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 Long Hello

“Truth may be flashed out by one blow”, no doubt, but it is more often won by the slow gestation and maturing of normal experience.  Spiritual truth, certainty of God, the immense significance of Christ, the living contacts of the Holy Spirit, are attained as appreciation of beauty is attained, as artistic taste is gained, as tact is acquired, as moral insight is won, by the slow accumulation of experience which saves its gains and out of them builds a character that knows by second nature.  –Rufus Jones, The Mysticism in Robert Browning

Dog Pause

Sorry to have left things hanging with Browning and Kierkegaard.  I rescued a dog last week and have been busy working with him, getting him used to my routine and to the house rules and to proper etiquette on a leash, etc.  I expect to get back to work here soon.  Besides the B & K, I plan to say a bit about Rush Rhees and the idea of conversation, and about Husserl on psychologism (both topics currently under discussion in my Plato seminar).

My new dog is Bane.


Browning and Kierkegaard on Oblique or Indirect Communication

Browning from near the end of The Ring and the Book:

…learn one lesson hence
Of many which whatever lives should teach:
This lesson, that our human speech is naught,
Our human testimony false, our fame
And human estimation words and wind.
Why take the artistic way to prove so much?
Because, it is the glory and good of Art,
That Art remains the one way possible
Of speaking truth, to mouths like mine at least.
How look a brother in the face and say,
“Thy right is wrong, eyes has thou yet art blind;
Thine ears are stuffed and stopped, despite their length:
And, oh, the foolishness thou countest faith!”
Say this as silvery as tongue can troll–
The anger of the man may be endured,
The shrug, the disappointed eyes of him
Are not so bad to bear–but here’s the plague
That all this trouble comes of telling truth.
Which truth, by when it reaches him, looks false,
Seems to be just the thing it would supplant,
Nor recognizable by whom it left;
While falsehood would have done the work of truth.
But Art, –where in man nowise speaks to men,
Only to mankind, –Art may tell a truth
Obliquely, do the thing shall breed the thought,
Nor wrong the thought, missing the mediate word.
So may you paint your picture, twice show truth,
Beyond mere imagery on the wall, —
So, note by note, bring music from your mind,
Deeper than ever e’en Beethoven dived,–
So write a book shall mean beyond the facts,
Suffice the eye and save the soul beside.

And now some of Kierkegaard, from The Point of View:

No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed.  If it is an illusion that all are Christians–and if there is anything to be done about it, it must be done indirectly, not by one who vociferously proclaims himself an extraordinary Christian, but by one who, better instructed, is ready to declare that he is not a Christian at all.  That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.  Instead of wishing to have the advantage of being oneself that rare thing, a Christian, one must let the prospective captive enjoy the advantage of being the Christian, and for one’s own part have resignation enough to be the one who is far behind him–otherwise one will certainly not get the man out of his illusion.

Supposing then that a religious writer has become profoundly attentive to this illusion, Christendom, and has resolved to attack it which all the might at his disposal (with God’s aid, be it noted)–what then is he to do.  First and foremost, no impatience.  If he because impatient, he will rush headlong against it and accomplish nothing.  A direct attack only strengthens the person in his illusion, and at the same time embitters him.  There is nothing which requires such gentle handling as an illusion, if one wishes to dispel it.  If anything prompts the prospective captive to set his will in opposition, all is lost.  And this is what a direct attack achieves, and it implies moreover the presumption of requiring a man to make to another person, or in his presence, an admission which he can make most profitably to himself privately.  This is what is achieved by the indirect method, which, loving and serving the truth, arranges everything dialectically for the prospective captive, and then shyly withdraws (for love is always shy), so as not to witness the admission which he makes to himself alone before God–that he has lived under an illusion.

The religious writer must, therefore, first get into touch with men.  That is, he must begin with aesthetic achievement.  This is earnest-money.  The more brilliant the achievement, the better for him…Therefore, he must have everything in readiness, though without impatience, with a view to bringing forward the religious promptly, as soon as he perceives that he has his readers with him, so that with the momentum gained by devotion to the aesthetic they rush headlong into contact with the religious.

Comments to come.

Easter Day, Robert Browning (Poem)

Here are the opening lines of Browning’s awesome “Easter Day“.  Although my primary intent is eventually to say something about the relationship between Browning’s dramatis personae and Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms, I thought it might be useful to preface that with a bit of Browning speaking, as it were, in propria persona, and speaking in a way that, to anyone who knows Kierkegaard, will sound remarkably familiar.  The poem is a dialectical tour de force, a deep and deepening investigation of all the ways in which faith is denatured, each a way of making it easy or easier to be a Christian.

