Philosophy against Misosophy


Brand Blanshard at Swarthmore (1930s?)


Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Journal of Philosophy, XXII, 1, January 1, 1925, 5-15.



Francis Herbert Bradley

Jan 30, 1846-Sep 18, 1924

Brand Blanshard

The death of F. H. Bradley was, even to fellow philosophers, not the passing of a familiar figure, but rather the passing of a great name. For nearly fifty years he had been a recluse. Cut off from active life in his early days by a serious and recurrent illness, he spent the greater part of his life in almost impenetrable retirement. In a pair of rooms overlooking the Christ Church meadows he lived and worked so quietly that there have been undergraduates who, like myself, have lived for years in his college and within a stone’s throw of his rooms with scarcely a glimpse of him. One would occasionally catch sight of his fine figure walking in the Merton garden; but he preferred, when the beginning of term brought the undergraduates back, to escape into some retreat that gave even greater quiet than the Fellows’ Quadrangle at Merton.  He never taught or lectured. He never attended the meetings of learned societies even in his own special field and when his presence would have doubled their interest. In later years his retirement became still deeper. He did not dine out, nor did he even discuss philosophy, except rarely and with certain intimate friends. Very few of the thirty or forty teachers of philosophy at Oxford have ever talked with him; some have never seen him. To the students of philosophy he was known by his writings only, while to the outside public he was not known at all.

Hence there was some surprise when one who had done so little to court public notice sprang suddenly, at the beginning of last summer, to the highest public honor. Announcement was made in June that he had been awarded the Order of Merit, which is perhaps the most distinguished honor to which a Briton can aspire. It is the order reserved for men like Morley and Bryce, Haig and Beatty, Balfour, Elgar and Hardy, men who by general consent have rendered in their several fields the most distinguished services of their day. Bradley was the first member of this goodly company who was nominated for achievement in philosophy. He was not destined, though, to enjoy the honor for long. Three months after his election came the news, on September 28,* that he was dead. Again the language of the journals made it clear that preeminence and seclusion may go together. Notice after notice appeared describing him not only as the most eminent of the English philosophers of his time, but as the most distinguished philosopher of Great Britain since Hume.

Distinguished as he was, there were other members of the same family who were scarcely less so. There were several sons of the Rev. Charles Bradley, himself a well-known preacher and writer of sermons in his day, who achieved international names. One of his sons, George, became headmaster of Marlborough, master of University College, Oxford, and finally successor to Stanley as Dean of Westminster. Another son, Andrew, held the chair of Matthew Arnold as professor of poetry at Oxford and is perhaps the weightiest literary critic now living in England. And then there was “Herbert” himself.

There seems to have been little evidence in his school days of what Bradley was later to become. When he entered University College it was not as a scholar, but as a commoner; and when he took his “greats” degree he failed of a first class. He was by no means a mere student; “he was at heart a very full-blooded Englishman, with the tastes of his race. At Oxford, according to contemporary rumor, he was a ringleader of rebellion against inefficient authority,” and it is said that he wanted earnestly to become an explorer. There was a notable downrightness about him, a directness and sense which suggested that here was a man who would be heard from in the world of action. But along with his common sense went a trait of a very different kind, a deep vein of the romantic, cropping out in strong religious feeling and a touch of the mystic’s passion. It was partly this that, when the blight of illness descended on him, turned his mind to the thought of the speculative life. It was partly, too, no doubt, the lectures of that inspired philosopher, Green. A religious nature and religious doubts, a gift for dialectic and T. H. Green—these would be enough to turn almost any boy’s mind toward the life of reason as a career.

