Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 07, 2021, from

5. Metaphysics

Bradley’s metaphysics gets its fullest exposition in Appearance and Reality, though this needs to be considered in the light of subsequent essays. It is divided into two books. The first, ‘Appearance’, is brief and destructive. It argues that ‘the ideas by which we try to understand the universe’ all involve us ultimately in contradiction. Some of these are philosophical, such as the suggestion that only primary qualities are real, while others belong to common sense, such as motion, space, time, relation, thing and self. The second, ‘Reality’, concerns the Absolute, the ultimate, unconditioned reality, undistorted by human conceptualization (see Absolute, the).

Many of the arguments in Book I are not unique to Bradley and make only part of his case: for example, primary qualities are inconceivable without secondary, motion involves paradoxes. But the arguments of the chapter ‘Relation and Quality’, which in generalized form allege that relations are unintelligible either with or without their terms, and terms unintelligible with or without their relations, are of a different order. Bradley himself said that a grasp of these arguments would lead the reader to condemn ‘the great mass of phenomena’, and it is clear that his views on relations are central to his thought. Thus it is unfortunate that the arguments are so sketchily and unconvincingly presented that even sympathetic commentators have found it hard to defend him. In part this is because the arguments are often read as designed to prove the doctrine of the internality of all relations (that is, their reducibility to qualities or their holding necessarily, depending on the sense of ‘internal’). This is a misreading, but it is understandable, for Bradley flirted with the doctrine of internality in Appearance and Reality, only repudiating it in later works less frequently read, like the unfinished essay ‘Relations’. Also he rejected the reality of external relations, and it is natural to interpret this as adherence to the doctrine of internality. But his considered view was that neither external nor internal relations are real. One of his main arguments for this conclusion was that if relations were another kind of real thing along with their terms, then a further relation would be required to relate them to the terms (and so on, ad infinitum). It is clear from this and from his own explanation that to be real is to be a substantial individual, that the denial of the reality of relations is the denial that they are independent existents (see Substance). But some have thought he meant that all relational judgments are false, for instance, that it is false that Galileo preceded Newton. And Bradley’s theory of truth gives credence to such suggestions, for by that theory no ordinary judgment is perfectly true, so that to someone who assumes that truth is two-valued, his claim looks to be that such judgments are all false. But Bradley thought truth admitted of degrees, and that, provided we confine ourselves to everyday purposes and do not try to meet the exacting demands of metaphysics, it is true that Galileo preceded Newton. The imperfection of this truth is nothing to do with the judgment’s being relational as opposed to predicative. A perfect truth would be one which did not abstract from reality at all. Such a complete description would have to be identical with reality itself and thus would no longer be a judgment. On Bradley’s view, then, the final truth about reality is literally and in principle inexpressible (see Truth, identity theory of).

An outline, though, is possible. When Bradley comes to ask what reality is, his answer is that it is experience, in a wide sense of that term: ‘Feeling, thought and volition (any groups under which we class psychological phenomena) are all the material of existence, and there is no other material, actual or even possible’ ([1897] 1930: 127) (see Idealism). His insouciantly brief argument for this challenges the reader to think otherwise without self-contradiction; he is more concerned to make clear that reality is not the experience of his individual mind, and that his doctrine is not solipsistic.

Bradley’s criterion of reality is the absence of contradiction, and as he argues that the distinctions necessarily employed in judgment introduce contradiction, it follows that thought cannot capture reality. Nor can anything involving relatedness. Thus reality must be a non-relational unity, one which contains diversity because room must be found for appearances themselves. How? For illustration, Bradley appeals to a pre-conceptual state of immediate experience in which there are differences but no separations and from which the cognitive consciousness arises by imposing distinctions upon the differences. Reality, he thinks, is like this, except in transcending rather than falling short of thought, including everything in one comprehensive and harmonious whole (see Monism). Wollheim suggests that the best analogy for the relation of appearances to the Absolute is that of a painting (another might be an ecosystem): particular segments of the canvas would be falsified, even made ugly, by abstraction from the whole to which they contribute, yet that character which makes for ugliness in isolation may nevertheless be itself beautiful in its surroundings and essential to the beauty of the whole. Bradley rejects the demand for detailed explanations of how phenomena like error are reconcilable with the Absolute, trying to shift the burden of proof to those who profess confidence in their incompatibility. His general answer is that anything that exists, even evil, is somehow real and thus belongs to the Absolute, which comprehends and transcends both good and evil (as well as religion): it is neither, but is further from the latter than the former.

Few philosophers have found Bradley’s positive metaphysics persuasive. But it stands as a permanent challenge to the capacity of discursive thought to represent the world as it is in itself, a challenge posed by turning the mechanisms of thought upon themselves and demanding that they meet their own standards.

Citing this article:
Candlish, Stewart. Metaphysics. Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.