceptions oppose each other - what is internal is not external and vice versa - but he thinks every relation needs to be both (CE 667). For relational thinking is quite right in its attempt to combine unity with diversity, the fault lies rather in our hard-edged concepts that forbid this kind of combination, leaving room for it only in a world beyond thought. In consequence, though admitting that both have a limited or practical use, Bradley finds himself unable to accept either internal or external relations as wholly or ultimately real. However, it should be noted that he does find internal relations 'truer by far' (ETR 312) than external ones; this is because, if failing to overcome it, at least they do not add to the world's division.
Before leaving the topic of relations, a word should be added about what Bradley means by calling them 'unreal', for confusion about this has undoubtedly lost him followers. He is not denying that relations appear to us, only that they figure in the very truest account of ultimate reality. (In this sense his claim is on a par with that made by Locke about secondary qualities.) For Bradley, to call something 'unreal' is in part to deny that it possesses independent existence, however, it would be wrong to completely assimilate his stance to that of Spinoza - for that also was what Spinoza meant in calling finite things 'modes' - because Bradley's intention here is more destructive than was Spinoza's.
Everyday relational experience is found to be flawed and contradictory and, as such, no revelation of ultimate reality. Moreover it fails by its own standard of non-contradiction. But this state of affairs is not wholly negative for, as we saw, every negation implies a positive ground, so that somewhere there must be a positive and harmonious unity of which our finite experience is but a flawed appearance. But how can such a world be found? Not, urges Bradley, by throwing caution to the wind and entering into unsupported speculative guesswork. Instead we must start with our own experience. That is all we have for certain, and to go beyond experience would be to saw off the branch we are sitting on. Nor is our task hopeless, for although our everyday finite experience is a thing thoroughly infected by the distortions of thought, we can however disinfect it and, gradually removing the falsifications we have introduced, in this way advance towards our goal. In the past this empiricist element in Bradley's thought has been much neglected and that has led to misunderstanding, but there can be no denying it. He says, for example, 'The real is that which we know in presentation or intuitive knowledge. It is what we encounter in feeling or perception' (PL 44). That we could move outside experience Bradley thought utterly impossible; however altered it may become as the result of our process of disinfection, we must always remain within its compass. He is thus an idealist.
If we remove the corrupting influence of thought we find behind it, argues Bradley, immediate experience filtered through finite centres. These are a difficult pair of notions, that came moreover to play increasing importance in his thought. But the basic idea that he wishes to get across is of a feeling mass, wholly preconceptual, and thus entirely unbroken by any of the divisions that thinking introduces, such as that between knowing and being or between subject and object. It stands as the felt background of all our experience, from which that experience is originally abstracted, and hence as the larger more consistent whole to which the smaller inconsistent fragments testify. It is a finite and perspectival experience, and as such acts as a kind of foundation for the subsequent construction of the notion of the self.
Because it is finite, and thus in a sense limited, Bradley argues that not even immediate experience can be taken as wholly consistent or real (indeed, that, he thinks, is why it breaks up to produce finite relational experience). Thus if we are to remove from experience all contradiction whatsoever, we must take one step further back, to what Bradley calls the Absolute. In doing so, of course, we also step back beyond all finite thought and experience, so there is not a very great deal that can be said about it. But a basic outline can be given. The Absolute is a unique and infinite relationless experience which includes within its compass all reality whatsoever. It is an all-embracing, harmonious and organic unity that is able to include within it without thereby destroying itself all the great qualitative diversity of being. Satisfying every side of life, it is to be regarded as a state at once complete and perfect, the goal both of thought and life.
We find ourselves then facing what seems almost to amount to two separate worlds, one a flawed and contradictory appearance, the other a thinner but more consistent reality. Not surprisingly, in view of his assertion of the incoherence of relations, Bradley has difficulty with the question of how these two realms stand to one another. He tells us that reality consists in nothing but its appearances, but what then are they appearances of? And how can the very same matter be at once an appearance and the same time reality? Bradley's own attempt to make sense of these issues is found in his doctrine of degrees of truth and reality. To those brought up to think of truth as an all-or-nothing affair such an idea will no doubt seem strange, but it must be insisted that Bradley means exactly what he says. His claim is not that one judgement may entail or contain more truths than another, or somehow capture more of the truth about something than another, but it may literally be more or less true than another. The possibility of such a doctrine is a corollary of his conception of judgement as conditional, or striving to remove from itself all taint of abstraction or incompleteness, the conclusion of which process would be that it would itself become the reality it aims to capture, for clearly this is also a process which can manifest degrees.
