Bradley’s Appearance & Reality

I came to F.H.Bradley through Bertrand Russell’s metaphysical ruminations only 5 or 6 years ago (hat-tip Stephen Mumford). It was a conscious effort, because I’d pretty much given-up on Russell after the debacle of Principia Mathematica, from which co-author Whitehead seemed to have learned, but from which Russell appeared never to have recovered (nor from Wittgenstein) and instead morphed into a public political intellectual superstar on pretty flimsy foundations of understanding the world. I noted lots of parallels – in Mumford’s analysis of Russell’s analysis of Bradley – between Bradley’s (idealism) metaphysics and my own thinking these past two decades – very much reinforcing my “nothing new under the sun” agenda at the time (aka Footnotes to Plato, after Whitehead).

I did however buy a hard-back copy of:

Appearance and Reality
– A Metaphysical Essay
F.H.Bradley, 1893, 2nd Ed 1897,
Seventeenth (!) impression 1978.

on the strength of that read, reinforced by several others in the topical “new idealism / new-panpsychism” fashion. It’s been in my library of barely read books ever since.

Earlier this week John Carl, formerly an active participant in the Robert Pirsig-based “MoQ-Discuss” forum, asked me to dig out a copy of the so-called “Copleston Annotations”

The Copleston Annotations

This text is correspondence between
Robert Pirsig and Anthony McWatt
including Pirsig’s annotation of:

Frederick Copleston’s
“History of Philosophy – Volume 8 19th Century Idealism

Simply checking I had the whole file I skimmed the start and end, and found this couple of sentences amongst Pirsig’s concluding paragraphs:

So It has really been a shock to see how close Bradley is to the MOQ.

So no surprise to me to find Bradley close to my own thinking, since I’ve often said Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ) framework remains influential and easy to populate with everything I’ve synthesised since from a thousand other sources to this day.

Both he and the MOQ are expressing what Aldous Huxley called “The Perennial Philosophy,” which is perennial, I believe, because it happens to be true.

Huxley’s perennial philosophy too, oft quoted here.
And he goes on:

Bradley has given an excellent description of what the MOQ calls Dynamic Quality and an excellent rational justification for its intellectual acceptance. It and the MOQ can be spliced together with no difficulty into a broader explanation of the same thing.

Shocked by this, because as he had noted upfront:

… I’ve said before, philosophology isn’t my field …

Pirsig never really attempted philosophical discourse with the philosophy of others – philosophology is to philosophy, as art-criticism is to art – it all came from the Greeks and from eastern or aboriginal thinking anyway. Having extracted his MoQ description, and written his two novels, he chose to emphasize the mindful / attentive / Zen aspect of living philosophy and leave the intellectual description at that. His widow Wendy chose the same emphasis in the posthumous selection “On Quality” too.

Anyway, finding myself with a quiet hour away from any correspondence – in a hospital waiting room whilst my elderly mother underwent a routine procedure – I started to read / re-read Bradley. I am that man again.

One aspect of my “nothing new under the sun” adage, is that I’m not really claiming any originality in the content of my own work. My creativity is in synthesising, integrating, re-organising the language used to suit different questions arising from different people in different everyday contexts. But it really has all been said before. It’s 100% plagiarism, it always has been and there’s a practical limit to how many references you can acknowledge in any one sentence – even in non-intrusive end notes. Who cares? If it’s perennial, it’s probably right. That is surely more interesting?

[Aside, Bradley’s “model” is indeed very close to Pirsig’s MoQ and to my “triple” – for another day, another piece of writing – but the meta-stuff about his own thinking is fascinating.]

Bradley’s preamble in the prefaces (1st and 2nd Ed) and the early / introductory chapters cover much the same self-effacing ground. Firstly his sub-title, which he goes on to explain first in the original preface.

“A Metaphysical Essay” – An Essay? This is a 500 page book.

Neither in form nor extent does
it carry out the idea of a system.
[W]hat I have done is incomplete.
[A] more or less desultory handling of perhaps
the chief questions in metaphysics.

This volume is meant to be
a critical discussion of first principles.
To originality in any other sense
it makes no claim.

I have written for English readers,
and it would not help them much to learn my
relation to German writers.
Besides, to tell the truth,
I do not know precisely that relation myself.

And, though I have a high opinion of
the metaphysical powers of the English mind,
I have not seen any serious attempt
in English to deal systematically with first principles.

We owe [improved understanding] mostly to men
of a time shortly before my own,
and who insisted well … on the great claims
of Kant and Hegel.

From the 2nd Ed Preface:

It is a pleasure to me to find
that a new edition of this book is wanted.
I am encouraged to hope that with all its defects
it has helped to stimulate thought on first principles.

And from the Introduction:

[T]he preconceptions adverse to metaphysics in general.
[T]o understand by metaphysics an attempt to know
reality as against mere appearance,
or the study of first principles or ultimate truths,
or again the effort to comprehend the universe,
not simply piecemeal or by fragments,
but somehow as a whole.

[We’re all metaphysicians, even if in ignorance.]
To say the reality is such that our
knowledge cannot reach it,
is a claim to know reality;
to urge that our knowledge is of a kind
which must fail to transcend appearance,
itself implies that transcendence.
For, if we had no idea of a beyond,
we should assuredly not know how
to talk about failure or success.

I am so bold as to believe that we have
a knowledge of the Absolute, certain and real,
though I am sure that
our comprehension is miserably incomplete.
But I dissent emphatically from the conclusion that,
because imperfect, it is worthless.
And I must suggest to the objector that
he should open his eyes and
should consider human nature.

And I may have given the impression
that I take the metaphysician to be initiated
into something far higher
than what the common herd possesses.
[T]he superstition that the mere intellect
is the highest side of our nature,
and the false idea that in the intellectual
world work done on higher subjects
is for that reason higher work.

Wow! In reverse order:

Yes, we need to use intellect to unravel our understanding of the world, but that doesn’t mean intellect is our most important view of reality.

Strong views lightly held. We absolutely must have a view of how we believe the world really is – ontological commitment – even whilst that view is evolving contingently on new knowledge.

We’re all in this game, there is no opt out, other than ignorance.

It’s about comprehensive (first) principles, abstractions, not about the sum of pieces of knowledge.

We’re indebted to 18th and 19th C Germans.

(As Gödel will show in the future), comprehensive consistency comes at the price of completeness.

And – the whole is about systems
and knowledge of the whole is systematic.

This isn’t new, it’s all been said before.