(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.”


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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,...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

(The entire section is 538 words.)