F. H. Bradley Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: In the history of British philosophy, Bradley represents a point of view that is fundamentally Idealist. He was a vigorous, gifted, brooding critic of England’s empirical philosophers.

Early Life

Francis Herbert Bradley was the fourth child of the Reverend Charles Bradley, an Evangelical minister, and Emma Linton Bradley. Little is known about his early life. He was educated at Cheltenham (1856-1861) and Marlborough (1861-1863), and in 1865 he attended University College, Oxford. In 1870, at the age of twenty-four, he became a Fellow at Merton College, Oxford, where he remained until his death in 1924. A year after arriving at Oxford, he contracted a kidney disease which disabled him and left him sick and suffering, sardonic and sometimes bitter. Fortunately, his fellowship allowed him to pursue scholarships without the added burden of teaching or lecturing, tasks which his disability would never permit. His illness made him something of a recluse, and, in some measure, this accounts for his biting, often cruel prose.

Life’s Work

Bradley’s frail constitution frequently forced him to take shelter from Oxford’s severe winters on the southern coast of England or on the French Riviera. On one sojourn to Saint-Raphael in the winter of 1911, he became friends with Elinor Glyn, who was later to depict him as “the sage of Cheiron,” in her book Halcyone (1912).

In appearance Bradley was erect, with a thin face, fine eyes, and a long nose. Fastidious in his habits, he was affable, courteous, and a good conversationalist, although it was said that he did not suffer fools gladly. He is said to have had a small shooting gallery constructed above his living quarters where he practiced routinely. By his own claim he was a good marksman, known to employ his skill on cats.

Bradley had strong political opinions. He was a conservative, perhaps even reactionary, with a lifelong dislike for the English Liberal Party and a specific disgust for its famous leader Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone. In particular, he was angry at Gladstone for, as he said, betraying General Charles Gordon at Khartoum in the Egyptian Sudan in 1885. For Bradley, Gladstone represented what Bradley characterized as a degrading social sentimentality, an inviolate pacifism, and a false humanitarian notion of the natural equality of persons.

Almost nothing is known about Bradley’s private life, except that he dedicated all of his books to “E. R.,” an American woman named Mrs. Radcliffe who lived in France. Bradley met her while on holiday in Egypt, and although she had absolutely no literary or philosophical interests, he laid out for her, voluminously, his complete metaphysical system in a series of letters, which she later destroyed.

Although his philosophical system had its roots in German soil (specifically in the ideas of G. W. F. Hegel, Johann Friedrich Herbart, and Arthur Schopenhauer), he had little time or sympathy for the greatest of all German philosophers, Immanuel Kant.

Bradley died of blood poisoning on September 18, 1924, the same year that he was recipient of England’s highest literary award, the Order of Merit. Little can be marked of the external events in Bradley’s life—primarily because as a philosopher the events of moment were internal and mental—yet there can be no understanding of Bradley the man apart from Bradley the philosopher.

Richard Wollheim has called Bradley a man of caustic epigrams and poetic metaphors. Nevertheless, he was also Great Britain’s finest philosopher of metaphysics in the nineteenth century. He wrote numerous articles and reviews but only four book-length pieces are of major importance: Ethical Studies (1876), The Principles of Logic (1883), Appearance and Reality (1893), and Essays on Truth and Reality (1914). His Aphorisms appeared posthumously in 1930, and his Collected Essays was published in 1935. Throughout these volumes there is an obsessive criticism of empiricism, or what he refers to as that English philosophy’s devotion to “sense experience.” Empiricism is, Bradley argues, a shallow, surface view of the world with two rather “contemptible” qualities: first, a naïve devotion to the idea that raw sense data is philosophically significant, and second, a pedestrian attachment to the doctrine of Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, he insists, is the inevitable philosophical result of the ill-conceived dogmas of empiricism. When Bradley was at the height of his powers, his two most illustrious adversaries were the Englishman Bertrand Russell and the American William James. Both men were empiricists and Utilitarians.

Here, too, one runs into difficulty, for an analysis of Bradley’s thought is difficult because so much of what he writes is enigmatic and obscure. A primary question for Bradley was that of how one obtains knowledge. Bradley rejected as contradictory the notion that knowledge can be obtained from the senses, as was claimed by the empiricist philosophers John Locke and David Hume. For Bradley, knowledge should begin and end with an analysis of meaning. The proper role of philosophical investigation is understanding the use and meaning of the language. This powerful redirection of philosophy from an analysis of sensate ideas in the mind to an analysis of the structure and meaning of language has become the dominant theme in Anglo-American philosophy and owes much to Bradley’s initial critical assessment of empiricism.

For Bradley, proper philosophical study is the examination of rationality; that is, it is understanding the “internal connection” that mental ideas have to one another, the internal relations of species, kind, and class (in more contemporary terminology, the investigation into conceptual elements of signs, symbols, and semantics). In other words, the primary interest of philosophy should be in the laws of...

(The entire section is 2462 words.)