Bradley’s Earthy Absolute Idealism

Thus, for the absolutists, the Absolute is not far removed from us; on the contrary, it is everywhere present to us, the all-encompassing totality with which we are constantly in touch in all our intellectual activities and which, as Bosanquet says, persistently drives us from pillar to post.  It is not, as William James mistakenly supposed, “a marble temple shining on a hill”; it is, rather, as James would have it, inextricably involved in the dust and dirt of things.  And, it may be added, the argument to which the absolutists all alike in the end appeal is designed to show precisely this. –G. Watts Cunningham

One of the chief ironies of Bradley’s work is the upside-down way it is typically understood.  Cunningham’s complaint about James certainly captures the irony.  Whatever may be true of the other ‘absolutists’, there is no doubt that Bradley took the Absolute to be dusty and dirty, all up in our face, brawny and inescapable, our goodly fere.  It is no weirdly irradiated glop, alien, distant, and vaguely threatening. Bradley understood himself as panning philosophy’s ballet of bloodless categories, as stomping through the Palace Theater in muddy boots, tracking the Absolute all over the place.  Bradley deplores the reduction of reality to thought, even if it sometimes seems as if he is engaged in just such a reduction.  He is not.  Bradley is the most doggedly anti-reductionist philosopher I can think of, other than Wittgenstein.  (That Wittgenstein is himself often taken to be an idealist, albeit of the linguistic and not the Absolute ilk, is worth considering, but I will simply note that it is, and move on.)  Bradley insistently forces his reader toward the real; he will not relent.  He does not browbeat the reader.  He does not beleaguer.  But he does not stop.  Bradley works to redintegrate thought and feeling, but in a way that puts the accent mark darkly and unmistakably above feeling, feeling dusty and dirty.


Bradley Foretells the Coming of McDowell

Into the fullness of the problem raised by sensationalism, into the truth which underlies this ‘metaphor hardened into a dogma’, we are not prepared, nor indeed is it necessary, to enter here.  We will content ourselves on the general question with the remark, that in the act of perception, it is not doubt true to say that the mind is passive.  But to say this is to say one thing, and it is quite and altogether another thing to talk of sensations (in the signification of bare feelings) as though in themselves, and apart from the activity of the mind, they existed as objects of consciousness.  That is to assert that a mere feeling is sufficient to constitute by itself the minimum required for knowledge and reality; and the proof of this assertion has been, is, and ever will be wanting.  It cannot exist since the proof or even the assertion is a sheer self-contradiction; and it is a self-contradiction for the following reason.  An assertion, and much more so a proof, is intellectual; it is a judgment which implies the exercise of the understanding; and the term united by the judgment must therefore fall within the sphere of the understanding.  They must be objects for the intellect, and so, in a sense more or less entire, relative to the intellect; in a word, intelligible.  But the essence of mere sensation was the entire absence of the intellectual, and hence to make one single affirmation with respect to sensation, as sensation, is to treat as relative to the understanding that which is supposed to exclude the understanding; and this is a contradiction.

To pursue with the reason an object which when found is to be irrational, to think the opposite of thought while fixed as opposite, to comprehend the incomprehensible yet without transforming it–such is the task of that which calls itself the ‘philosophy of experience’.  It is the pursuit of a phantom for ever doomed to fade in our embrace, a mocking shadow beyond the horizon of our grasp, known to us as the unreality of all that we can hold, and whose existence must perish at the threshold of human possession.