Bradley draws two conclusions. In the first place, he argues that no judgement is wholly true but all are, to some extent, false. Bradley's case for this we have already considered. It is that thought necessarily abstracts - the only way to stop abstracting would be to stop thinking - and abstraction necessarily falsifies. In the second place, he argues that no judgement is wholly false but all are, to some extent, true. Harder to swallow is Bradley's idea that whatever has been abstracted from reality must be somehow returnable to it, and thus that a thought with no application at all would be impossible. This, he thinks, holds even of questions and supposals (AR 324). We can also see in this position how early on Bradley came to reject the unfortunate doctrine of floating ideas propounded in the first edition of The Principles of Logic.
A common worry about the doctrine of degrees of truth is that it must be somehow self-defeating; if nothing is wholly true can the doctrine itself be accepted? Bradley responds to this by making a distinction between statements which could be corrected or improved and those which are as true as they could ever be, that is to say which although false are not intellectually corrigible (AR 483). Metaphysical theses, such as the doctrine of degrees of truth and reality, fall into the latter class, he suggests.
The second edition of Appearance and Reality which was published only four years later in 1897, although containing an important Appendix and set of explanatory notes, which among other things shed valuable light on his views about contradiction and about relations, leaves his basic position as it is.
With Appearance and Reality the main outlines of Bradley's philosophical position were now in place. But he did not simply stop doing philosophy after 1897. The remainder of his oeuvre consists in numerous individual papers published mainly in the philosophical journal Mind.
With a few omissions and a few later additions, his Collected Essays, which only appeared posthumously, contains all his published papers prior to 1906.13 It thus, as well as supplementing the books already considered, allows us to see how his thought developed in the years following Appearance and Reality.
During this period of Bradley's development psychological questions came to the fore, a trend clearly reflected in the Collected Essays. If it seems odd to find Bradley, a philosopher, talking about psychology we should remember that at that time the lines of demarcation between the two subjects were not so sharp as they are today. Bradley's general view of psychology is most clearly set out in his 'Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology'. He argues there that psychology must be conducted in such a way as to avoid metaphysics, confining its attention to description of events together with the laws of their coexistence and sequence. For while philosophy aims at a clear vision of ultimate reality, the principal task of science is an instrumental one. Were science to become sidetracked into demanding absolute truth of its ideas, it would succeed only in bogging itself down in contextual qualification and endless disputes over first principles. It would become quite unable to advance in what everybody considers to be its essential role, namely the systematization and prediction of phenomena. Hence, says Bradley, 'That phenomenalism is the one rational attitude in psychology I am as convinced, as I am convinced that in metaphysics it is senseless' (CE 364).
Another essay of great importance in this collection is 'Association and Thought' in which Bradley attempts to account for the origin of thought. His precise account of the emergence of self and not-self, thinking and feeling, concept and object, and the other distinctions that make up our relational experience, is highly speculative and not really able to withstand the closest criticism, but of great significance is the picture that emerges of the feeling state that must lie behind our everyday experiential life. 'In the beginning', he says 'there is nothing beyond what is presented', that is to say, nothing but feeling 'all one blur with differences, that work and are felt, but, are not discriminated' (CE 216). But the existence of such a state of immediate experience is not simply historical, it stands ever behind us as both the source and judge of our present consciousness.
Essays on Truth and Reality, with the addition of three earlier pieces and some minor omissions,14 contains all his work between 1906-14. Though all were originally published separately, the papers' themes, he tells us,15 correspond to the structure of a book he once intended to write.
Though it covers many subjects, from psychology to the philosophy of religion, the main topic of the book is the nature of truth. Perhaps the best way to appreciate Bradley's conception of truth is to draw it out from the logic and metaphysics that we have so far considered. At the heart of his system lies a firm conviction of the deep and utter difference between thought and reality.16 Ideas and judgements are produced by selection, by separating the 'what' of reality out from its 'that', and there is thus a world of difference between thought, which is abstract, universal and divisive, and reality which is concrete, particular, and all-embracing. But if there is such a disparity between thought and reality, its effect can only be to falsify that thinking, and hence it is the duty of thought to deal with the problem, by attempting to eliminate those features that make it discrepant with the reality it is trying to capture. Thus thought, in aiming at truth, aims at ever greater breath and specificity. The ultimate conclusion of this process can only be to render it no longer something abstract at all, but rather the whole of concrete reality itself. Yet, since it belongs to the very essence of thought to abstract, in aiming at truth, it is thus aiming at suicide. Bradley uses the metaphor of a river rushing on to loose itself in the sea (AR 153). We might call this the 'identity theory of truth', since it holds that thought aims at an identity, or more specifically a reunion, with the reality it is trying to describe.17 And although the identity of a thought with its object is equally its own destruction, it is perhaps no more quixotic to then call it 'true' than it is to say I have now arrived at my destination, even though, because I am there, it is strictly speaking no longer my destination. It is perhaps the strangeness of this view that has prevented critics from recognizing it as his actual position, but in Essays on Truth and Reality he makes quite explicit his opposition to the three alternative truth theories of his day. We may consider in turn his objections to them.
