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F. H. Bradley wrote with the confidence of a leader in the mainstream of British philosophy between the 1870’s and the 1920’s. His speculation, strongly influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was highly metaphysical; and his intention was to arrive at ultimate truths about the universe as a whole. His...

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F. H. Bradley wrote with the confidence of a leader in the mainstream of British philosophy between the 1870’s and the 1920’s. His speculation, strongly influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, was highly metaphysical; and his intention was to arrive at ultimate truths about the universe as a whole. His general method was to show that the world regarded as made up of discrete objects is self-contradictory and, therefore, a world of appearances. The real is one, a world in which there are no separate objects and in which all differences disappear. Curiously enough, Bradley’s conclusions about reality have not been of primary interest to philosophers in the latter half of the twentieth century. It is, rather, his critical method that they have found important, his destruction of the world of appearance.

In the preface to Appearance and Reality, Bradley describes metaphysics as “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct, but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.” He warns the reader that many of the ideas he presents must certainly be wrong, but because he is unable to discover how they are wrong, others will have to be critical of his conclusions.

If metaphysics is so liable to error, why should Bradley bother to study it, much less write more than six hundred pages about it? He reminds readers that they have all had experiences of something beyond the material world and that they need metaphysics to understand these experiences, at least insofar as they admit of being understood. Metaphysical speculation on its constructive and critical side protects people from the extremes of crass materialism and dogmatic orthodoxy. The study of metaphysics teaches that either of these solutions is too simple, that both are peremptory. “There is no sin, however prone to it the philosopher may be,” Bradley says, “which philosophy can justify so little as spiritual pride.”


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Appearance and Reality is divided into two parts. In the first part, “Appearance,” Bradley deals with some of the recurring problems of philosophy, such as quality, relation, space, time, causation, and self. His general intention was to show that these problems have been formulated in such a way that no determinate solution can be found for them, that the world viewed from their perspective is contradictory and, therefore, appearance.

The first problem with which Bradley deals is the division of the properties of objects into primary and secondary qualities. According to this theory, primary qualities are those spatial aspects of things that are perceived or felt, and all other qualities are secondary. Primary qualities are constant, permanent, self-dependent, and real. Secondary qualities—such as color, heat, cold, taste, and odor—are relative to the perceiver.

In one of his arguments against this view, Bradley grants that secondary qualities are mere appearances because he wishes to show that the same thing is true of primary qualities. If an object has secondary qualities, even though they are relative to the perceiver, they must have some ground in the object. A thing can be relative only if the terms of the relation are real. For example, in the sentence, “The table is to the left of the chair,” the relation, “to the left of” can hold only if there are a table and a chair. Consequently, to show that a quality is relative is to show that it is grounded in an object. The ground or terms of the relation must be real for the relation to hold. Consequently, secondary cannot mean unreal, as some proponents of the theory seem to argue that it does. Again, primary qualities must also be perceived and would be relative for the same reason given for secondary qualities. The division of the properties of objects into primary or secondary qualities turns out on close examination to be mistaken. This division, which has seemed real to many philosophers, is merely an appearance.

The structure of Bradley’s argument, which often recurs in this section of the book, can be stated as follows: Some opponent maintains that x is different in kind from y, but both x and y are seen to depend on a. The opponent takes a as the defining property of x; therefore it is inconsistent not to take it as the defining property of y. Thus x and y are not different in kind. The opponent defined them from different points of view and concluded that they were different in kind from the difference in definition. The alleged difference is merely one of appearance.

Bradley’s argument that space is unreal or an appearance involves the question of whether space has an end. If one thinks of a small portion of space, one thinks of it as bounded. The space between the table and the chair is bounded by the table and the chair. However, space itself cannot be bounded. What would be outside it? However, precise boundaries determine space. This difficulty arises from regarding space first of all as a relation with the table and chair as its terms and then regarding it as a quality that is unlimited. Space cannot be a relation because any space can be divided into smaller spaces. However, to divide space is to have a relation with another relation as its terms. “Space,” says Bradley, “is essentially a relation of what vanishes into relations, which seek in vain for their terms. It is lengths of lengths of—nothing that we can find.”

