Book of the Week: Francis Bradley’s ‘Appearance and Reality’

Last week I put a bibliography up on the blog listing books and authors that I have found useful in my studies. These have been mostly concerned with making sense of mysticism in psychology, physics and metaphysics. I love books and collect them, and some of those listed are real gems. One that is often overlooked is Francis Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893).

Bradley became a fellow of Merton College, Oxford in 1870 and lived and worked there until his death in 1924. He was a leading light of the British Idealists, making him a popular target for the criticism of A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell.

Appearance and Reality is a deconstruction of the categories of thought. Bradley shows how the distinctions we make in order to organise and classify our thoughts and perceptions are unreal and can be reduced to sameness. His book is therefore a discursive proof of what Buddhism calls ‘emptiness’. It is a deliberately and strictly metaphysical essay and so does not venture an interpretation of his logical results, which would have required that he leave metaphysics behind for a discussion of mysticism, other than to stress his conclusion, which is that by reduction the universe is an undifferentiated unity.

What makes it interesting for anyone trying to bridge the gap between the post-enlightenment western philosophical mind-set and the worldview of the mystery religions is its strict focus on logic and analysis. It is an argument for the doctrine of advaita Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and so forth, and yet mentions none of them. The reader is left free to draw their own conclusions from the arguments presented. These arguments are abductive; they falsify all ideas of distinction and plurality but do not investigate the philosophical position that is forced on us once we do this.

Appearance and Reality is therefore a more modern and less formal restatement of the arguments made in the second century by the Buddhist sage Nagarjuna in his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, and uses the same method of proof by abduction. It seems unlikely that Bradley knew Nagarjuna’s text, but clearly they were on the same philosophical wavelength.

It may not be easy to get hold of a copy. When I went looking it was out of print and copies were going for about £80 on ebay. My wonderful local s/h bookshop eventually tracked down a copy (disinterred from the basement of a public library in Aberystwyth, North Wales) for £20, but this was very lucky.

Chapter headings cover everything from qualities and relations to motion and change, causality to space-time, the self and the will to the meaning of good and evil. It stands head and shoulders above the work of his critics in my opinion. In part it is an demonstrative argument for the importance and effectiveness of metaphysics. Here are a couple of extracts from the Introduction, for a flavour of his style and approach.

I certainly do not suppose that it would be good for everyone to study metaphysics, and I cannot express any opinion as to the number of persons who should do so. But I think it quite necessary, even on the view that this study can produce no positive results, that it should still be pursued. There is, so far as I can see, no other certain way of protecting ourselves against dogmatic superstition. Our orthodox theology on the one side, and our common-place materialism on the other side (it is natural to take these as prominent instances), vanish like ghosts before the daylight of free sceptical enquiry. I do not mean, of course, to condemn wholly either of these beliefs; but I am sure that either, when taken seriously, is the mutilation of our nature. Neither, as experience has amply shown, can now survive in the mind which has thought sincerely on first principles; and it seems desirable that there should be such a refuge for the man who burns to think consistently, and yet is too good to become a slave, either to stupid fanaticism or dishonest sophistry…

. . . I have been obliged to speak of philosophy as a satisfaction of what may be called the mystical side of our nature – a satisfaction which, by certain persons, cannot be as well procured otherwise. 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. Such a doctrine would rest on the most deplorable error, the 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. Certainly the life of one man, in comparison with that of another, may be fuller of the Divine, or, again, may realise it with an intenser consciousness; but there is no calling or pursuit which is a private road to the Deity. And assuredly the way through speculation upon ultimate truths, though distinct and legitimate, is not superior to others. There is no sin, however prone to it the philosopher may be, which philosophy can justify so little as spiritual pride.

Francis H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, (Swan Sonnenschein & Co London, 1893/ OUP, 1951)

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2 Responses to Book of the Week: Francis Bradley’s ‘Appearance and Reality’

  1. Fortunately, this book is old, so it’s in the Public and can be had for free online. There are a few links to it. Here’s one:

  2. guymax says:

    Ah. Thanks. Not a book I’d want to read off the screen but it’s a cheap option. I see it’s in paperback on Amazon at a reasonable price.

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