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British IdealismA History$

W. J. Mander

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199559299

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199559299.001.0001

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The Metaphysics of the Absolute

The Metaphysics of the Absolute

(p.88) 4 The Metaphysics of the Absolute
British Idealism

W. J. Mander (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

One of the most characteristic marks of British Idealist philosophy is the centrality it accords to issues of metaphysics. After brief consideration of their general understanding of metaphysics, attention is given in this chapter to the distinctive metaphysical worldview—the philosophy of the Absolute—held by the majority of them and with which the school became virtually synonymous. The Absolute Idealisms of Green, Bradley, and Edward Caird are examined in detail both individually and comparatively. The chapter concludes with brief consideration of some of the other philosophers who followed them in this broad metaphysical scheme.

Keywords:   metaphysics, Green, Bradley, Edward Caird, the Absolute, Idealism, relations, the eternal consciousness

One of the most characteristic marks of British Idealist philosophy is the centrality it accords to issues of metaphysics. Unlike modern philosophers, who tend to suppose that their questions are best tackled on the level at which they arise without dragging in first principles, to the Idealists, the general nature of being so shapes everything that, probed with any seriousness, nearly all concerns resolve rapidly into metaphysical ones. It will already have been noted that it was metaphysics which interested them most in the history of philosophy, but the understanding was one to be applied generally. As they saw it, there could be no study of religion, the science of infinite or perfect being, without first considering being itself; while moral philosophy, the science of what ought to be, could hardly be pursued without understanding the relation between the ideal and the actual as well as the nature of moral agency; and it would be just absurd to investigate logic, the art of truthful thinking, without first understanding the relations that obtain between thought, reality, and mind.1 Metaphysics was simply unavoidable—the sceptic who denied its possibility was, as Bradley put it, a ‘brother metaphysician’2—and so the only question was whether it was entered upon clearly and self-consciously, or blindly and uncritically.

Metaphysics, as they viewed it, was not something to be approached cautiously or descriptively, but ‘speculatively’, with a bold and constructive attitude. If the name of ‘metaphysics’ has recovered somewhat from the opprobrium it suffered in the mid-twentieth century, it is still not done in this audacious spirit, and it is perhaps this difference in tone as much as anything else that distances the Idealists from modern philosophers. That it was idealists who felt emboldened to think in this way is, of course, no coincidence; for it was their idealism which told them, first, that reality (p.89) differs from appearance—no allegiance to common-sense or to ordinary language will reveal that truth which is other than it seems—and which assured them, second, that the universe is a fundamentally rational place. Mind and reality are in harmony, and so there is good ground to think that metaphysical speculation, rather than a kind of forlorn guesswork, might well be something with the power to hit, or at least advance us further towards, the target.

The British Idealists were not only distinctive in their view of the nature and significance of metaphysics, for the majority of them held also to a distinctive metaphysical world-view—the philosophy of the Absolute—with which the school became virtually synonymous. This chapter examines that system through the metaphysics of Green, Bradley, and Caird, noting the differences as well as the broad level of agreement between them. The order of treatment is chronological and therefore begins with Green.

4.1 T.H. Green

The range of differing readings it has met with testifies to the difficulties of finding a clear and unambiguous interpretation of Green's metaphysical system, but in its broadest outlines at least it is easy enough to grasp, and such a plan is useful to have in mind before focusing in on the details of the argument. For Green, reality is constituted by relations; the world is a single and eternal system of related elements. But relations are the work of the mind. So, Green infers, reality too must be something essentially mind-dependent. But, he continues, quite clearly none of us individually generate the world—there is more to it, for one thing, than simply whatever we are acquainted with—so our knowledge is best taken as but one moment in the wider experience of an all-encompassing eternal consciousness whose experience does make up the whole of reality.

4.1.1 Relations as the criterion of reality

That the fullest statement of Green's metaphysics is to be found in Book One of his Prolegomena to Ethics (1883), illustrates clearly the point made above about the centrality of metaphysics to British Idealist thinking. As he saw it, there could be no advance in moral philosophy without first getting straight on metaphysics. The discussion originally appeared in three articles in Mind 1882, which themselves drew on professorial lectures of 1880, but it is also a continuation of his 1878 discussion of Lewes, for the question with which Green opens the Prolegomena is precisely the one he had raised there, namely, whether there can be a natural science of man?3 Can the methodology we employ in studying things be transferred across to the consideration of conscious agents? Are we who know and act on the world to be considered just one more element (p.90) in it? From one point of view the question seems foolish; for does there not already exist a science—empirical psychology—devoted to just this endeavour?

