Philosophy against Misosophy



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Review of Richard Wollheim, F. H. Bradley, Penguin Books, 1959.  From Philosophy 36:138, October 1961, 372-374.


Brand Blanshard


Bradley’s thought is so alien to present fashions of philosophising that a full-scale attempt to appraise him by one who is at home among those fashions is bound to be interesting.  Mr. Wollheim disagrees with Bradley at every major point; he finds his logic confused, his metaphysics obscure, his account of knowledge and truth untenable, his ethical theory, though a little more plausible, still quite unsatisfactory.  But the book is far from being merely an attack.  It is a determined attempt by one whose philosophical education has predisposed him against the whole Bradleian outlook to see precisely what Bradley was saying and whether or not it was true.  And on the whole, both the analysis and the criticism are exceedingly well done.

In Mr. Wollheim’s view, Bradley’s philosophy is more negative than has been commonly supposed; “we have the sense in studying it that it is built on a series of denials, of negatives, of rejections.” This holds even of the Logic, which Mr. Wollheim regards as a sustained attack on empiricism. The empiricists had held that thought is essentially a matter of images whose relations are governed by past associations; Bradley insisted that thought dealt with universals which were, or might be, connected necessarily. The ideas of the empiricists belonged to their own minds; Bradley’s universals were part and parcel of the independent world.  His assault was not wholly unsuccessful.  Though there has been a return to empiricism of “a far more radical kind than anything he knew or envisaged,” Bradley is classed with Frege as a pioneer of the logic that has freed itself from its old dependence on psychology.

The largest single section of Mr. Wollheim’s book is devoted to Bradley’s “case against pluralism.”  The plain man and the pluralist are alike inclined to say that the world can be broken up into a vast number of more or less independent facts.  Bradley denied both the existence and the independence of these facts.  Their existence he denied by means of a new analysis of demonstrative judgments.  When we say “that house is white,” we seem to be pointing to a unique thing whose being white is a unique fact.  Bradley holds that we never reach such facts.  “House” and “white” both name universals; even “this” is a short-hand name for universals; it means “the house in the square opposite the fountain in the shape of a dolphin” and so on.  Our effort to reach the particular resolves itself into an effort to complete an inexhaustible series of universals.  Mr Wollheim thinks that the trouble here is that Bradley is considering words as used in logic-books rather than in living speech.  It is true that, taken out of context, all these words refer to universals, but when a man says “that house,” his actual reference is particular, whether his words fully convey it or not.  I do not think Bradley would be much troubled by this criticism.  He would be quite content to enter the man’s thought and to show that any specification of his meaning he cared to make, no matter how extended, still left him among universals.  I venture to think also that if Bradley had lived into “the age of analysis,” and read, for example, Wittgenstein’s account of “this is white” as the ascription of an attribute to a faceless indescribable “it,” he would have driven a coach-and-four through the analysis with surprising ease and all his old eloquent scorn.

But of course Bradley did not deny that judgment in some sense stated fact.  Though the grammatical subject and predicate named universals only, the judgment declared the fact that subject and predicate in union qualified a reality beyond the act.  What was that reality?  Not a thing-in-itself nor a characterless it, but a system continuous with present experience, of which the subject-predicate before us was a fragment.  To apprehend this fragment rightly, we must grasp it in its context.  Every judgment, therefore, is a hypothetical judgment, in which we state that something is true on conditions—conditions that are inexhaustible and for the most part unknown to us.  Here is the second contention that Mr. Wollheim singles out in Bradley’s attack on pluralism.  Every fact is dependent on other facts, and these on still others, and so on without end.  The judged fact is a link in a chain which seems to be fastened nowhere.  “And when the end is unsupported, all the rest is unsupported. Hence our conditioned truth is only conditional.”  We never arrive anywhere at fact which, as it comes to us, can be taken as settled and final.

Mr. Wollheim thinks Bradley is arguing here from a muddled analogy. A chain not fastened at the end would be insecure, but its links would still exist.  Bradley is arguing that because the chain of facts has no fastening at the end, the links themselves are illusory; and this is absurd, because the existence of such links or facts is presupposed in the argument; it is what enables the argument to get under way.  Again, I do not think Bradley would be much worried.  It is true that one who holds his position has, in a sense, no right to talk at all, since whatever he says will be subject to infinite unnamed conditions and therefore presumably false.  Bradley would of course admit this.  He would insist that no fact as we know it is real or stable fact.  But neither is it simply unreal; it is a fragment whose nature we can more fully master, if we try, by mastering more of its conditions; and nothing ventured, nothing won.  He is not simply denying the existence of the links; he is denying the finality of these links as they first present themselves to us, and holding that as we see their wider linkage, their character will be modified for us.  In this I see no inconsistency.

In dealing with Bradley’s teaching on internal relations, Mr. Wollheim offers acute criticism of his doctrine of negation, his view of the contradictory as the sum of the contraries, his baffling theory of identity, his struggle over inference, and his coherence theory of truth.  There is a chapter on appearance and reality in which a good deal of cold water is thrown on the display of dialectical fireworks by which Bradley reduces the whole phenomenal world, with its things and selves, and its orders of time, space, and causation, to a soggy mass of incoherence.  With much of this criticism one can only agree.  Mr. Wollheim rounds off his book with an account of Bradley’s ethics which shows how mistaken it is to accept the famous chapter on “My Station and Its Duties” as his final word on morals, and with a few interesting pages about his attitudes toward faith, religion, and death.

It is in these last pages that hlr Wollheim’s estimate of Bradley comes out most clearly.  He conceives him a little as Macaulay conceived of Burke, as a man who contrived most impressive reasons for conclusions adopted on other grounds.  He was a man who had seen a vision, and was trying to get others to see it also—a vision of “a unified and ordered and seamless whole,” in which all the forms of imperfection that dog the human lot are overcome.  Mr. Wollheim cannot resist the temptation to do a little amateur “depth psychology” on his distinguished subject and to find in his acceptance of an Absolute a means of dealing with a deep-seated anxiety.  It may be true.  If so, we could do with more people who see visions and feel insecure.  Bradley’s warmest admirers must admit that he was an uneven thinker, with curious blind spots (as for mathematics), and with certain prejudices (against Mill and Sidgwick, for example) that are hard to share.  But he is a dangerous man for “minute philosophers” to write about, for by so doing, they will send students back to him, and that is always a perilous thing to do.  For Bradley, with all his defects, was a philosopher in the grand manner, and there breathes through his writing the vitality—the fire, force, and gusto—of a mind intensely alive.  He confessed that for him philosophy was “a principal way of experiencing the Deity,” and added that “no one, probably, who has not felt this, however differently he might describe it, has ever cared much for metaphysics.”  Such statements are a source of uncomprehending embarrassment to commentators for whom the business of philosophy is to dissect the meanings of words, but no critic who fails to understand them can penetrate to where Bradley lived.   I do not think Mr. Wollheim has quite got there.  But he has written the best general criticism of Bradley that we have.

Posted September 24, 2007

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