Easter Day

HOW very hard it is to be
A Christian! Hard for you and me,
—Not the mere task of making real
That duty up to its ideal,
Effecting thus complete and whole,
A purpose or the human soul—
For that is always hard to do;
But hard, I mean, for me and you
To realise it, more or less,
With even the moderate success
Which commonly repays our strife
To carry out the aims of life.
“This aim is greater,” you may say,
“And so more arduous every way.”
—But the importance of the fruits
Still proves to man, in all pursuits,
Proportional encouragement.
“Then, what if it be God’s intent
“That labour to this one result
“Shall seem unduly difficult?”
—Ah, that’s a question in the dark—
And the sole thing that I remark
Upon the difficulty, this;
We do not see it where it is,
At the beginning of the race:
As we proceed, it shifts its place,
And where we looked for palms to fall,
We find the tug’s to come,—that’s all.

Browning’s Influence on Philosophers

A bit of a side-step here.  I want to write about Browning and Kierkegaard, but I thought I would first mention something about Browning I find of interest.  Browning decisively influenced the thinking of a number of philosophers.  Let me mention two–Josiah Royce and William Temple.

Now of course Temple is not known as a philosopher; he is known as Archbishop of Canterbury (1942-44).  But Temple was trained as a philosopher and wrote philosophy (some I have previously mentioned on the blog).  Browning’s work was never far from Temple’s mind.  Proof of this is the stamp that Browning’s “A Death in the Desert” had on Temple’s understanding of the Gospel of John, itself the primary object of and impetus for Temple’s reflections throughout his life.

Browning was also, and perhaps more surprisingly, a constant stimulus to Royce.  Royce, so far as I know, mentions Browning far less often than does Temple, but he was perhaps as deeply indebted.  (Royce’s style, unlike Temple’s, makes little room for the direct use of poetry.  It is not that Royce’s style is wholly unliterary–it is not–but rather that it lacks the open texture of Temple’s.)  Certainly, prolonged contact with Royce’s works on Christianity reveals Browning there, supplying much of substance and almost all of the atmosphere.

I make this side-step really just so that I can underscore something about Browning’s poetry that engrosses me–it’s potential to be taken up into prose reflections, to supply something like theses or claims, remaining all the while, and unmistakably, poetry.

Critics sometimes seize this potential of Browning’s poetry and use it like a stick to beat him, presumably thinking that poetry that is so available to philosophy must have somehow or other (form not inseparable from content?) failed as poetry.  But I think that no one can deny that Browning is a poet unless that denial is theory-driven–specifically driven by a theory that has nourished itself on a one-sided diet of examples.

Kierkegaard, Browning and Dramatis Personae


I’ve been reading Browning for the last two or three years–but only here and there, a little at a time.  He’s like strong drink:  in the right amount, he sweetens and deepens experience; in the wrong amount–too much–he overwhelms experience, making it too easy to lose oneself in the various dramatis personae on offer.  But what has been on my mind lately is the systemic and instructive similarity between what Browning is doing in offering his dramatis personae and what Kierkegaard is doing in offering his psuedonyms.

Browning plots his course in various places, Book III of Sordello, in the Epilogue to Dramatis Personae, in intrducing The Ring and the Book and in Fifine at the Fair.  He aims to be a “Maker-see”, not just a poet who tells you what he sees but rather a poet who causes the reader to see:

See it for yourselves,
This man’s act, changeable because alive!

He takes it that we simply do not possess the requisite moral imagination–call it a negative capability–for really understanding the lives and the aliveness of others:

Action now shrouds, now shows the informing thought;
Man, like a glass ball with a spark a-top,Out of the magic fire that lurks inside,
Shows one tint at a time to take the eye:
Which, let a finger touch the silent sleep,
Shifted a hair’s-breadth shoots you dark for bright,
Suffuses bright with dark, and baffles so
Your sentence absolute for shine or shade.

Human beings are not always in their Sunday best or Saturday worst.  Browning wants us to catch a glimpse of the “bustle of a man’s work-time”, to see what the man or woman sees on a middling Monday, to see how hard it is to categorize when we attempt to realize the concrete spiritual drama of an individual’s life.

Once set such orbes, –white styled, black stigmatized, —
A-rolling, see them once on the other side
Your good men and your bad men every one
From Guido Franceschini to Guy Faux,
Oft would you rub your eyes and change your names.

…The inward work and worth
Of any mind, what other mind may judge
Save God who only knows the thing He made,
The veritable service He exacts?

Browning believes his work will be of value for so long as the soul of a person remains precious to us.  Now Kierkegaard works a slightly different angle, but it is importantly related in its technique.  He too wants to be a Maker-see.  He wants us to confront the concrete spiritual drama of the lives of others.  But the lives he dramatizes are lives we are meant to see as objects of comparison with our own–they are meant to lead us to  self-confrontation.  No doubt Browning’s dramatic monologues can and in fact often do the same, but that does not seem to be their primary purpose.  We might say that whereas Browning wants us to awaken to the mystery of others, to the littleness of our understanding of others; Kierkegaard wants us to awaken to the mystery of ourselves, to the littleness of our understanding of ourselves.  I suspect, though, that the two tasks are inextricably related, and that their being so is one reason why often Browning seems like Kierkegaard and Kierkegaard like Browning.

I plan to pursue this comparison across a few post in the next week or two.

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