He tried for a fellowship at his college, but did not succeed; the fellowship went instead to a young man named Bernard Bosanquet.  So began a powerful alliance and a chivalrous rivalry that lasted for fifty years. Shortly afterward he stood again for a college post, this time for the last of the old research fellowships at Merton, which granted a maximum of leisure with a minimum of college duty.  He was elected and held the post until his death.  Of his outward life there is little more than this to record. The few duties of his fellowship he took quite seriously, being, for example, a conscientious attendant at college meetings.  His presence did not always make matters easier. Holding opinions strongly, he was capable of presenting them with a cogency that was rather overwhelming; and in later years it could scarcely have been a comfortable feeling for a young don to find himself at odds across the table with one who was known, partly in affection and partly in awe, as “the greatest mind in Europe.” His freedom from teaching was not an unmixed blessing.  It did give leisure, but it produced a gap between the common mind and his own which it was increasingly hard to bridge. It is told that William Wallace, then philosophical tutor at Merton, asked Bradley to take his pupils once during a short absence from the college. On his return he asked Bradley how he had fared with them. “I found it pretty difficult,” is the reported answer; “I couldn’t understand them.” No doubt he spoke truly. He was never at great pains, as he marched into his far country, to keep up the bridges behind him.

As personal impressions of Bradley are rare, I prize the more highly the recollection of some talks on philosophy that I was privileged to have with him in the summer term of 1920. I remember the trepidation with which I knocked at his door to keep a ten o’clock appointment, and the pleasure and surprise that followed.  I had heard much of how formidable he was; what I found, on the contrary, was a rare courtesy and cordiality, with a warm invitation to come and see him again. He was then well over seventy, and hair and beard were snow white. But in spite of age and illness he was a splendid figure to look at, powerfully built and erect as a military man. He was dressed very neatly and carefully in a style that somehow suggested another day. It has often been remarked that his face, a strikingly handsome one, bore a resemblance to George Meredith’s. In his conversation anyone who knew his writing would have found something familiar. There were the same conciseness and clarity, the same impatience with anything obscure, the same unwillingness to express himself at all until he could do so with decision. If an unfamiliar question was raised, he would look out for awhile across the meadows until what seemed the exactly appropriate answer had formulated itself, and then out it would come with a characteristic neatness and finality. But if the answer did not come, there was no playing with conjecture; he was apt to astonish one by saying simply, “I don’t know; I never thought of that,” and to leave the matter so.

To some who know Bradley only through his writings, the considerateness I have referred to maybe a surprise. It was not the characteristic that was most conspicuous in his manner of controversy.  He was always a most formidable opponent, not merely for his great gifts as a dialectician, but also for a power of satire which he used at times with merciless effect. But this was not used undiscriminatingly. His wrath, which at times was rather tremendous, was in part at least the other side of what a writer in the Times has called “his sole un-English feature,” his “really terrible thoroughness.” He was desperately in earnest to arrive at the truth about things; “the metaphysician,” he said, “can not perhaps be too much in earnest with metaphysics, and he can not, as the phrase runs, take himself too seriously.” And knowing the bitter difficulty of reaching anything certain, he had nothing but open scorn for those followers of philosophy whom he regarded as dabblers or rhetoricians. Even Mill, Bain, Spencer, and Lewes he considered half-hearted in their analysis of knowledge, and along with a frontal cannonade upon them he maintained a cross-fire of invective which was the more scathing because so polished in execution. That a certain saeva indignatio sometimes carried him too far he seems to have admitted.1 But if there is anything that earns one the right to be severe with others, it is first being exacting with oneself, and Bradley’s severity began at home. The iron of the heroic was in his blood. Some men are recluses because of timidity or lack of force. Not so, Bradley.  He was one of those tremendously masculine “intellectual athletes” that used to fill Arnold with terror. One can think of few examples in the range of philosophic history of such single-minded and uncompromising pursuit of the speculative ideal.  “The man whose nature is such,” he once said, “that by one path alone his chief desire will reach consummation, will try to find it on that path, whatever it may be, and whatever the world thinks of it; and if he does not, he is contemptible.” There seemed to be nothing in the way of worldly honor that would turn Bradley an inch from the stern course he had marked out for himself and to which he held with an almost fierce devotion to the end.  When one considers that the immense labors of the Logic and the Appearance were carried through by an invalid, one can only regard in amazement the stoic force of his character.