Philosophy as a Managerial Concern (Heidegger)

In the phenomenology of spirit, as consciousness’s becoming-other-to-itself and coming-to-itself, “forms” of consciousness emerge, as Hegel says; but this emergence of forms of consciousness has nothing to do with the procedure, now becoming routine and stemming from various motivations, of classifying the so-called types of world views and types of philosophical standpoints according to just any schema.  These typologies and morphologies would be a harmless way of passing time, if at the same time the odd idea were not in play that, by placing a philosophy in the net of types, one has decided on the possible and of course relative truth of that philosophy.  This urge toward classification and such like always begins at a time when the lack of the power to do philosophy gets the upper hand, so that sophistry comes to dominate.  But sophistry provides itself and its own barrenness with some respectability by first catching whatever ventures to emerge in philosophy in the net of standpoints, and then, having given each type a label, by leaving it with the people.  This label sees to it that, regarding the philosophy in question, one will be interested in its label only so as to compare it with another label.  Subsequently, the literary discussions about the label give rise to a literature which in its kind may be quite considerable.  Consequently, the Kant literature is not only more important than Kant himself, but above all else it reaches the point where no one any longer gets to the matter itself.  The procedure reflects the mysterious art of sophistry, which always and necessarily arises along with philosophy and controls the field.  Nowadays the power of sophism has “organized” itself, one of the many indications of this being the popularity of typologies of philosophical standpoints–typologies which appear in various disguises (manuals and series).  Philosophy becomes a managerial concern–a diabolical condition to which the younger scientific minds, rare enough as they are nowadays, fall prey in their prime.  But the reason for mentioning these seemingly remote things at exactly this point is the fact that in their confusion these typologies appeal to Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the belief and pretense that in Hegel a similar typology is aimed at, although without the benefit of contemporary depth psychology and sociology.

Heidegger, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (p. 29)

Although this seems as timely as when it was written in the 1930’s, if not more so, I am interested in it right now because I think there is a similar understanding of Bradley afoot, as if he were spreading a net of types in his work.  He is not–no more than Hegel was.  His work is no more managerial than Hegel’s.

Anyway, sophistry is internal to philosophy, always present when philosophy is present.  Sophistry is philosophy’s shadow.  And the rise of the isms is always a bad sign, in a time, in a country, in a department, in a mind.




A. C. Ewing’s F. H. Bradley

I have been on a Bradley kick of late, obviously. Yesterday, I received a used copy of his Principles of Logic in the mail. The volumes were clearly much handled and carefully annotated. There were a occasional words in the margins and frequent slim vertical lines alongside passages. I flipped to the inside of the cover and, lo!, it turns out that I have A. C. Ewing’s copy. Funny thing. I immediately recalled several lovely mornings with my teacher, Lewis White Beck, talking over coffee about Ewing’s* Idealism: A Critical Survey*.

A small event, admittedly, the finding of Ewing’s name, but one that brought me considerable pleasure.

Kelly Dean Jolley's photo.

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.)

The Old Story, A Fake Empire

IT is an old story, a theme too worn for the turning of sentences, and yet too living a moral not to find every day a new point and to break a fresh heart, that our lives are wasted in the pursuit of the impalpable, the search for the impossible and the unmeaning. Neither today nor yesterday, but throughout the whole life of the race, the complaint has gone forth that all is vanity; that the ends for which we live and we die are “mere ideas,” illusions begotten on the brain by the wish of the heart — poor phrases that stir the blood, until experience or reflection for a little, and death for all time, bring with it disenchantment and quiet. Duty for duty’s sake, life for an end beyond sense, honor, and beauty, and love for the invisible — all these are first felt, and then seen to be dream and shadow and unreal vision. And our cry and our desire is for something that will satisfy us, something that we know and do not only think, something that is real and solid, that we can lay hold of and be sure of and that will not change in our hands.

Bradley, Ethical Studies


A. E. Taylor on Bradley and Religion

Bradley on Purgatory

Possibly some of my readers who know Bradley only from his books may be surprised at a remark called from him by a passing reference in the same conversation to Purgatory. “But what do you mean by Purgatory? Does it mean that when I die I shall go somewhere where I shall be made better by discipline? If so, that is what I very much hope.” In another mood, no doubt, he might have dwelt on the intellectual difficulties in the way of such a hope, but it was characteristic, or at least I thought so, that he evidently clung to it.