However, if space is a quality, it must have limits because it is a quality in contrast to some other quality. However, this other quality does not exist. If it did, space would be a relation. According to Bradley, the philosophers who have thought of space as real have wanted to think of it both as infinite and ideal and as limited and experienced. Neither of these views by itself is enough, but one can be maintained only at the expense of the other.

A similar argument applies to time. If time is composed of units, it has no duration. If it has duration, it has no units and no before or after. As he had said of space, Bradley avers, “Time . . . must be made and yet cannot be made of pieces.”

The world seems to be made up of things or objects. However, what is a thing? A minimum qualification for being a thing is to be located somewhere and probably at some time. However, one cannot make clear the notions of spatial or temporal location. Not only must a thing be located but also it must have qualities; yet here again is a notion to which one cannot give any determinate meaning. In Bradley’s analysis, the world of this and that has disappeared.

If the external world is appearance, what of the self? Surely here is a constant point of reference. However, the world “self” has many meanings. If the self is defined in terms of what is not self, that is, the external world, then this external world must have some meaning. If the self is understood by self-examination, then it is at once subject and object—an impossibility.

Now that objects and selves have become appearances, Bradley has only the world of things-in-themselves to deal with. However, if things-in-themselves are absolutely unknown, then their existence itself is unknown; and to the extent that things-in-themselves are known, they are not things-in-themselves.

In the section on appearance, whatever Bradley examined turned out to be appearance, to be inconsistent with itself. However, it was not proved that these inconsistent entities have no connection with the real. Reality completely divorced from appearance would have no meaning. One must look for some way in which appearance and reality can be joined, and it is to this problem that the second part of the book, “Reality,” is devoted.


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Bradley maintains that there are three fundamental properties of reality: logical, epistemological, and metaphysical. The logical character of reality is that it does not contradict itself. This immediately differentiates reality from appearance. The metaphysical property is that reality is one, another characteristic to be contrasted with appearance. The epistemological property is that reality is experience. This is Bradley’s way of putting the central doctrine of German idealism that the real is the rational. For him, to be rational is to be in some mind. A rational, nonmental world could at best be merely potentially rational. However, to be in some mind is to be experience. These three principles, as Bradley develops them, are seen to be constitutive of all reality and, as such, are metaphysical principles.

Reality, taken as the totality of all that exists, Bradley calls the Absolute. There must be such a reality because something can be an appearance only if it is the appearance of something. The problem now is to show how such things as appearance, evil, finite objects, error, time, and space are related to and are compatible with this Absolute.

Before the question of the Absolute can be settled, truth must be defined. What is a real object? Bradley says that every real thing has at least two properties, existence and characteristics. One has to be able to say that the entity is and what it is. However, to be able to say something is, one must have ideas, and through judgment, an idea is predicated of a real subject. Existence, then, is contained in the subject, and the predicate contains an ideal character that it relates to the real subject. According to Bradley, “Truth is the object of thinking, and the aim of truth is to qualify existence ideally.” Furthermore, “Truth is the predication of such content as, when predicated, is harmonious, and removes inconsistency and with it unrest.” However, a truth is never wholly adequate. The predicate is only ideal, not real. Therefore, every truth is a partial truth and is capable of being expanded and extended indefinitely toward more truth.

If one can account for truth, one must also account for error. The Absolute exists and what is not a part of the Absolute does not exist. Error seems to be an exception. It cannot exist as part of the Absolute because it is in contradiction with it and is hence, error. It cannot be nonexistent because people really do make errors. It is as naïve to think that there is no error as it is to think that there is no evil in the world. On the other hand, there is a sense in which error is a partial truth. The subject and predicate refer to real things and the relation asserted between them does exist. However, this partiality is also the source of error. It is a partiality that must be supplemented to become truth. Its error is in its one-sidedness; but in spite of that, it expresses one side or aspect of the Absolute.

