Nineteenth Century Philosophy


Was F.H. Bradley also an idealist?

It’s not clear whether Bradley was an idealist, though he did believe that our direct experience of particular existence is what we can call reality. In his second major work, The Principles of Logic (1883), Bradley attempted to construct the metaphysical system that would explain his ethics. Thought is embodied in judgments, which must be true or false. Ideas are the contents of judgments and they represent reality. Ideas also represent kinds of things, each member of which is a particular individual (in the sense of an object). For example, you can have the idea of your particular pet dog, Rover, and that idea represents just Rover; but you also have the idea of dogs that represents all dogs.

However, all judgments are hypotheticals claiming that certain universal connections exist in reality. For example, if one makes the judgment that dogs are good companions for humans, one is claiming that dogs—in a general sense that applies to all dogs—are good companions in a general sense that applies to all human beings. But such a judgment is hypothetical because you might have a dog that is not a good companion for you.

Reality is the sum total of everything that there is in the world and as such, reality is what Bradley called a “concrete whole.” One encounters reality by the experiences that one has. That is, judgments are abstract, whereas reality is particular. For this reason, thought can never fully represent reality. Another way of putting this is that the real world cannot be completely described and classified by us.

Finally, in his Appearance and Reality (1893), Bradley further explained that reality, as experience, is all blended in harmony. Bradley thought that relations such as “bigger,” “smaller,” “before,” and “after” are appearances, not reality. Relations are abstracted by thought from direct experience of reality. This direct experience taken altogether is “the Absolute,” and, in a surprising turn, Bradley concluded that the Absolute, or the totality of our experience, is the real reality (as opposed to something that our experience could be “experience of”). In other words, Bradley held both that our experiences are experiences of reality and that all of our experiences added up constitute reality.


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