Francis Herbert Bradley (1846–1924)

Although his reputation as a philosopher has been obscured in the course of the twentieth century by the successes and the prejudices of the philosophical movement associated with the names of Bertrand Russell, George Edward Moore and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the British idealist Francis Herbert Bradley was the most influential and original thinker of his generation. The second volume of John Muirhead’s prestigious Contemporary British Philosophy: Personal Statements (1925) opens with the following dedication: “To F. H. Bradley, Order of Merit: To whom British Philosophy owed the impulse that gave it new life in our time.” Not everyone will recognise the relevance of Bradley’s thought for today’s philosophical concerns (a claim that can be seriously disputed), but its historical significance cannot be cast into doubt. Bradley’s criticisms of hedonism in the Ethical Studies (1876) and of psychologism in The Principles of Logic (1883) are unanimously recognized as setting new points of departures for British philosophy. His reputation was secured by Appearance and Reality (1893), where he advanced a highly original and challenging version of absolute idealism.

1. Brief Vita

Francis Herbert Bradley was born on 30th January 1846 in Clapham, near London, as a member of a large family, which included A. C. Bradley, a younger brother, who became professor at Oxford and made his reputation as a Shakespearean scholar. Bradley entered University College, Oxford, in 1865, obtaining a first in classical moderations and a second in Litterae Humaniores. The failure to obtain a first did not prevent him from pursuing an academic career and in 1870 he was elected to a fellowship at Merton College. Bradley never married and retained his fellowship, which did not impose upon him any teaching duty, for the rest of his life. This was not, however, an altogether easy one: in 1871 he suffered an inflammation of the kidneys and was forced to adopt a secluded way of life. Together with the high quality of his work and his remarkable literary style, this circumstance increased the fascination he was capable of exerting upon his contemporaries. According to one of these, “in Oxford the great figure of Bradley, rarely seen by anyone and magnified now to legendary proportions, hovered everywhere over the scene” (Blanshard 1952, 39).

In 1924 King George V appointed Bradley to the Order of Merit, the first philosopher ever to be granted this honour, only a few months before his death, which occurred because of blood poisoning on 18th September of that same year. (A lively portrait of Bradley the man and the philosopher is provided by Taylor 1925.)

2. Idealism, Unity and Relations

Bradley’s theory of reality is a combination of monism—the Spinozistic view of reality as a unitary whole—and idealism. Now, given Bradley’s association with Hegelianism, the term “idealism” may be easily taken to stand for the claim that thought and reality are one and the same, as if Bradley wished to identify the one reality with a system of harmoniously interrelated categories. Yet Bradley writes: “I never could have called myself an Hegelian, partly because I can not say that I have mastered his system, and partly because I could not accept what seems his main principle” (1883, x). As to what Hegel’s main principle is supposed to be, the following remark provides a clear indication:

[A] lingering scruple still forbids us to believe that reality can ever be purely rational. It may come from a failure in my metaphysics, or from a weakness of the flesh which continues to blind me, but the notion that existence could be the same as understanding strikes as cold and ghost-like as the dreariest materialism (1883, 590-91).

As against Hegel’s panlogismus, Bradley denies that the Absolute is “rational;” his idealism amounts to the view that reality is a cosmic experience synthesizing and harmonizing all finite experiences.

The most important arguments in support of monism are provided in Book I (“Appearance”) of Appearance and Reality. Contrary to a widespread interpretation, whose origin can be traced back to early writings of Russell and Moore, they are not founded upon any such thing as a dogma of internal relations. Bradley’s main argument is as follows: pluralism is the view that reality consists of many interrelated substances; since the concept of relation is self-contradictory, pluralism cannot be true. One way to grasp the basic idea of Bradley’s argument, cutting through the many intricacies of his dialectic, is by distinguishing between internal and external relations, i.e. relations which determine the nature of the terms between which they hold and relations which do not.