But Green is not so easily dealt with, for his question is whether when we treat thought or action this way, as natural events like any other, we are able to capture their proper nature as thought and action? Are the elements of empirical psychology that claim these titles—brain states, bodily movements, causal sequences, etc.—able to make good their claim to be the very things we experience as our own conscious life and deeds?

Green answers his own question negatively. Our knowledge of the things and processes of nature cannot result solely from those things and processes, for we experience them only ever as related together into one conscious whole; a unity which they themselves cannot explain, since ‘as experienced’ they are its product (and whatever it may be that makes matter in motion knowable cannot itself be the matter in motion known as its result) while ‘in themselves’ they are unknown (and nothing can be explained by the unknown). Our experience of nature must involve some further agency, presumably on our own part.4 But is it then, we might worry, the experience of anything real or objective, for we tend to regard as ‘real’ only what is ‘given’ to us? In order to address this concern, says Green, we must ask ourselves what we mean when we say that something is real? Or, for that matter, unreal? Much is dismissed as unreal. Dreams, visions, stories, misperceptions, as well as (by their critics) unwelcome categories—such as phlogiston, causation, matter or ‘the Absolute’—have all at one time or other, by some person or other, been denied their place in the ranks of fundamental or objective reality. But what does this mean?

To ask whether something is real or not is a potentially rather misleading thing to do, notes Green, in so far as it suggests perhaps that there is something else from which the real might be distinguished; the class (as it were) of unreal things. For of course there is no such class.5 The object of some wholly false experience, such as a dream or an hallucination, presents itself to us as undeniably as does that of the most clearly veridical experience. To call something unreal is rather, suggests Green, to say that it does not ‘fit’ in with, that it does not bear the appropriate relations to, those other things already deemed to be ‘real’. There is no room for such items in the world because they cannot, except on the most absurd and extravagant hypotheses, be reconciled with what we understand about everything else; they lack the permanence, stability, inter-subjective availability, or causal efficacy of what we paradigmatically consider to be objective or real. The contrast between real and unreal is not, as we sometimes and unreflectively suppose, the difference between what exists and what does not, but more properly the contrast between the permanent or unalterable order of things and their temporary or changeable order. Thus reality, for Green, is to be defined as ‘a single and unalterable system of relations’.6 A things is real precisely in so far as it can be fitted into the one (p.91) enduring systematic relational matrix—the more numerous, stable and fundamental its relations to everything else, the greater its claim to the title—and reality extends just as far as does that integrated and permanent complex of relations. Relationality then is the very foundation of reality. Without relations there would be no reality at all.7

This is a most significant definition. We usually suppose whatever is ‘real’ to be ‘out there’, and anything ‘in here’ to be ‘unreal’, that is, once something is recognized as being our own contribution to experience we tend, in virtue of that fact alone, to discount it. But, as Green notes, one important corollary of the definition he offers is that this attitude is justifiable only where that contribution is transient or otherwise irreconcilable with its context. Where our own constructions are equally (or more) stable than any external reality, they must be held to be equally (or more) real. The door is opened for idealism. Says Green, ‘it is not the work of the mind, as such, that we instinctively oppose to the real, but the work of the mind as assumed to be arbitrary and irregularly changeable’.8 A thing is called unreal because of its current relation to everything else, not in virtue of its historical or metaphysical origins.

The criterion of reality, then, is that of system which, understood as maximum possible extent, structure, and coherence of belief, must be to us but a goal of our thinking, not anything we currently possess. In contrast to such an ‘ideal science’, our own consciousness, partial and intermittent as it is, may be deemed ‘merely ours’ or ‘subjective’. But if we think like this, we must bear in mind that the ‘objective world’ is not some sort of opposite or contrast to that which we know in our own consciousness, but rather its ideal completion.9

4.1.2 The mental nature of relations

If Green champions the reality of relations, he none the less finds them thoroughly mind-dependent, products of intellectual activity. While all reality lies in relations, ‘it is not that first there are relations and then they are conceived,’ he says, rather, ‘Every relation is constituted by an act of conception’.10 Relations are, as he elsewhere likes to express it, ‘the work of the mind’. It is from this thesis that Green's idealism springs, for clearly if reality consists in relations, and those relations are judged ideal or mental, then reality as a whole must share the same fate. Nature properly understood, in order to be what it is, implies a principle which is not natural but spiritual,11 he says. It is only through mind that there exist the relations which go to make up reality.

