Francis Herbert Bradley’s Appearance and Reality

Francis Herbert Bradley’s Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay (1893) discussses many important aspects of his philosophy of Absolute Idealism. Bradley describes the ways in which appearance is inseparable from reality, and he explains what this means for our understanding of the universe.

The treatise is divided into two books. Book I is titled “Appearance.” Book II is titled “Reality.”

Book I has twelve chapters, entitled: I. "Primary and Secondary Qualities;" II. "Substantive and Adjective;" III. "Relation and Quality;" IV. "Space and Time;" V. "Motion and Change and Its Perception;" VI. "Causation;" VII. "Activity;" VIII. "Things;" IX. "The Meanings of Self;" X. "The Reality of Self;" XI. "Phenomenalism;" XII. "Things in Themselves."

Book II has fifteen chapters, entitled: XIII. "The General Nature of Reality;" XIV. "The General Nature of Reality (cont.);" XV. "Thought and Reality;" XVI. "Error;" XVII. "Evil;" XVIII. "Temporal and Spatial Appearance;" XIX. "The This and The Mine;" XX. "Recapitulation;" XXI. "Solipsism;" XXII. "Nature;" XIII. "Body and Soul;" XXIV. "Degrees of Truth and Reality;" XXV. "Goodness;" XXVI. "The Absolute and Its Appearances;" XXVII. "Ultimate Doubts."

According to Bradley, the goal of metaphysics is to understand reality and to find a way of thinking about reality that is not self-contradictory. Reality is consistent and is compatible with itself. Whatever is inconsistent with itself is unreal.

Appearances can be inconsistent and contradictory. Reality, on the other hand, does not contradict itself.

Absolute reality is a unity and not a plurality. Appearances may be manifested in a plurality of forms. Plurality implies that there are relations between appearances, and that some appearances may be inconsistent with, or contradictory to, each other. Plurality as appearance is transcended by the unity of Absolute reality.

Bradley defines primary qualities as real, and defines secondary qualities as apparent. Qualities may be compatible or incompatible. Qualities and relations presuppose each other. Thus, qualities cannot exist without relations, and relations cannot exist without qualities. To attempt to separate qualities and relations is to reaffirm a relation between them, which is self-contradictory.

Bradley argues that space as a dimension is inconsistent because it is, and is not, a quality and a relation. Time as a dimension is also inconsistent, because it is, and is not, a quality and a relation. Time as duration is inconsistent, because present time is continuous with past and future time.

Appearance may take the form of space, time, motion, change, causation, or activity. All of these forms of appearance are inconsistent, and are therefore unreal.

Appearance is also seen in the self. Bradley declares that sensation and feeling are not enough to prove the self’s reality. Moreover, self-consciousness, or the appearance of both subject and object in the self, is not enough to prove the self’s reality. The boundary between the self and the not-self can be altered, even though the self is opposed by the not-self. The self and the not-self are contradictory, and are therefore unreal.

Bradley also argues that Nature is a form of appearance within Absolute reality. Nature without its foundation in the Absolute is nothing. The physical world is a system of appearances in space, and is therefore unreal.

Activity or passivity in the world is inconsistent, and is therefore unreal. Body and soul are appearances which are inconsistent and are therefore unreal.

Whatever is real is capable of being experienced. Whatever is unreal cannot be experienced.

Bradley notes that the ‘ontological’ proof for the existence of perfect reality is that the idea of perfection could not occur unless perfection already existed. Another form of this proof is that if something is perfect, then it must exist (since perfection implies existence). However, Bradley argues that the ‘ontological’ proof may prove theoretical perfection but not practical perfection. Practical perfection can only be proved by experience. If practical perfection is experienced as a state of harmony, then this is how reality is found to be perfect.

According to Bradley, the Absolute is absolutely true and absolutely real. The Absolute cannot be described as having a degree of truth or a degree of reality, because it is perfect truth and perfect reality. On the other hand, every appearance has its own degree of truth, and has its own degree of reality.

Bradley argues that truth is the extent to which a principle is in accord with reality. Error is the extent to which a principle is discordant with reality. Every decision or judgment, whether positive or negative, makes an assertion about reality.

According to Bradley, an idea is real insofar as it does not contradict itself. An idea is true insofar as it agrees with reality, and is false insofar as it disagrees with reality. Truth and falsehood are aspects of reality.

Appearances may be true or false, but all appearances have a degree of reality. Appearance is impossible without reality. According to Bradley, all appearances can be experienced as a unity in Absolute reality.

The Absolute is not an abstract system of relations between its appearances. The Absolute is actual experience, which is an all-inclusive unity.

In the Absolute, there is nothing finite or imperfect. In the Absolute, there is perfect unity. Bradley says that it is impossible for finite beings to fully understand the existence of Absolute reality.

Bradley’s concept of the Absolute is different from his concept of God. Bradley rejects God as ultimate reality. For Bradley, God is only a finite aspect of the Absolute. The Absolute is the ultimate reality.

Bradley asserts that goodness, like truth, is harmony with the world of reality. Evil, like error and falsehood, is discord with the world of reality. Perfect goodness and perfect truth are found in the Absolute. Evil is incompatible with the Absolute, and is overcome by the Absolute’s perfect unity.

Bradley argues that, just as there are degrees of truth in the world of appearance, so there are degrees of possibility and contingency. The more that something is possible, the closer it is to reality. The less that something is contingent, the closer it is to reality.

According to Bradley, existence is not the same as reality. Existence is a form of appearance of reality. If something is real, then it exists. If something is unreal, then it does not exist.

Appearances may be true or false, but they depend for their existence upon Absolute reality. Appearances are nothing beyond their relation to Absolute reality. Bradley argues that even false appearances have some degree of reality. If an appearance has no reality whatsoever, then it is nothing. Nothingness is a lack of reality.

Thought becomes reality only insofar as thought becomes completed and consistent. But in order to be completed, thought must transcend itself, and both thought and feeling must be combined in the same unity.

A criticism that may be made of Bradley’s Absolute Idealism is that it assumes that reality must be in harmony with itself. This may be a questionable assumption, and it is possible that disharmony and disunity are as much a part of reality as harmony and unity.

Another criticism that may be made of Bradley’s philosophy is that it has a very negative view of religion and of God. According to Bradley, religion is contradictory to itself. Bradley argues that religion is caused by fear of, and a need for approval from, Absolute reality.

According to Bradley, God is only a finite aspect of Absolute reality. Bradley argues that God is merely an appearance of the Absolute.

Bradley also makes many sweeping and far-reaching statements, such as that time and space are unreal, without adequately supporting them. He declares that reality is unchanging, as if this assertion were already agreed upon.

A fundamental principle of Bradley’s approach to metaphysics is that appearance and reality cannot be separated from each other. Appearance is nothing without reality, and reality is nothing without its appearances. Thus, a degree of reality is found in all appearances, and Bradley concludes that reality is an all-inclusive unity.

Copyright© 2001 Alex Scott

home page