It has been widely, but mistakenly, believed that Bradley held a coherence theory of truth. This misattribution has arisen in large part from a failure to distinguish between criteria for and definitions of truth, for Bradley does accept that coherence is a criterion of truth. That is to say he believes that the more coherent, internally unified, and systematic sets of beliefs are found to be, the more true they are as well. On the other hand, externality, or the mere juxtaposition of separate things, he finds a mark of falsehood and contradiction (AR 505). Even as a test of truth, coherence has in the past received a bad press, but most of the criticism has been misplaced. Two points need to be borne in mind here. Firstly, Bradley never thought of its coherence as the sole truth test of a set of beliefs; equally important to him was the set's breadth or comprehensiveness - indeed Bradley did not really see these as two separate principles (AR 321). Secondly, the test was never supposed to be taken in vacuo, for then there would be nothing to prevent the construction of two or more maximally coherent and comprehensive belief systems. Bradley's idea was rather that we must start with what is given in experience, and bringing that to coherence and comprehensiveness, remove from it our own falsifying inputs and interpretations, thereby steering the whole in the direction of the greater truth. Thus cleared of some of the most damning charges against it, the coherence theory of truth becomes once more, as several recent philosophers have recognized, a serious candidate for our attention.
By his own admission, Bradley did in the Principles of Logic adopt a correspondence theory of truth. But this was done as a simplifying assumption only in order to avoid metaphysics, a hope which he admits in the second edition to have been 'misjudged' (PL 591n). Elsewhere, and especially in Essays on Truth and Reality, Bradley makes quite clear his complete opposition to any correspondence theory of truth. His fundamental objection to it is not new, but rather the age-old problem that the alleged facts which thought is supposed to copy 'show already in their nature the work of truth-making' (ETR 108), that is to say, they are permeated with our own thinking, for the world, as Kant taught us, comes to us already processed and conceptualized. Hence all we really compare is one thought against another. The completely bare and given fact is, Bradley urges, a thing, if real at all, quite inaccessible to us.
The third great theory of truth at the turn of the century was a new arrival, pragmatism, and through his close relationship with William James, Bradley occupied himself much with this theory.18 Bradley's own account of truth was far too speculative and metaphysical for the pragmatists to ever accept, but in at least two respects he held views that were close to theirs, with the result that it was not always easy as might be expected to distinguish their positions. In the first place, Bradley was wont to claim that truth is what satisfies the intellect (ETR 1), a position that sounds very similar to the conception of truth advanced by the pragmatists. But for Bradley this is only a criterion of truth, indeed the only real criterion there could ever be, it is not intended as any kind of account or definition of truth. We will only stop philosophical inquiry on the day we are truly happy with our results, but that doesn't mean that truth consists in our happiness. In other words, the question of why what satisfies us should in fact be true, while for the pragmatists is no more than a matter of definition, is for Bradley a genuine question in need of a genuine (metaphysical) answer (ETR 242). A second factor, which served to bring Bradley more closely into line with pragmatism, was his admission that for anything less than absolute truth (which, of course, for Bradley includes all thought) the appropriate criteria of assessment are indeed pragmatic. For instance, as we saw above regarding his attitude towards the claims of psychology, he held ordinary beliefs, though metaphysically flawed, at another level to be, where useful, perfectly acceptable - 'any idea which in any way "works" has, in some sense, truth' (ETR 123). He thus had much sympathy with pragmatism while at the same time thinking it wholly unacceptable as an ultimate theory.
After a period of uncritical adulation followed by a period of equally uncritical dismissal, the time has finally come when philosophers may attempt to find a more balanced view of Bradley's thought. Indeed this is necessary. While none today would follow him in everything, neither can he be simply ignored, for, like all of the other 'great' philosophers, his system presents to us the most original and subtle exploration we have of a perennially possible point of view in philosophy, a stance which every serious thinker must consider and position his or herself relative to. Combining all of his published works, together with five volumes of never before collected papers and letters, this Collected Works makes available to the scholar all of the materials necessary for such a full and fair assessment of Bradley's permanent importance in the history of philosophy.
William J. Mander
Harris Manchester College Oxford, 1999
W. J. Mander, 'Introduction',- Collected Works of F.H. Bradley -, ed. W. J.
Mander and Carol A. Keene
(Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1999), vol. 6, ed. W. J. Mander, pp. v-xxviii. © W. J. Mander, 1999.