But why does Green think that relations are the work of the mind? Even Kant had only argued that some relations were ideal (such as those of space and time or causation), (p.92) not that they all were. Curiously enough, one of Green's major sources here seems to have been Locke. For the question of the reality of relations had been centre stage in British philosophy ever since Locke had argued that, unlike most other things of which we form ideas, relations are ‘not contained in the real existence of Things, but something extraneous and superinduced.’12 Locke's idea was that when we see, say, a low bush and a tall tree we have seen all we need to know that the bush is shorter than the tree. There are two objects, each with its own height, but no ‘shorter than’ which we must also perceive. ‘Shorter than’ just records our mental act of comparison, and has no independent being outside of that act.

Had relations some form of existence independent of the mind, the notion that we might perceive them ought, at least, to make sense. But not only do we not perceive relations, thinks Green, they are just not the sort of thing we really could perceive.13 Our awareness of relations is something quite inexplicable in empirical terms, and hence it could only spring from the original work of mind, as something that we add to our own experience. The problem, as Green sees it, is that no mere series of perceptions could ever explain our consciousness of the series perceived, and thus that there can be no (Humean) impression from which we might derive the idea of a relation. For consciousness of events as related is not at all the same thing as a series of related events of consciousness.14 As he says, ‘Of two successive feelings, one over before the next begins, neither can be consciousness of time as a relation between the two.’15 Even if the relation in question be one of succession, it will be no help for our ideas to succeed one another. ‘In order to constitute the relation they must be present together’16 he says. Yet that is impossible.17 One of the key lessons Green drew from his long study of the empiricism of Locke, Berkeley, and Hume was precisely its inability to deal with relations; atomic in both metaphysics and epistemology, ultimately it leaves us with nothing but an aggregate of unrelated particulars. For the merely receptive consciousness of the empiricist, he urges, there are no relations between feelings, merely a series (p.93) of feelings. Conceived as an element of independent reality a relation is something that we could simply never come to know.

Though undoubtedly real, for Green, relations are something of a enigma, even an impossibility. Just how is it that two things get to stand in relation to one another?

Relation is to us such a familiar fact that we are apt to forget that it involves all the mystery, if it be a mystery, of the existence of many in one…a plurality of things cannot of themselves unite in one relation, nor can a single thing of itself bring itself into a multitude of relations.…There must, then, be something other than the manifold things themselves, which combines them without effacing their severalty…if it were not for the action of something which is not either of them or both together, there would be no alternative between their separateness and their fusion…we must recognise as the condition of this reality the action of some unifying principle analogous to that of our understanding.'18

What is Green trying to say here? A relational whole combines unity and diversity–though containing several components, it is yet one whole–but this is something strange that needs further explanation, for a single thing cannot on its own become many, nor many things become one. There must be something else that helps the relational structure to achieve this result, and the only thing which we know that is able to do this is mind. Our own minds, holding as they do, many ideas in one thought and many thoughts in one conscious experience, are examples of precisely such unity in diversity, claims Green. In consequence, he concludes, we need to recognize as the underlying condition that makes nature itself possible, the ground of its relationality, something analogous to our own mind.

Relations may be the work of the mind. But since quite clearly it is not yours, or mine, or any other finite mind that underlies the relations that constitute nature, Green postulates a higher experience to undertake the task—which, sharing in the unalterable character of the relations it grounds, he calls the ‘Eternal Consciousness’.19

‘Objective nature’ must indeed be something else than ourselves and our states of consciousness as we are apt to understand these…but it does not follow that it is other than our states of consciousness in their full reality, i.e. in the fullness of those relations which presuppose relation to an eternal subject. I do not ‘make nature’ in the sense that nature = a succession of states of consciousness, beginning with my birth and ending with my death. If so, the ‘objectivity’ of nature would doubtless disappear; there would be as many ‘natures’ as men. But only by a false abstraction do we talk of such a succession of states. Their reality lies in eternal relations; relations which are there before what I call my ‘birth,’ and after my ‘death,’ if ‘before’ and ‘after’ had any proper application to them.20

(p.94) As the underlying ground of all reality, including finite experiences such as our own, Green's eternal consciousness is clearly a relative of Hegel's Absolute, the world-mind which manifests itself through everything. However the argument by which he gets there, with its emphasis on the self that creates the relations that structure and make possible the experience of reality, is even more closely related to Kant's argument from the unity of apperception in his Transcendental Deduction. Green certainly saw it that way, as did many of his contemporaries. However, the two arguments are not exactly the same. While, both Green and Kant argue that experience is not a chaotic manifold, deriving its order and relation from an enduring transcendental subject, for Green there is no pre-existing manifold upon which it works its magic organizing power; mind is the author of terms as well as relations.

