The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 36. Francis Herbert Bradley

The writings of Francis Herbert Bradley are so important for the understanding of English idealism in the nineteenth century that it seems necessary to make some reference here to the work of a writer still living. His achievement has been differently viewed: sometimes as being the finest exposition of idealism, sometimes as marking its dissolution. His first philosophical work, Ethical Studies, appeared in 1876, about the same date as the first books of Green and Caird. It is full of brilliant criticism of conventional ethical ideas. The manner was different; but the doctrine seemed to agree with that which was beginning to be taught in the lecture-rooms. Here. also, “self-realisation,” that is, the realisation of the “true self,” was the watchword. His Principles of Logic, published in 1883, broke new ground and showed, also, a development of the dialectical manner. The inadequacy of the “particular,” the implication of the “universal” in all knowledge, were familiar enough, but the defects of empirical logic had never been exposed with such depth of insight, such subtlety of reasoning, such severity of phrase. The work was a triumph for the idealist theory of knowledge. It is noteworthy that these two books have never been reprinted in England, presumably because the author became more or less dissatisfied with their teaching. There is, at least, a difference of emphasis in the teaching of his next and greatest work, Appearance and Reality (1893), which has been allowed to pass through several editions.

This remarkable book has probably exerted more influence upon philosophical thinking in English-speaking countries than any other treatise of the last thirty years. But no summary can convey a clear idea of its teaching. The conceptions of popular thought and of metaphysics alike are in it subjected to detailed, relentless criticism. Even the distinction, within the book, between the chapters devoted to “appearance” and those described as “reality” seems artificial, for everything is found to be riddled with contradictions. And these contradictions all belong to our thought because it is relational. Green had held that experience requires relations, and had argued thence to the need for a relating mind as the principle of reality. Bradley, too, insists that “for thought what is not relative is nothing” but he draws the very different conclusion that “our experience, where relational, is not true.” Of this doctrine all the brilliant disquisitions that follow are applications, with the exception of the author’s own assertions about the absolute, which, being relational, must be affected by the same vice of contradiction. If his argument about relations is valid, the idealism of Green and Caird falls to the ground. His method is more akin to Hegel’s than theirs was; but he also ignores the Hegelian triad; he does not attempt any consecutive evolution of the categories; even his doctrine of “degrees of reality” is more Spinozistic than Hegelian. As a whole, the book is a great original achievement—a highly abstract dialectical exercise, in which the validity of every argument depends upon the fundamental position that relations necessarily involve contradiction. A later book, Essays on Truth and Reality (1914), deals in great part with controversies which belong to the twentieth century; without deserting the positions of the earlier work, it is less purely negative in its tendency and more devoted to the discovery of elements of truth than to the exposure of contradictions.