If solipsism were true, it would be a forceful argument against the Absolute. The argument in favor of solipsism may be stated as follows: Whatever I am conscious of is an experience. However, every experience is my private experience. Therefore, all I can know are various states of my own mind. Bradley’s answer to this view is through definitions of the term “experience.” There are two meanings that the term may have. One is that experience is a succession of bare mental states, unrelated to one another. This meaning of experience is not enough for solipsists because they must be able to talk about a self or mind that is the agent or subject of the experiences. Thus the experiences on which solipsism is based must be more than bare mental states. They are experiences that go beyond the moment of feeling. However, solipsists may say that experience in going beyond the present moment stops short at the self. Even for them, this self must have a past and a future, which are constructed by inference from the present self. However, in the same way that solipsists infer the existence of other states of their own selves, they could infer other selves. The truth in solipsism is that one can know the universe only through one’s own experiences and sensations. Its falsity is that it wishes to stop the expansion of experience at an arbitrary point. For Bradley, the expansion of experience, once begun, cannot stop short of the Absolute.

Are things more or less real and statements more or less true? Bradley says, “The Absolute considered as such, has of course no degrees; for it is perfect, and there can be no more or less in perfection.” However, if the Absolute is perfectly real and statements of it perfectly true, then true statements of anything other than the Absolute must be less true and refer to something less real. It seems odd to say that one thing is less real than another. One would be inclined to think that a thing is either real or not: This chair is real; ghosts never are. However, it is easy to see Bradley’s difficulty. Either every statement must be of the Absolute, or some must be less true than others. The same consideration must be applied to existence. Properly speaking, only the Absolute exists, and you, I, and the gatepost exist only partially.

No propositions are adequate to the Absolute; and Bradley says, “There will be no truth which is entirely true, just as there will be no error which is totally false. With all alike, if taken strictly, it will be a question of amount, and will be a matter of more or less.” However, even this doctrine must have a proviso: “Our thoughts certainly, for some purposes, may be taken as wholly false, or again as quite accurate; but truth and error, measured by the Absolute, must each be subject always to degree.”

Bradley discussed morality in Ethical Studies (1876). In Appearance and Reality, he treats goodness as a metaphysical category. One might ask the question, “Is the Absolute good?” The answer is that good is an incomplete category, simply one aspect of perfection. Beauty, truth, and so on are good, but they are something else besides. Good is limited in its scope; but, limited, it cannot be a property of the Absolute. “Goodness, as such, is but appearance which is transcended in the Absolute.”

Surely, then, the Absolute must be God. However, the God of religion must be an object to humanity. The God of religion must be available. However, if God has these properties, then he is appearance. The logic of development in Bradley’s metaphysics cannot be suspended even for God. If God is another name for the Absolute, then he is unavailable to humanity. However, if he is not the Absolute, then he is subordinate to it. The God of religion must remain in the world of appearances. Thus religion would have little to recommend it if it were knowledge. The essential factor in religion is not knowledge. It is, Bradley says, “the attempt to express the complete reality of goodness through every aspect of our being.”

Most of the doctrines attributed to Bradley have been negative. Many of the things in which people most firmly believe are revealed as appearances, half-truths at best. However, only the Absolute is true. What can one say about it? One can only approach a description of the Absolute because no statements are infinite as statements of this sort would have to be. The Absolute is perfection. Insofar as a statement approaches perfection, insofar as the system approaches completeness, one’s statements become more nearly true. A statement will be more nearly complete to the extent that its opposite is inconceivable. A statement is inconceivable when its truth would falsify a system of truths. Thus a true statement is one related to other truths within a system, and the more comprehensive the system, the more nearly true the statement.