4.1.3 Objections to the eternal consciousness

Green's doctrine of the eternal consciousness was extremely influential. Post-Idealist thinking, however, has not been kind to it, and it has long been regarded as the Achilles' heel of his system; the arguments for it dismissed as weak, and its claims rejected as incoherent or inconsistent—either with each other or with the world at large they seek to account for.21 Such opprobrium might seem to make baffling its previous success, and so to dispel the suggestion that our philosophical predecessors were just stupid—unable to spot a poor argument when they saw one—as well as to put a little more flesh on the bones of Green's case, it will be useful to rehearse some of the more frequent objections and their proper responses. Failure to clearly explain

The first and most fundamental problem which faces anyone trying to weigh up Green's doctrine of the eternal consciousness is simply that of finding any account of his meaning sufficiently clear and detailed to assess. For while the eternal consciousness is a creature which lurks continually in the background of all of his writings, only very rarely is it tempted out into the light.

This scarcity of detailed treatment is due in part to the fact that Green's principal interests lie elsewhere. He never wrote a purely metaphysical treatise, and the doctrine of the eternal consciousness as it occurs in the Prolegomena is really something of a staging post to further destinations; principally a theory of human willing and the subsequent development of an ethical doctrine based on a notion of the common good. It is not something argued, or significantly developed, for its own sake. Rather than stay to explore in more detail what he has uncovered, once the basic principle is established, Green moves smartly on to his next task.

If part of the difficulty stems from what Green has failed to say, what he has said is no less problematic, for Green has a marked tendency to express himself in vague, abstract, and idiomatic terms. As quoted above, his main statement of his conclusion is that we (p.95) are required to posit the existence of ‘some unifying principle analogous to that of our understanding’, and this style of speaking continues throughout. The doctrine he tells us is that of ‘a self-originating “mind” in the universe’, simultaneously ‘an end gradually realising itself’ in the world and the ‘condition’ of that world being what it is. This mind, of which finite mind is but a ‘limited mode’ and to which all things are ‘relative’, ‘constitutes’ the world as a whole through being the ‘medium or sustainer’ of relations (which are themselves the ‘work of the mind’).22 None of these expressions carry their meaning on their face, yet none are really explained. The case seems made out by metaphor as much as by argument. We find ourselves much in sympathy with William James who lamented, ‘it is hard to tell just what this apostolic being but strenuously feeble writer means.’23

But before we join James and condemn Green for a failing indicative at best of poor writing style and at worst of poor thinking, we must consider the rejoinder that, far from being a defect, the way in which Green expresses himself is a mark of the thoroughgoing consistency of his thinking.24 The general Kantianism which he adopts throws up a problem which is by no means lost on Green. For according to this scheme the eternal consciousness is understood as that which supplies the categories by which we unify and structure our experience, as that which makes it possible. But these concepts and structures apply only within experience and cannot legitimately be used outside or beyond it, not even to express the conditions which make possible that experience itself. As Green puts it, ‘In speaking of this principle we can only use the terms we have got; and these, being all strictly appropriate to the relations, or objects determined by the relations, which this principle renders possible but under which it does not subsist, are strictly inappropriate to it.’25 What makes thought possible cannot itself be thought.

Can we, then, say nothing about ultimate reality? Kant, who was at heart a metaphysical realist, could perhaps embrace this result, but the idea of a reality existing beyond the reach of our concepts is not something with which Green can sit contentedly. He wholly rejects the ‘thing-in-itself’.26 The role of philosophy is not to try to guess about what might or might not lie behind experience, but simply to analyse what falls within it.27 Green's own solution to the puzzle is to argue that the eternal consciousness is something immanent in finite life and thought. It is not something wholly beyond or different from us, rather it is something larger or wider than us. The (p.96) difficulty we experience in coming to know it is not that of one thing trying to apprehend another quite separate thing, but that of a part trying to grasp the greater whole to which it belongs. Rather than something too far away for us to see, the eternal consciousness is more like something too large for us to take in. The significant point here is that it is the eternal consciousness which makes us; we are its manifestations and only in virtue of its action are we self-conscious. To that extent we are acquainted with it, for we are acquainted with ourselves. But the acquaintance is only as we know it, with all the limitations of a partial view, not as it knows itself, in the complete totality of its being. This gives us a grasp of ultimate reality, but a limited one only. It makes talk about the eternal consciousness possible, but only of the thinnest and most metaphorical kind. If, in speaking about the eternal consciousness, Green says, we employ language which calls upon those categories and relations which only exist because of the eternal consciousness, ‘it must only be on a clear understanding of its metaphorical character.’28 Metaphor may point to what in literal terms could never be expressed. In this way it is seen that Green's (admittedly frustrating) mode of presentation, far from hindering understanding is, in truth, the only one that makes it at all possible. Eternity

