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Summary Article: Bradley, Francis Herbert from Blackwell Companions to Philosophy: A Companion to Metaphysics

(1846–1924) British philosopher. A convenient way of placing Bradiey's monism (see monism/pluralism) and IDEALISM in context is to see him as finding logical and epistemological grounds for rejecting (1) an ultimate ontology of externally related facts (see logical atomism); and (2) a physicalism (see physicalism, materialism) of the influential physics-based kind (cf. Quine).


This rejection rests on Bradley's often misunderstood argument to the effect that unconditional predication is incoherent. The argument is here stated for monadic predications in respect of a single individual as ultimate subject but it applies equally to relational predications with respect to pairs, etc. (Essays on Truth and Reality (1914) pp. 225–33; Appearance and Reality (1893) chs. II, III; Principles of Logic (1883) vol. I, pp. 99–100).

Assume “R” is the proper name of an individual. If “Ra”, “Rb”, “Rc”, etc. express genuinely unconditional predications then the only condition under which, for example, “Ra” could be true would be R's being a, and the only condition under which “Ra” could be false would be R's not being a. The truth value of “Ra” could not depend on the truth values of any other of the propositions “Rb”, “Rc”, etc. Hence such propositions would all have to be logically independent of one another and any one of them could, as a matter of logical possibility, be the only one true, i.e., be a complete description of and give “perfect” knowledge of reality. But if, for example, “Ra” alone could be a complete description of reality then “Ra” must be construed as asserting not merely that R is a but in effect as asserting that R is merely a; and likewise for “Rb”, “Rc”, etc. However, if this is so, as Bradley argues, a contradiction arises, since if “Ra” were true then “Rb” and “Rc” etc. would have to be false (given that a is neither b nor c, etc.).

Bradley concludes that the unconditional verbal form which we must in fact employ to express the predications involved in our thinking must be seen as misleading with respect to the form of the judgments we make. Any judgment must always be radically conditional in form and might more properly be expressed by, for example, the formula “R(x)a”. This formula must be read not as indicating that the truth value of any conceivable predication will be conditioned, at the ultimate limit of analysis, by conditions that will in fact be unknown. It must be read as indicating that there cannot conceivably be an absolute, unconditional, determination of the truth value of any predication. Hence our knowledge cannot be a superstructure underpinned by an ultimate ontology of externally related. or atomistic, perceptible facts (Essays, pp. 209–10).


Bradley therefore concludes that with respect to any linguistically communicable truth whatsoever it can only make sense to describe it as true, or false, relative to a specified ideal construction. Any such a construction will be a more or less comprehensive logically interrelated system of ideal contents predicated as a connected whole of reality (i.e., of the genuinely individual, ultimate subject of predication). Thus for Bradley the primary repository of truth comes to be, not the proposition construed as a content capable of possessing in isolation a determinate eternal truth value, but the ideal construction viewed diachronically.

Hence an ideal construction is not (except for special purposes) to be construed as a determinate system of contents subject to the operations of a Fregean propositional or predicate calculus (see frege). In its primary sense it will be a system of ostensibly coherent ideal contents which is continuously confrontable in practice with a given and which is prone to modification and sup-plantation by extended, and sometimes logically incompatible, versions of itself (e.g., Essays, pp. 75–9). Such extended versions will, so far as they are internally coherent, allow a person to have knowledge which will be nearer–but on a path which of necessity is only asymptotic–to absolute truth with respect to the given reality.


If the argument against absolute truth and falsehood is valid it follows that no system of objects knowable through any ideal construction (e.g., the physical world as identified through the ideal contents internal to ultimate particle theories) can be taken as such, for the purpose of metaphysics, to be identical with reality. In Bradley's alternative terminology, no such system can constitute anything other than a more or less partial and inadequate appearance of reality. However, equally, it follows that reality will be present, albeit as a partial and inadequate appearance, in the contents of even the most fragmentary ideal constructions (Essays, pp. 28–42; Appearance and Reality, pp. 323–7; Principles, vol. I, pp. 110–11, fn. 40). Hence for Bradley there can be no question but that the theories of physics, at any time in their history, will contain truth and allow us to have more or less extensive knowledge of reality. But this knowledge will have no special significance for the metaphysician, despite its enormous practical significance in our real world (Essays, p. 123; Appearance and Reality, pp. 231–6, 434–5).