Bradley the Mystic

Bradley’s own personal religion was of a strongly marked mystical type, in fact of the specific type common to the Christian mystics. Religion meant to him, as to Plotinus or to Newman, direct personal contact with the Supreme and Ineffable, unmediated through any forms of ceremonial prayer, or ritual, and like all mystics in whom this passion for direct access to God is not moderated by the the habit of organised communal worship, he was inclined to set little store on the historical and institutional element in the great religions.

Bradley on the Incarnation

Thus while the conception of the meeting of the divine and the human in one ‘by unity of person’ lay at the very heart of his philosophy, he was wholly indifferent to the question whether the ideal of the God-Man has or has not been actually realised in flesh and blood in a definite historical person. Like Hegel, he thought it the significant thing about Christianity that it had believed in the incarnation of God in a definite person, but also, like Hegel, he seemed to think it a matter of small importance that the person in which the ‘hypostatic union’ was believed to have been accomplished should be Jesus the Nazarene rather than any other, and again whether or not the belief was strictly true to fact. The important thing, to his mind, was that the belief stimulates to the attempt to the achievement of ‘deiformity’ in our own personality.

Oakeshott on Philosophical Debts and Professionalism

My debts, however, are many.  And if I have omitted to acknowledge the source of my arguments, it is for the double reason that in most cases I have forgotten it and that, since there are no ‘authorities’ in philosophy, references of this kind would but promote a groundless trust in books and a false attitude of mind.  A philosopher is not, as such, a scholar; and philosophy, more often than not, has foundered in learning.  There is no book which is indispensable for the study of philosophy.  And to speak of a philosopher as ignorant is to commit an ignoratio elenchi; an historian or a scientist may be ignorant, philosophers merely stupid.

Connecting this with Bradley’s comment (previous post) is worth doing.  I plan to do that soon.  For now, however, I will just note this point:  A philosopher is not, as such, a scholar.  I believe this.  But of course it raises all sorts of questions about current professional practice, the understanding of the discipline in the academy, etc. On the previous page, Oakeshott observes

Thinking, however, is not a professional matter; if it were it would be something much less important than I take it to be.  It is something we may engage in without putting ourselves in competition; it is something independent of the futile attempt to convince or persuade.  Philosophy, the effort in thought to begin at the beginning and to press to the end, stands to lose more by professionalism and its impediments than any other study.

Bradley on Philosophical Debts

Posting this now to comment on later.

It is not that in this book or elsewhere I lay a claim to original discovery. In these pages there is perhaps no result which I do not owe, and where, if my memory served me better, I could not acknowledge my debt. But when a man has studied, however little, the great philosophers, and felt the distance between himself and them, I hardly understand how, except on compulsion, he can be ready to enter on claims and counterclaims between himself and his fellows. And all I care to say for myself is that, if I had succeeded in owing more, I might then perhaps have gained more of a claim to be original.

Bradley, F. H. (Francis Herbert), 1846-1924. The principles of logic (Kindle Locations 24-29). London : Oxford University Press.

Bradley on Faith and Works

But that faith is…merely ideal, is a vulgar and gross error, which, so far as it rests on St. Paul, rests on an entire misunderstanding of him.  In faith we do not rise by the intellect to an idea, and leave our will somewhere behind us.  Where there is no will to realize the object, there is no faith; and where there are no works, there is no will.  If works cease, will has ceased; if will has ceased, faith has ceased.  Faith is not the desperate leap of a moment; in true religion there is no one washing which makes clean.  In Pauline language, that ‘I have died’, have in idea and by will anticipated the end, proves itself a reality only be the fact that ‘I die daily’, do perpetually in my particular acts will the realization of the end which is anticipated.  Nor does faith mean simply works; it means the works of faith; it means that the ideal, however incompletely, is realized.  But, on the other hand, because the ideal is not realized completely and truly as the ideal, therefore I am not justified by works, which issue from faith, as works; since they remain imperfect.  I am justified solely and entirely by the ideal identification; the existence of which in me is on the other hand indicated and guaranteed by works, and in its very essence implies them.

“…[I]n true religion there is no one washing which makes clean.”  Yes; even so.


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