As against the reality of external relations, Bradley advances what is known as the “chain-argument,” according to which external relations generate an infinite regress, because an external relation is nothing but a further entity standing itself in need of a connection with its terms. According to the argument, in order to understand how a term A could stand in the relation R to B, we will have to understand how R could be connected with A and B; this requires the introduction of a further relation R1, holding between R and A, and of a further relation R2, holding between R and B. In this way an infinite regress arises, for what connects R1 and R2 with their terms? Bradley has been accused of reifying relations in this argument, of treating them as if they were things standing in need of a connection with other things. There is much that can be said in Bradley’s defense (see Allard 2005, 59-66): here it must at least be remarked that the chain-argument has the effect of shifting the onus probandi from Bradley to his critic, who is now faced with the challenge of providing an account of external relations that avoids the infinite regress. It is doubtful, for example, that Russell was ever able to meet this challenge and some of Bradley’s arguments can indeed be read as anticipated refutations of Russell’s logical atomism (Basile 1999, 165-70).

As against the reality of internal relations, Bradley contends that they give rise to another vicious regress, one that does not originate between the related terms but within each of them. On the one hand, if a relation R between A and B is internal, there must be an aspect of A which depends for its existence upon the fact that A and B stand in R to each other. On the other hand, a relation does not generate the terms between which it holds but requires them as its logical foundation; there must therefore be an aspect of A which is independent from the fact of A’s being related. Thus within each term there must be an aspect that is determined by R and one which is not. If this is right, A is really the unity of these two aspects, the aspect which is determined by the relation, say A1, and the aspect which is the ground of the relation, say A2. In this way a regress arises, for A is really the unity of A1 and A2, i.e. it is really A1 in some relation R1 to A2. Reasoning by the same token, A1 and A2 split into two further terms and so on ad infinitum.

Bradley draws two consequences from the above arguments. The first is that the concept of relation is self-contradictory. On the one hand, a relation must hold between some terms, because the conception of a “floating” relation, a relation that does not hold between any terms, is an absurd one. On the other hand, the regresses are held to show that an infinite series of conditions must be satisfied in order for a relation to hold between any two terms. Since we can think of relations only as holding between some terms yet at the same time we cannot understand how this could be possible, the contradiction follows that relations must and yet cannot hold between any two terms. The second consequence is that relations are devoid of unifying power. This implies that the pluralist’s attempt to reconstruct the unity of the world out of a plurality of related terms must fail, for relations cannot provide the required principle of unification. Bradley concludes therefore that reality must be a unity to begin with and that all terms and relations must be conceived as internal articulations of a larger underlying whole, the Absolute.

Another way to state Bradley’s conclusion is by saying that wholes are prior to their parts or, alternatively, that all relations are holistic, i.e. such that they exist only as integral parts of a larger totality which embraces them as well as their terms. Yet what does it mean to say, as Bradley puts it at one point, that “Relations exist only in and through a whole which can not in the end be resolved into relations and terms” (Bradley 1928, 96n)? This wholly legitimate question hides a serious difficulty for Bradley, for it is a quest for an explanation of the nature of the relation holding between the One and the Many. Since all relational accounts of reality are necessarily self-contradictory, however, can we admit of there being a relation between reality and its appearances? Bradley is led to the conclusion that nothing can be said about the ultimate nature of reality that does not involve some amount of distortion and falsification: in the end, the question of how the many appearances find their place within the Absolute cannot be answered in terms of clear-cut concepts.

Bradley’s arguments have been looked upon with suspicion and are usually regarded, if not as sophistical, at least as fallacious (Wollheim 1969, 114; McHenry 1992, 84, 100-101). However, serious attempts have been made to reformulate Bradley’s core intuitions in a more careful way (Sprigge 1984, 162-249) or by reference to the concerns of contemporary analytic philosophy (Vallicella 2002). His paradoxes also have the merit of addressing fundamental issues on the border between logic and ontology (Gaskin 1995). In any case, it is important to emphasize that Bradley’s final conclusion is that relations, be they conceived as external or as internal, are vitiated by self-contradiction and cannot therefore be used in any coherent description of the nature of reality: “The Absolute is not, and cannot be thought as, any scheme of relations. If we keep to these, there is no harmonious unity in the whole” (Bradley 1893, 172). Moreover, it is worth pointing out that monism is not the sole conclusion Bradley derives from his critique of relations. Once relations have been shown to be contradictory, many other notions have to be abandoned as well, most notably those of space, time and change. In striking contradiction with the world of every-day experience, reality is not merely one but also eternal and changeless: “There is of course progress in the world, and there is also retrogression, but we cannot think that the Whole either moves on or backwards. The Absolute has no history of its own, though it contains histories without number” (Bradley 1893, 442).