The system of objects, according to Bradley, that we ordinarily call “our real world” will be the object of our knowledge when, at any waking moment, we think of the unlimited totality of particulars of humanly perceptible kinds and sentient subjects that presently exist, or have existed, or will exist, at some time, somewhere in space, relative to the egocentrically demonstrable objects of our present perceptions (i.e., relative to our bodies) (Essays, pp. 28–49, ch. XVI; Appearance and Reality, pp. 187–8). It is by contrast with this world alone that we can give primary application to distinctions like those between the genuinely historical and the fictional, the real and the merely imagined, the existent and the non-existent, what is true and what is false, what is actual and what is merely possible, etc. And it is within terms of the more or less fragmentary constructions from which the ideal construction of our real world will have developed in the course of our lives that we initially come to have knowledge of ourselves as opposed to others, of the inner as opposed to the outer and so on (Essays, pp. 356–7). Hence, it is from within the ideal construction of our real world, the material for which is fundamentally given in our waking sense perceptions, that any of the indefinitely various, more or less discrete, ideal constructions that we frame will be predicated of reality (e.g., Essays, p. 210).


At this juncture it is essential to appreciate the significance of Bradley's contention that time and space are not “principles of individuation” (Principles, vol. I, pp. 63–4; see also Appearance and Reality, Appendix C, pp. 527–33). Any ideal content that we can exercise in thinking will be universal (e.g., Appearance and Reality, p. 34) hence, Bradley maintains, there can be nothing in the idea of a temporal and/or spatial series that logically guarantees that there is not an indefinite multiplicity of spatio-temporally unrelated spatio-temporal series.

We can have no reason, therefore, to hold that the spatio-temporal series of our real world is uniquely real. In fact Bradley maintains that there is an indefinite multiplicity of such series that can be objects of our knowledge (e.g., Appearance and Reality, pp. 186–7). For example, the spatio-temporal series of our real world is distinguishable in our thinking from those spatio-temporally unrelated series which are the intentional objects of dream experiences, of works of fiction, of the ideal constructions of ultimate particle physicists and so on. The reality of such series, Bradley maintains, cannot be reduced to the datable psychological acts occurring in the spatio-temporal series of our real world but on the other hand they clearly cannot be thought of as identical with any part of that series.

We can distinguish our so-called real spatio-temporal series from indefinitely many less real series by reference to the idea that it is the one that contains the intentional objects of these perceptions we are having now. However, given that time and space are not principles of individuation, it follows that the uniqueness of these perceptions that we are having (e.g., in reading this now) cannot, according to Bradley's metaphysics, be consistently thought to derive their uniqueness from being datable states attributable to particulars of spatio-temporally locatable kinds existing in a given uniquely real spatio-temporal series.


Such experiences are, Bradley maintains, to be construed ultimately (i.e., within metaphysics) as experiences in a plurality of finite centers of immediate experience. It is only within and via the representative activities of such centers that systems of intentional objects of any discernible kinds whatsoever (mental as opposed to physical, human as opposed to non-human, self as opposed to not-self, temporal as opposed to eternal, etc.) can be distinguished and known. However, these centers are not construed as Leibniz's monads are (see monad, monadology): they are not contingently existing individuals. Their mode of being, Bradley holds, must be taken to be adjectival on that which is truly individual or real. Nevertheless Bradley maintains that in the experiences and activities of the plurality of finite centers that which is truly individual (the Absolute) can be coherently taken (1) to have its whole being and self-realization; (2) to be immediately but non-relationally present; and (3) to be knowable propositionally with increasing–but of necessity never complete–adequacy through increasingly coherent and comprehensive ideal constructions (Appearance and Reality, chs. XIII, XIV, XXVI; Essays, chs. XIV and XI, p. 350, fn. 1; Principles, vol. II, Bk. III, pp. 590–1, p. 595, fn. 25).

  • Appearance and Reality. A Metaphysical Essay (London, 1893); (Clarendon Press Oxford 1968).
  • Essays on Truth and Reality (Clarendon Press Oxford, 1914); (Clarendon Press Oxford 1962).
  • Principles of Logic (London, 1883); 2nd rev. ed. with commentary and terminal essays, corrected, 2 vols. (Oxford University Press Oxford 1967).
  • Ingardia, Richard: Bradley: A Research Bibliography (The Philosophy Documentation Center Bowling Green, OH, 1991).
  • Manser, A.R.; Stock, G., eds.: The Philosophy of F.H. Bradley (Clarendon Press Oxford, 1984).
  • Wollheim, R.: F.H. Bradley (Penguin Books Harmondsworth, 1959).
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