Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved April 15, 2021, from

4. Metaphysics

What is the precise nature of that ‘Real’ which constitutes the logical subject of all judgements? Bradley sets up to answer this question in Appearance and Reality (1893, 1897). His final view can be succinctly characterised as an original combination of monism and metaphysical idealism, the former being the view that all finite things are integral parts of a larger encompassing unity, devoid of any independent being apart from that larger whole to which they belong; the latter being a claim about the intrinsic nature of that whole, which Bradley describes as a ‘cosmic experience’.

This is obviously a highly paradoxical view, as it flatly contradicts the way the world manifests itself to us in everyday experience. Accordingly, Bradley develops a critique of the illusory ways of thinking of the world in the first part of the book (‘Appearance’), before attempting to develop a sound theory in the second (‘Reality’). Bradley’s characteristic procedure in the first, critical section consists in identifying a basic concept used in our ordinary grasp of reality and showing then that it involves a contradiction and must therefore be discarded as unreal. This procedure too may be called ‘dialectical’ (a term Bradley himself never used), but it resembles Parmenides’ ancient rejection of illusory appearances rather than the Hegelian intellectual ascent of the Ethical Studies.

Bradley’s analysis of the concept of relation is especially important for understanding his critique of desultory appearances. Ordinary common sense conceives reality as consisting roughly of a plurality of things. The concept of relation plays a pivotal role in this conception. As Bradley observes, the very concept of a thing is a relational concept, as the thing is commonly taken to be as standing in a special relation of ‘inherence’ to its own properties. This is the relation ordinarily expressed by the copula ‘is’ in a proposition such as ‘This rose is red’, where the predicate ‘red’ is assumed to be distinct from the subject ‘rose’ but connected with it. Equally relational is the pluralistic view according to which reality consists of many things, as these are not conceived as existing in a state of mutual isolation but as related to one another in a variety of ways (‘A is greater than B’, ‘C acts upon D’, ‘E is north of F’). The concept of relation is thus crucial to our ordinary understanding of the world; unfortunately, Bradley goes on to argue, that concept is irremediably flawed.

What precisely is a relation? And how can it fulfil its proper role as a binding tie, for example between a thing and its properties? Bradley’s argument has been a matter of much interpretative concern; in a nutshell, his critique of relations may be stated thus: If a relation R is conceived as substantial as the terms A and B between which it holds, then further relations R1 and R2 are needed to connect R with both A and B. This immediately launches a vicious infinite regress: for what it is that now connects R1 and R2 with the relation R and the terms A and B? On the other hand, if a relation is not conceived as substantial, but as dependent upon its terms for its existence, then each term must be divided into two sides, the one that is the ground of the relation, and the one that is not. Assume, for example, that the statement ‘Socrates is wiser than Plato’ is true; on this understanding of the concept of relation, we must distinguish between Socrates’ ‘wisdom’ (the component upon which the relation ‘wiser than’ is based) and Socrates’ other properties. In this way, however, the unity of the term ‘Socrates’ is lost; since this can be regained only by postulating a further relation between the grounding property ‘being wise’ and all others, a vicious infinite regress arises again. The upshot of the argument is not solely that relations cannot function as binding ties, but also that the concept of relation is infected with contradiction: a relation must hold between its terms, yet this has turned out to be impossible.

It follows that all descriptions of reality that rely upon this concept are to be rejected as false. This includes all those common-sensical, philosophical, and scientific views that depict reality as pluralistic, temporal, spatial, inescapably captured in an adventurous process of change and becoming. Bradley’s non-relational Reality is an eternal unchanging One that manifests itself in the form of a multiplicity of beings. Why Reality must appear in such highly distorted fashion, and even why it must appear at all, are questions that Bradley – like his ancient forerunner Parmenides – fails to answer.

Somewhat difficult to grasp are also Bradley’s reasons for conceiving of the One in experiential terms, although they have been discussed at length by dedicated interpreters. All in all, the truth of some form of idealism would seem to be for him more a philosophical platitude the late nineteenth-century reader needs only to be quickly reminded of, rather than a controversial claim to be carefully argued for.

Citing this article:
Basile, Pierfrancesco. Metaphysics. Bradley, Francis Herbert (1846–1924), 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC008-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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