In accounting for the nature of the absolute experience in Book II (“Reality”), Bradley appeals to his own theory of immediate experience or feeling. Against Hume and British empiricism, Bradley contends that experience cannot be analyzed into a plurality of independent existing items, such as the perceptions described at the beginning of the Treatise of Human Nature. Our state of mind at any one moment is a unified whole and it is impossible to understand how independent existing units could produce it: what would bind them into one mind? At the same time, Bradley rejects the Kantian solution and denies the reality of a transcendental ego capable of performing the role of a unifying principle. The correct view of experience must consist in assuming that our total state of mind is a unified whole to begin with, a unity containing differences but no relations, within which many aspects can be distinguished and isolated but not taken apart as if they were its actual constituents. Such an underlying whole, the transcendental foundation of everyday experience, is what Bradley refers to as “immediate experience” or “feeling”:

[I]mmediate experience, however much transcended [for example in ordinary sense-presentation], both remains and is active. It is not a stage which shows itself at the beginning and then disappears, but it remains at the bottom throughout as fundamental (Bradley 1914, 161).

Even the distinction between subject and object is not regarded by Bradley as being an absolute one but simply as reflecting a possible articulation of the contents of immediate experience: “if seeking for reality we go to experience, what we certainly do not find is a subject or an object, or indeed any other thing whatever, standing separate and on its own bottom. What we discover rather is a whole in which distinctions can be made, but in which divisions do not exist” (Bradley 1893, 128).

In this part of his philosophy, Bradley appeals to the principle that wholes are prior to their parts that he had established in his discussion of relations. In particular, taking the experienced world of every-day life as a starting point, it is possible to proceed backwards to its transcendental condition, a primordial state of felt contents not yet differentiated into clear-cut distinctions. Yet if the self is but an internal articulation within immediate experience, whose experience is immediate experience?

In answering this question, Bradley introduces the difficult notion of the finite center of experience. Finite centers are not to be understood on the traditional model of the substantial soul, and Bradley is careful in pointing out that a finite center is not a reality distinct from its experiences (hence it cannot be a subject in the literal sense, a substratum) for there is nothing to it but its own experiences. A useful yet only metaphorical way of stating the point is to say that each center is a locus of experience (Stock 1994, 111). Upon the whole, it seems difficult to deny that the status of finite centers remains rather obscure in Bradley’s philosophy. At times finite centers may seem to share some similarities with Leibniz’s monads; in one of the few attempts to describe their nature, for example, Bradley writes:

[A] finite centre, when we speak strictly, is not itself in time. It is an immediate experience of itself and of the Universe in one. It comes to itself as all the world and not as one world among others. And it properly has no duration through which it lasts. It can contain a lapse and a before and after, but they are subordinate (Bradley 1914, 411).

According to this passage, finite centers have a feeling of the transient character of their experiences, yet this feeling is just a way of registering the internal life of a changeless metaphysical point.

At any rate, Bradley’s philosophy is a form of monism and finite centers cannot be taken to be ultimately real: reality has to be viewed as a single experience in which all the experiences of finite centers are transmuted and harmonized.

3. Whitehead’s Approximation to Bradley

At the beginning of Process and Reality Whitehead recognizes that he is “in sharp disagreement with Bradley,” but also that “the final outcome is after all not so greatly different.” With regard to the final part of the book, he even goes so far as to write: “the approximation to Bradley is evident. Indeed, if this cosmology be deemed successful, it becomes natural […] to ask whether the type of thought involved be not a transformation of some main doctrines of Absolute Idealism onto a realistic basis” (PR xiii).