The retirement of his life may throw some light on his underestimation of his own gifts. One measures oneself by others, and self-estimation varies with the company one keeps.  If Bradley saw little of his contemporaries, he saw a great deal of Plato, Hegel, and Lotze; and measuring himself against such familiars as these, he was always made uneasy by the praise of originality.  In the recent preface to his Logic he denies “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 counter-claims 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.” He once astonished a friend by saying that he had little gift for abstract thought; that whenever an argument became highly abstract he could not follow it; and in a note to the Logic he protests himself ”incapable of learning mathematics. He did not seem to understand how extraordinary his gifts were and what a place he held among his contemporaries. It is characteristic that he could never induce himself to allow his portrait painted; and when, by unanimous request, the contributors to the new volume of British Philosophers, comprising all the best known names in contemporary British philosophy, asked him if they might dedicate it to him as their “chief,” he declined even this.  Such honor seemed only to embarrass him.

All this may seem hardly consistent with the dogmatic tone of his writing. But his style was the expression, not of any conviction about himself, but partly of temperament, partly of deliberate literary pains. In youth he was a devoted lover of poetry, and by a long and thorough study first of English, then of German, and finally of French literary models, he acquired a feeling and perception in matters of form that among philosophers is very much too rare. I remember his commenting with admiration on the fine sense with which the Frenchman uses his language, and with regret on what he thought the comparatively slovenly speech of his countrymen; and I recall, too, his remarking that Bosanquet had never gained the recognition due him on account of a certain deficiency in literary sense. He himself was a most careful literary craftsman, and his sheer delight in effective writing sometimes breaks out even in highly technical parts of the Logic into passages of the most pungent humor or genuine eloquence, such as the famous outburst about the “unearthly ballet of bloodless categories.”  But it was only gradually and by long practice that his style was attained. Any reader of the Ethical Studies will notice that its manner is markedly different from that of his later volumes. With the first paragraph of the Logic, however, he seems to have found his medium, and the lucid and flowing style he there adopted, with its sentences concise almost to the point of epigram and its rhythm clearly marked, was maintained with little change through all his later writings.  Of course, he is often difficult reading, but it may be doubted if there is any philosophic writer in English who has succeeded better in maintaining intelligibility at an equal level of abstruseness.

In form there were some changes in Bradley’s work; in substance it shows a remarkable consistency.  It is true that there were some doctrines in the first edition of the Logic which, owing to the criticism of Bosanquet, he was led later to abandon; and it was his unwillingness to be responsible for what he thought was error that delayed so long the second edition of that work.  For many years he felt unable to revise it, and yet was unwilling that it should appear with its imperfections on its head. Still, even in the Logic there was nothing to retract except certain points that were special and technical, or else, like the doctrine of “floating ideas,” were implicitly corrected in the work itself.  His main position he held without a shadow of turning from his first book to his last; and his four chief volumes form the most complete and impressive defense since the Encyclopaedie of absolute idealism. Already in his twenties he had begun to take a public stand regarding it in a paper on “Mr. Sidgwick’s Hedonism” and in a half forgotten little essay on The Presuppositions of Critical History. But it was with the Ethical Studies in 1876 that he first found himself.  The Principles of Logic came seven years later.  By the fall of 1887 Appearance and Reality was already ripe for writing, and seventeen chapters of it were committed to writing in the following twelve months. After long intervals of illness it was finished in 1891, appearing in print some two years later. This was his last extended piece of writing.  The Essays on Truth and Reality, which appeared just before the war, was largely a collection of occasional articles in which his views had been explained and defended in the philosophical journals.

