S.C. Hickman (earth_wizard) wrote,
S.C. Hickman

F.H. Bradley: Overturning Kant's Copernican Revolution

"In whatever way the self is taken, it will prove to be appearance. It cannot, if finite, maintain itself against external relations. For these will enter into its essence and so ruin its independence..."
      - F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality

Against all those philosophies of finitude based on Kant's Copernican Revolution F. H. Bradley maintained that the self is never independent of its object, no gap is given; that, in fact, it is itself a part of experience and as such the facts that it pretends are given are in themselves mere appearance, "appearance and error" (103). 1 What this implies is not that the grounds for experience are eliminated, rather it affirms against Kant that the finitude of the self as the necessary condition of experience is no longer adequate.

As one of the foremost British Idealist's Bradley maintained that the Absolute must be free of contradictions. For him what is real is harmonious, only appearance is full of contradictions. Bradley maintained a form of pansychism that affirms that the Absolute is sentinent. His basic argument is a task in which one must try to eliminate all perception and feeling from the object of experience then try to describe what is left. He tells us after such an experiment is conducted that what we are left with is "unmeaning" (Ibid. : 127-128). So to strip experience of feeling and perception is to produce not meaning but the nihilism at the heart of things. But against such nihilism Bradley maintained that every object has two sides: first, that there is a "that", an existent; and, second, the "what", the existent's content, the predicate. As commentators Dunham, Grant, and Watson in Idealism: The History of a Philosophy tells us:

"The ideas we form of an existent depend necessarily on our ideas of its "what", which must be torn loose from its "that"; without such a such a process thought would be able to make no distinction at all. The predicates are a dissection of reality and could never possibly show the full reality of the predicated existent. This is because true reality must be free from all relations  and thus there can be no true plurality in the unity of the Absolute, as such, we can never know the truth of any existent without knowing the entirety of the Absolute, a simple impossibility for finite consciousness." (Idealism : 170-171) 2 

The realm of appearance is the product of finite sentience, and for Bradley all appearance is related to finite sentience. Reality: - the Absolute totality of Nature, is for Bradley, independent of all relation: it is the sum of all relations. The whole point of this being that one never has access to the fullness of an object, one can never describe the object in its completeness. This is where his notion of the felt background, immediate experience, as compared to finite experience is marked out as the distinction between the Absolute and its local manifestation in experience.

The problem for Bradley is that his metaphysics fails to provide an explanatory mechanism for or justification of his conclusions for the simple reason that he believed we could never have full knowledge of the Absolute. As he states it our knowledge of the Absolute must remain "miserably incomplete". Yet, this leads to a moral quagmire as well. For Bradley believed that the Absolute is neither moral nor immoral, that it leads neither to a foundation for ethics nor its demise; it is beyond such ascriptions. Bradley affirmed that it is a "moral duty to be non-moral". What this means according to our previous commentators is that for Bradley "Ethics must listen to Metaphysics before it proscribes its morality (Idealism : 174)". As these commentators explicate it:

"While it is possible that Bradley's arguments may have frightening consequences for the ethicist, it cannot be for this reason alone that we choose to reject his arguments, nor can it furnish the ground for its refutation (Idealism : 174)." 

Such ideas would lead later detractors of Bradley's metaphysical presumptions to maintain that such a grounding in metaphysics is delusional for the simple reason that we "cannot reach behind the fact of our own finite existence, so that an "ethics of finitude" must precede and determine our metaphysics (Ibid.: 174)". For others such as Alistair MacIntyre or Alain Badiou ethics mut be grounded in Nature or Being. Still others such as Platonic philosopher John Leslie maintain that ethics must transform the good into an ontological category, thereby ascribing evil to non-existence. Whatever one may think of Bradley's notions in Appearance and Reality it has provided a fruitful program for investigating alternative ethical dimensions within any viable metaphysics. As his commentators affirm this is one of the "important bequests" that Idealism still offers to current philosophical speculations. 

  1. F.H. BRADLEY (LL.D. GLASGOW). Appearance and Reality : a Metaphysical essay (1916)
  2. Jeremy Dunham, Iain Hamilton Grant, Sean Watson. Idealism: The History of a Philosophy. Mcgill Queens Univ Pr (April 5, 2011)
Tags: f.h. bradley, iain hamilton grant, idealism

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