In order to see why Whitehead’s evaluation of the relationship of his thought to Bradley’s metaphysics is correct, let us begin by considering the most striking differences between their philosophies. One first point of divergence (of which more will be said later on in this section in connection with the problem of relations) is the contrast between monism and pluralism. Whereas Bradley believes that reality is one, for Whitehead “the ultimate metaphysical truth is atomism” (PR 35): reality is constituted by many interrelated units, the actual occasions, held into one world by their capacity for mutual apprehension.

A second major opposition concerns the metaphysical status of time and process. Bradley holds that change and becoming are appearances that do not qualify ultimate reality. According to Whitehead, however, the denial of the reality of change by monistic philosophies generates a difficulty, which does not admit of any easy solution: “if all things can be together, why should there be process? […] How can the unchanging unity of fact generate the delusion of change?” (MT 53). Bradley’s philosophy ontologically downgrades change by regarding it as an appearance of a changeless reality but is not capable of producing any explanation of why there should be, and of how there could be, such an appearance. This objection could be generalized to other aspects of experience Bradley condemns as unreal. In particular, why should the single experience break up into many centers? This is a question Bradley could not answer: “The fact of actual fragmentariness,” he writes, “I admit we cannot explain. That experience should take place in finite centres […] is in the end inexplicable” (Bradley 1893, 200).

Whitehead’s dissatisfaction with Bradley’s metaphysics is also motivated by his treatment of the problem of evil. In order to save the claim that reality is harmonious, Bradley is forced into the unpleasant position of regarding evil as necessary for the perfection of the whole. In a pluralistic world of becoming such as that envisioned by Whitehead, on the contrary, evil can be taken at its face value. The assumption of the existence of many reals, each animated by its own conatus, that is, the impelling urge towards the realization of its own individual aim, easily explains why there should be conflict in the world. The tragic side of Whitehead’s philosophy comes to the light in Whitehead’s description of how living beings, in his terminology “living societies of occasions,” maintain themselves in existence. There is a Schopenhauerian ring to it:

[A]nother characteristic of a living society is that it requires food […] all societies require interplay with the environment; and in the case of living societies this interplay takes the form of robbery […] whether or not it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute (PR 105).

Whitehead’s terminology tends to be optimistically charged—think for example of his recurrent use of such phrases as “enjoyment,” “satisfaction,”, “advance into novelty,” “creativity”—but there is a shadowy side to his thinking that prevents him from accepting absolute idealism as the ultimate truth about the nature of what there is. In Modes of Thought, Whitehead emphasizes that “another aspect of things claims explicit recognition. It is a general character, whose special forms are termed variously disorder, evil, error. In some sense or other, things go wrong.” Only a few lines later, the point is explicitly made: “It is a temptation for philosophers that they should weave a fairy tale of the adjustment of factors; and then as an appendix introduce the notion of frustration as a secondary aspect.” And even more clearly he goes on to say that “this is the criticism to be made on the monistic idealisms of the nineteenth century, and even of the great Spinoza” (MT 50).

At a closer look it becomes clear that differences, which would seem radical and irreconcilable, really hide deeper points of convergence. Even when, against the metaphysical optimism of absolute idealism, Whitehead emphasizes the reality of death and perishing as well as of life and growth, his philosophy still contains a transcendent and reconciliatory element. This is provided by what he terms the “consequent” nature of God, the aspect of the divine nature which is responsible for preventing the moments of experience realized in the course of the becoming of the world from vanishing into nothingness. Such moments are valued within God’s consequent nature and in this way conserved forever. In a remarkable passage, Whitehead ascribes to the consequent nature of God the function of integrating into a harmonious whole all that has been realized in the history of the world. Having said that in the consequent nature of God “there is no loss, no obstruction,” he explains that God

prehends every actuality for what it can be in such a perfected system—its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy—woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one, always with novel advance, moving onward and never perishing (PR 346).