Bradley was a born controversialist, and he could scarcely have wanted a better field than was offered him by British philosophy in the ‘sixties, ‘seventies, and ‘eighties. It was as if the stage had been set expressly for his coming. A philosophy was in the ascendant which had on its side not only the immense influence of Mill, but the weight of the whole British philosophical tradition from Locke and Hume down. Against this powerful machine a group of speculative protestants in Oxford were just beginning to make themselves heard. Green, particularly, had issued a sounding challenge; Caird and Nettleship soon followed suit. The possibilities of the situation were enough to stir the blood of anyone polemically inclined, and Bradley loved a combat. Convinced that this group was right, he threw in his lot unreservedly with Porthos, Athos, and Aramis, and soon became the recognized D’Artagnan of the group. For there could be no doubt, upon the appearance of the Logic, that the Oxford insurgents were headed by one of the most accomplished intellectual swordsmen in Europe. All through that extraordinary book he not only wielded a deadly dialectic; he did it with the ease and address of one to the manner born. Both its content and its style, said the septuagenarian author in revising it, “recall those days when I was young.”

The main outlines of the empirical philosophy are, of course, matters of common knowledge.  Starting with the proposition that all we know comes from sensation, the argument was carried in the hands of Hume into the proposition that sensations are all we know.  Things are made of qualities; qualities, in turn, are sensations; hence the whole “choir of heaven and furniture of earth” are, for all we know, quite literally the things that dreams are made of.  If there is anything more stable behind, at least we can not know it. For good or ill, we are penned up permanently within the sphere of our own ideas.

It was in speculations about the nature of knowledge that this view took its rise, but it had consequences that went far beyond the theory of knowledge. It developed a logic, a metaphysics, and an ethics of its own.  The main position of its logic, which found a most persuasive exponent in Mill, was that every general proposition, even that which seemed transparently necessary, was the result of chance association of sensations, confirmed by repetition.  The main position of its metaphysics was that metaphysics was impossible.  If there was no way to tear a passage through the curtain of sensation that hung on every side and so get at the ultimate nature of things, it was clearly impossible to say what was there or indeed whether anything was there. The main position of the empirical ethics was that a being confined to sensation should find his good in sensation; only one thing was good in the end, and that was pleasure.  Empiricism was thus a very versatile theory, appearing in logic as psychologism, in metaphysics as skepticism, in ethics as hedonism.  In Bradley’s youth it was a huge and hydra-headed monster, sprawled quite across the countryside and everywhere inviting attack.  And perhaps the simplest way to grasp Bradley’s work as a whole is to regard his three chief books as three separate bids for mastery over the hydra in his path. The Logic states his case against psychologism; in the Appearance he countered skepticism with the proof of an Absolute; in the Ethical Studies, which, though first in time, is conveniently treated last, he delivered his blow at hedonism. All these views, in the form in which they appeared, are now moribund or dead, and that this is true is owing in no small degree to the skill and momentum of his attack.

For Hume things were sensations, and belief in them was virtually a quality of the sensations, namely their vividness. All we think about, therefore, is our own states of mind; it was not only our feelings and images that change from moment to moment, but the things themselves about which we think.  To talk, then, about a logic which stated the laws holding of real things as opposed to the laws by which ideas succeed each other in the mind was meaningless.  If there was no reality to which in thinking we ought to conform, then the science of how we ought to think must be replaced by the science of how we do think. Logic disappears and is succeeded by psychology; the laws of association become the highest truth about the working of the mind.  And everyone knows that in association there is no necessity. Sensations happen to come together; the connection between them is a connection not of necessity, but of chance; and all logical explanation, in the sense of showing that something must be what it is, is therefore out of the question. Reality is sensations, and the link between sensations is chance.

