John Herman Randall, Jr. on Bradley’s Book of Life

I compare reading JHR’s peculiar paper, “F. H. Bradley and the Working-Out of Absolute Idealism” (JHP Vol 5, No 3 July 1967) to trying to find a penny on the floor of a room in which the only light is a strobe light.  Just when you start to see, everything goes black; and just when you give up on seeing, light flashes.  Anyway, here is a memorable paragraph from the paper, one in which Randall is describing Bradley’s Appearance and Reality.

To use a metaphor, Bradley was trying to get the whole of life expressed in a book, to express all aspects of everything in words.  A book about life never succeeds in doing that, it always falls short, it remains one-sided and incomplete.  So Bradley was driven toward the perfect book–an Encyclopedia Britannica more glorious.  But he tried to write it as James Joyce would have written it:  He follows the method of Hegel’s Phenomenology.  The book ought really to be a play, like Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, where the characters express all their private feelings, in their contradictions, all at once.  The perfect play would include and express everything.  This effort would end in more than a book or even a play:  It would be life itself.  Bradley is trying to write the drama of life as it is, with all the stage directions, to express, not only what the actors do, say, think, and feel, but also what they are expressing.  If one could succeed, the result would be life itself, completely known.  We would see why, we would understand–and also we would feel the very tang of life itself!


Remarkable.  The metaphor and its deployment are inspired. There’s the happy linking of Joyce and Hegel, of Ulysses and the Phenomenology.  There’s the reference to the O’Neill play; but also the charm of thinking of Bradley’s book as itself a Strange Interlude.  There’s the joyous detail of taking Bradley to want to include even the stage directions.  And there’s the tangy conclusion.

Here Randall sees deep into Appearance and Reality. The paragraph not only characterizes Bradley’s aim as a philosopher, but it suggests why poets of the caliber of Eliot and of Geoffrey Hill could take Bradley as (a) master:  two poets who want us to see why, to understand, but also to feel the very tang of life itself.  (It also suggests why it is that passages in Bradley seem often to echo Browning, to share in Browning’s gift for ventriloquy,:  Bradley employs that gift masterfully in giving voice to the views caught up in his dialectic.)

One response

  1. Herman’s assertion that Bradley was ‘. . . trying to get the whole of life expressed in a book’ reminds me not only of Joyce, but of many, many bright young writers, some of whom are no doubt trying to show off their erudition — not that this is necessarily bad.

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