Truth about the Absolute is only one part of the Absolute itself. Truth refers to statements that are abstract, but the Absolute itself is reality and concrete. Philosophy, the concern of which is truth, can only hope to be partial at best. Bradley says, “Truth, when made adequate to Reality, would be so supplemented as to have become something else—something other than truth, and something for us unattainable.” However, there are degrees of truth; and insofar as their limits are determined, truths are genuine.

In an early chapter of Appearance and Reality, Bradley states that “what is possible, and what a general principle compels us to say must be, that certainly is.” There is some sense in which this statement is the key to what Bradley does in Appearance and Reality. His sharp, critical mind led him to reject much of what common sense would admit. The few principles that remain, he accepted reluctantly because they seemed to him impervious to attack. What could he construct with the material that he had left? Logical necessity led him into a world in which no one could feel at home, a world that transcends the scope of philosophy and even of language.


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Additional Reading

Bradley, James, ed. Philosophy After F. H. Bradley: A Collection of Essays. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1996. These essays deal with both historical and present-day issues. Representing some of the most acute analysis and assessment available, they presuppose some philosophical sophistication and, in a few essays, some understanding of the rudiments of symbolic logic.

Eliot, T. S. Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989. Originally submitted in 1916 as Eliot’s Harvard doctoral dissertation, this is a beautifully argued and independent exposition of F. H. Bradley’s epistemology as conveyed in Appearance and Reality. Defends Bradley against the views and criticisms of Alexius Meinong and Bertrand Russell.

Ingardia, Richard. Bradley: A Research Bibliography. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Press, 1991. A selective, research-oriented bibliography, which lists more than a thousand secondary sources published through June, 1990. It opens with a charming memoir of Bradley by Brand Blanshard.

Mander, W. J. An Introduction to Bradley’s Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Centers on the relation between thought and reality and uncovers Bradley’s core beliefs about the logical structure of reality, space, and time. Difficult in places but still the best single introduction to Bradley’s metaphysics and some opposing viewpoints. Excellent bibliography.

Mander, W. J. Perspectives on the Logic and Metaphysics of F. H. Bradley. Idealism Series. Bristol, England: Thoemmes Press, 1997. This collection of papers spans a wide range of philosophical concerns regarding Bradley and his influence. Useful for advanced undergraduates.

Manser, Anthony R., and Guy Stock, ed. The Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984. This superb collection of papers relates Bradley’s thought to contemporary philosophy. It covers the philosophy of history, ethics, the nature of punishment, political philosophy, the theory of judgment, epistemology (somewhat technical), truth, and skepticism.

Muirhead, John. The Platonic Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Philosophy. London: Allen and Unwin, 1931. Reprint. New York: Humanities, 1967. This is a good, though brief, account of Bradley’s philosophical development, particularly his reaction to Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Muirhead’s work is somewhat informal but still accurate and worthwhile.

Saxena, Sushil Kumar. Studies in the Metaphysics of Bradley. London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: Humanities Press, 1967. Charges that Bradley has been the victim of unfair criticism, and clarifies and defends Bradley in his debate with Bertrand Russell on relational forms. Suitable for undergraduates.

Sprigge, T. L. S. James and Bradley: American Truth and British Reality. William James and Bradley dominated the philosophy of the United States and Britain, respectively, in their time. This study demystifies Bradley’s metaphysics, theories of judgment and truth, and concept of the self. Comprehensive bibliography.

Stock, Guy, ed. Appearance Versus Reality: New Essays on Bradley’s Metaphysics. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. Though challenging to read, this is the best source for those who wish to understand Bradley’s place in relation to the twentieth century analytic tradition.

Wollheim, Richard. F. H. Bradley. London: Penguin Books, 1960. Reprint. Chicago: Open Court, 1993. Explains Bradley’s hierarchy of knowledge or experience, his esoteric ethical thought, and his condemnation of British empiricism. Recommends The Principles of Logic as an introduction to Bradley’s thought. This lucid book is an excellent starting point for undergraduates and the general reader.

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