Now it is probably the main achievement of Bradley’s Logic to show that both these positions are unsound.  Against the first he maintained that you must draw a firm distinction between fact and meaning, between judgment as an event in my mind and judgment as a set of related terms which I mean to affirm. That I judge is a fact which occurs now and here, and is over in a moment; what I judge is not an event, it is not an image, it is nothing in my head, nor is it mine; it is part of the fabric of the real world, a “reality beyond the act.” In evidence, examine your own meaning in judgment. Do you really mean to judge about nothing but your own judging?  Or rather, do you mean to state the nature of a world that falls beyond your judging?  Bradley has no doubt of the right answer; we always mean our idea to be true of what falls beyond our act of thought; and we can not even deny this without assuming that it is true.  Every judgment claims, so far as it goes, to reveal connections within a world that is real and stable.

But secondly, what sort of connections are these? Are they the chance associations which the school of experience has taught us to believe in? Bradley replies in the masterly second chapter of his Logic with the proof that every judgment is hypothetical.  A judgment is not the mere juxtaposition of ideas; indeed, in thought mere juxtaposition is impossible. The judgment is made on conditions; and these conditions are not the associates, but the grounds of the relation that is asserted. Our meaning is never confined to the explicit content that we affirm, for that content is always abstracted from a context of tacit conditions, and it is only under these conditions that the judgment can be taken as true. “George V is king of England.  Yes, but only in virtue of being son of a royal father, and being crowned, and having subjects to govern, and sanity to govern with, and good will to support him. Without these we should at once admit that he would not be king; they are the implied, unspoken conditions of the judgment’s truth. And they are not mere associates, for associates may be removed without affecting those that are left, but if you remove the conditions of a truth, you destroy the truth itself. Since, then, the truth of a judgment depends on its conditions, your judgment is never certain until you include all its conditions within it.  And if you do include them all, where are you?  Why, nowhere but in the Absolute. For, so far as we can know it, the Absolute is precisely the completed system of truth.

Thus already in the Logic Bradley’s metaphysic was implicitly contained.  It was the task of Appearance and Reality to work this out in detail. What was the place to be assigned in the whole to the various spheres of finite experience?

To answer that question it is plain that one must have a criterion, and since it is in the Absolute alone that anything quite true or real can be found, the criterion must be the character of the of the Absolute itself.  What is that character?  Is there anything we can say about it except merely that it is?  Yes, replies Bradley; “ultimate reality is such that it does not contradict itself; here is an absolute criterion.  And it is proved absolute by the fact that, either in endeavouring to deny it, or even in attempting to doubt it, we tacitly assume its validity.”  If, now, we apply this criterion to the facts common experience, to things and their attributes, space and time, motion and change, the self and its activities, what do we find about them?  This, that they are riddled with contradiction, and hence as they stand can not be real. Our thought about all ‘Of them moves on the discursive level, and such thought will not stand criticism. Take any common judgment, for example, and ask what you mean by it.  “This sugar is white.”  What is it of which you are affirming?  If of sugar including its whiteness, you appear to be saying nothing; if of sugar excluding its whiteness, something false.  Or do you mean that certain qualities stand in such and such relations before you? This seems both right and necessary, since qualities without relations would not even be different and so would not be qualities at all. Nevertheless, they can not be related, since, the relations being distinct from their terms, new links are plainly required to couple terms with relations, and so on, world without end. Like discrepancies break out everywhere, infecting all finite experience with the taint of unreality.