In order to see the similarity with Bradley’s absolute experience, the harmonious unification of all the experiences of all finite centers, just imagine what would happen to God’s consequent nature if per impossibile the process of the world could come to an end. At that point God’s consequent nature would be the harmonious unification of all moments of experience, held in the unity of one vision as in an eternal specious present: it would not be much different from Bradley’s Absolute.

The problem of the reality of relations provides another example of partial convergence. In Whitehead’s system, each occasion of experience relates itself to other occasions by prehending them. Whereas a prehending occasion creates itself out of its prehensions, a prehended occasion must have reached self-completion in order to be prehended. On this theory, the relation between two successive occasions is internal for the prehending occasion, external for the prehended one. In this way a conception of relation is introduced, so the advocates of Whitehead’s philosophy claim, that remains untouched by Bradley’s critique. Bradley’s arguments presuppose that a relation must be either wholly internal or wholly external, that is, internal to both terms or to neither of them. Whitehead shows that it is possible to think of relations that are internal at the one end and external at the other (for an exposition and defense of this claim, see McHenry 1992, 87-93, and Hartshorne 1948, 60-67).

Even here, however, the disagreement with Bradley is not as great as it may seem at first sight. Since an occasion creates itself out of its prehensions of previous ones, it cannot be known apart from any knowledge of its relations to such previous occasions. Each occasion is partly dependent upon the rest of reality, in such a way that an understanding of its nature requires placing it in the context of its entire past history. Whitehead’s understanding of relations also explains why the expression “atomism” may be misleading with regard to his metaphysics. On the one hand each occasion is dependent upon past occasions, for it has to rely upon them in order to construe itself. On the other hand each occasion has a degree of independence, in a double sense: first, because it does not take notice of contemporary concrescing occasions in the process of its self-constitution; secondly, because it freely decides how the prehended data will be unified. Whitehead’s occasions are therefore neither entirely self-sufficient, as in traditional atomistic theories, nor reduced to the status of aspects of a larger whole, as in Bradley’s absolute idealism.

Finally, Whitehead comes close to Bradley in his panexperientialism, i.e. the denial of actualities devoid of experience. Since Bradley’s idealism amounts to the proposition “reality is experience” and Whitehead’s actual occasions are nothing but “moments of experience,” it should be clear that both philosophers are advancing a version of metaphysical idealism. Most importantly, the identification of reality with experience is the basis of a theory of degrees of reality. According to Bradley, our experiences can be said to be more real the more they share of the harmony and inclusiveness of Absolute Reality. The doctrine of degree of perfection reappears in the philosophy of Whitehead as the idea that the synthesis realized in an actual occasion’s satisfaction might be more or less inclusive of the given world, as well as more or less internally structured: the richer and more balanced the achieved synthesis, the greater the intrinsic value and the intensity enjoyed in the occasion of experience. The greatest intensity is enjoyed by the highest Reality—the Absolute for Bradley, God’s consequent nature for Whitehead. Although it has a very old history—one just has to think of Plotinus’s theory of emanation—the idea of degrees of ontological perfection is highly problematic. What are the ethical implications of this view? Do moments of experience characterized by a greater degree of intensity have a greater right to existence than those with a lower one? And if not, why not? These important questions arise for both Bradley and Whitehead, but do not find a clear answer in their writings.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Works by Bradley

Bradley, F.H. 1876. Ethical Studies (Oxford, Oxford University Press). 2nd edition, 1927.

Bradley, F.H. 1883. The Principles of Logic (Oxford, Oxford University Press). 2nd edition 1922, corrected impression 1928, with explanatory notes and terminal essays.

Bradley, F.H. 1893. Appearance and Reality (London, Swan Sonnenschein). 2nd edition 1897, Oxford, Clarendon Press, with an appendix.

Bradley, F.H. 1914. Essays on Truth and Reality (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Bradley, F.H. 1930. Aphorisms (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Bradley, F.H. 1935. Collected Essays (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Bradley, F.H. 1999. The Collected Works of F. H. Bradley, 12 volumes, edited and introduced by W.J. Mander and Carol A. Keene (Bristol, Thoemmes Press).