Is there no cure?  Is there simply no health in us?  No such dark conclusion is warranted, Bradley holds. For even if experience, is an illusion, an illusion is yet something, and must fall within reality somewhere.  And that means that it is not mere appearance; it belongs (if we saw it rightly) to a world that is real and necessary through and through. Is there anything about it to resist this absorption? That, Bradley insists, is the question truly at issue.  To ask that it be shown in detail what part our experience plays in the completed whole, and to say that, failing this, his theory falls, is quite unreasonable. For “that would imply an understanding of the whole not practicable for a mere part.  It would mean a view by the finite from the Absolute’s point of view and in that consummation the finite would have been transmuted and destroyed. But in the second place, such an understanding is wholly unnecessary. . . . A general doctrine is not destroyed by what we fail to understand.  It is destroyed only by that which we actually do understand, and can show to be inconsistent and discrepant with the theory adopted.”  And is there anything in error or evil, or space or time, which resists inclusion in the Absolute, anything that not only to our view, but to a fuller view, could find no place in a coherent system ? We have no reason whatever to think so. What we do know is this, that as things are seen in context, their first appearance changes, and, so far as we know, there is nothing so hard and resistant that if seen in its completed context it would not be transmuted into harmony.  This is at least possible, and if possible it is more. “For what is possible, and what a general principle compels us to say must be, that certainly is.”

All ends, then, in the Absolute, and the Absolute is a complete and harmonious system. But a system of what?  A system of ideas?  Bradley denies this, and with the denial admits an element of something very like skepticism into his position.  Thought moves in the sphere of relations.  The subject of judgment is different from the predicate and both from the context to which they belong; and if thought tries to complete itself in either way, it ends in manifest failure. If it tries to complete the relational context, it runs out to a specious infinity; if it tries to take into itself the subject, it stumbles upon immediate experience, and this resists its utmost efforts at absorption. Our thought must follow the road of relations, but having found that road long since to be infested with contradictions, we can not suppose that it gives us a view of reality as it is.  Its form must be transcended in a higher sort of immediacy which includes all terms and connections, but not in that unintelligible web in which they appear in human thinking. There is completeness and there is harmony, but more than discursive thought is needed to compass them. The logician turns mystic when he faces the Absolute.

The doctrine of the Ethical Studies is what one would expect from a thinker who held such views. The best life, like the truest thought, is that which approaches most nearly the Absolute. And that life is the one in which variety and unity are attained together, in which there is the greatest range of activities consistent with perfect harmony among themselves. Bradley rejects Kantianism because “duty for duty’s sake” is so purely formal as to be quite empty of moral guidance; he rejects “pleasure for pleasure’s sake” because the self is not the sort of thing that can find its good in a series of sensations. What the self really is is an organic whole of experience, a “concrete universal,” and the only good that befits its nature is to become more truly itself. Further, its good is society’s good.  Indeed, I am myself only in virtue of the part I play in society as a whole, for self and others are not, rightly seen, exclusive.  Anyone who wishes a defense of the organic view of society, without appeal to metaphysics, can discover in the chapter on “My Station and Its Duties” one of the most effective arguments in its favor that has yet appeared.

One can not say, of course, where Bradley’s niche will be among philosophers; originality is far too relative a thing. The highest gift for discovery, the kind that one links with such names as Plato and Leibniz, the gift that conquers whole new continents for the mind, was certainly not his. But of the next highest originality he had an extraordinary abundance. He owed much, as he says, to others, and yet as one reads him, all seems fresh. His product is so finished, and its parts so closely articulated as to make this plain—that any ore be had got from others had been so smelted and refined in the processes of his thought as to be virtually a new thing in the world.  If one wanted further evidence of his power, one could find it in plenty in the present state of English philosophy. It was impossible for such a man to keep what he called “my natural place as a learner among learners.” Inevitably he became, first the leader of a cause, and then the inciter of many revolts. It has been said with some truth that both pragmatism and the new realism sprang up as the repudiation of certain aspects of his system. The level of his advocacy forced upward the level of opposition. “There has been, I think, a rise in the general level of English philosophical thought such as fifty years ago might have appeared incredible.” This was his own reflection as he looked back in 1914 over the period since his boyhood days at Oxford.  And if this is true, as beyond a doubt it is, is it not owing in large degree to his own heroic example?


1 Essays, 458, and cf. certain notes to the Logic.

* The news may have reached Blanshard on that date but, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Bradley had died of blood poisoning ten days earlier. --A.F.

Posted February 17, 2007

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