Other Authors

Allard, James. 2005. The Logical Foundations of Bradley’s Metaphysics (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Basile, Pierfrancesco. 1999. Experience and Relations: An Examination of F.H. Bradley’s Conception of Reality (Bern, Haupt Verlag).

Basile, Pierfrancesco. 2002. “Process and Reality in Bradley’s Metaphysics of Experience,” Bradley Studies, 8, 83-106.

Basile, Pierfrancesco. 2003. “Self and World. The Radical Empiricism of Hume, Bradley and James,” Bradley Studies, 2003, 93-100.

Basile, Pierfrancesco. 2004. “Why did Bradley Matter to Whitehead? Some Questions Concerning Bradley’s Doctrine of Finite Centres,” Bradley Studies, 10, 1-2, 15-32.

Blanshard, Brand, 1952. “The Philosophy of Analysis,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 39-69.

Bradley, James. 1985. “The Critique of Pure Feeling: Bradley, Whitehead, and the Anglo-Saxon Metaphysical Tradition,” Process Studies, 14, 4, 253-64.

Bradley, James. 1996. “From Presence to Process: Bradley and Whitehead,” Philosophy After F. H. Bradley, edited by James Bradley (Bristol, Thoemmes Press), 147-68.

Candlish, Stewart. 1989. “The Truth about F. H. Bradley,” Mind, 98, 391, 331-48.

Ferreira, Philipp. 1999. Bradley and the Structure of Knowledge (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Ford, Lewis S. and Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt. 1977. “Whiteheadian Reflections on Subjective Immortality,” Process Studies, 7, 1, 1-13.

Gaskin, R. 1995. “Bradley’s Regress, the Copula and the Unity of the Proposition,” The Philosophical Quarterly, 45, 179, 161-80.

Hartshorne, Charles. 1948. Divine Relativity: A Social Conception of God (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Horstmann, Rolf Peter. 1984. Ontologie und Relationen. Hegel, Bradley, Russell und die Kontroverse über interne und externe Beziehungen (Koenigstein, Athenaeum).

Horstmann, Rolf Peter. 1991. “Bradley und Whitehead über Realität und Erkennen,” Materialien zu Whiteheads “Prozeß und Realität,” Vol. 2, edited by M.Hampe and H.Maaßen (Frankfurt, Meiner Verlag), 142-59.

Hylton, Peter. 1990. Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

Mander, William. 1994. An Introduction to Bradley’s Metaphysics (Oxford, Clarendon Press).

McHenry, Leemon. 1992. Whitehead and Bradley: A Comparative Analysis (Albany, State University of New York Press).

Muirhead, J. H. 1925. Contemporary British Philosophy. Personal Statements. Second Series (London, George Allen and Unwin).

Russell Bertrand. 1927. An Outline of Philosophy (London, George Allen and Unwin).

Russell Bertrand. 1944. “My Mental Development,” The Philosophy of Bertrand Russell, edited by Paul Arthur Schilpp (Evanston and Chicago, Library of Living Philosophers).

Sprigge, Timothy. 1983. The Vindication of Absolute Idealism (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press).

Sprigge, Timothy. 1993. James and Bradley. American Truth and British Reality (Chicago and LaSalle, Open Court).

Stock, Guy. 1994. “An Introduction to the Argument of Bradley’s Metaphysics,” in F. H. Bradley: Writings on Logic and Metaphysics, edited by James Allard and Guy Stock (Oxford, Clarendon Press), 103-114.

Taylor, A. E. 1925. “F. H. Bradley,” Mind, 34, 133, 1-12.

Vallicella, Villiam. 2002. “Relations, Monism and the Vindication of Bradley’s Regress,” Dialectica, 56, 1, 3-35.

Wollheim, Richard. 1969. Francis Herbert Bradley (Harmondsworth, Penguin).

Author Information

Pierfrancesco Basile
Institut für Philosophie
Universität Bern, Länggassstrasse, 3000 Bern 9

How to Cite this Article

Basile, Pierfrancesco, “Francis Herbert Bradley (1846–1924)”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.