The first of the two principal things which Green does tell us about his great unifying principle is, of course, that it is eternal. But in what sense did Green think the eternal consciousness was eternal? The great stress which he places on the unalterability of the relations which it grounds and which make up the real world might seem to suggest that its eternity is more properly a matter of permanence than atemporal existence.29 However, it is clear enough from the texts that what Green meant was complete timelessness. Indeed no other interpretation can make sense of his key argument that a sequence of conscious events can never deliver consciousness of a sequence of events, for in effect what this amounts to is the claim that atomistic experience of succession is impossible. To experience the passing of time the successive states need to be brought together in one consciousness; past, present, and future held together in one experience itself falling outside of them altogether.30

The eternity of Green's unifying principle is one of the greatest obstacles to coherent understanding of it. The problem has two sides. First of all the very notion of timeless existence is hard to grasp for beings which are through and through temporal. If all of our experience is in time, the same would seem to be true for all of the things which we (p.97) experience, which can make us doubt if it is ever legitimate to abstract off this condition as something inessential to existence itself. But perhaps the notion of timeless existence finds some small purchase when we think about abstract principles or mathematical objects, which seem not to exist in time.

The second aspect of the problem centres on the difficulty of relating any such timeless entity to the temporal world which we know. It is one thing to posit an ontologically separate realm of timeless being, but quite another to conceive how it stands to being in time. This second aspect of the problem becomes particularly acute with Green, for he understands the eternal consciousness as pre-eminently something which expresses itself over time through the life of the individual and the community. It is the ‘essential influence’ explaining, and the ‘operative’ force behind, a real history of human intellectual and moral progress.31 But how can that which is eternal and changeless manifest itself in that which is essentially temporal and progressive?32

It may be argued, however, that there is a path through this most difficult of puzzles. Part of the way forwards is to realize that we have here, not one, but three different problems. First of all we can ask how, if reality is timeless, it can express itself in time? Would it not thereby automatically cease to be timeless? The key to solving this part of the mystery is to distinguish between being temporal or having a temporal character, and being in time or taking time. Something may easily contain time or express itself in time, without itself actually enduring through time. For example, if we take the whole history of the universe then it is not itself in time, in the same way that space itself, as a whole, is not anywhere in space. And we can find other parallels. There are, for example, certain states or conditions which hold changelessly through time but can be expressed only through changing events. Laws of nature explain and exist through the events that obey them but the laws of nature do not themselves take place. The case is similar with certain emotional and cognitive states. You cannot love someone without doing things for them, or believe something without it impacting on at least some of your actions, but the love or belief itself does not take time; it is simply expressed through or ‘strung out over’ a series of such temporal acts.

The second aspect of the problem is harder. In calling reality timeless, we seem to regard it as something complete or finished. Though perhaps ‘strung out’ across time in the manner just explained, from the timeless point of view it seems to be something whole and concluded, something which can be grasped fully in one eternal moment. Yet this character of its being seems to place it deeply at odds with the nature of time. For the very essence of time seems to be its incompleteness, its never-ending-ness, its perpetual on-going-ness. To be temporal is to be unfinished. It is to be a ‘work in progress’. Thus understood, these two ways of viewing reality seem so opposed that it is hard to grasp how they could ever come together.

(p.98) Green himself is very sensitive to this dichotomy. Though it is ‘an eternally complete consciousness’, he is clear that his principle's expression in time is ‘at once progressive and incapable of completion’.33 To help elucidate this difficult relationship between the already complete and the ‘work in progress’, he offers us the example of reading a sentence; although we are conscious all the time that it has a meaning as a whole, only gradually or sequentially do we come to know what that meaning is. The two experiences co-exist.34 But despite Green's illustration the tension remains throughout the Prolegomena. It is clearly visible, for example, among the three principal metaphors which he uses to characterize the relation between the eternal consciousness and the individual: reproduction, participation, and realization.35 If ‘realization’ makes the eternal consciousness look future, something being gradually created, the other two metaphors—‘reproduction’ and ‘participation’—make it look actual, something that is already achieved.

How then are we to reconcile the completeness of the eternal consciousness with the endlessness of human advance in time? Green's response to this problem is essentially Kantian in spirit. Like Kant who insisted that the Antinomies tell us nothing about reality in itself, Green holds that time is a form we bring to experience, and its essential unendingness a function of the structure which we have added, not of anything we may be attempting to express through it. That the infinite openness of time is just indefinite repetition or ‘addibility’ and quite different from the completed yet infinite eternity properly ascribable to God is a point Green makes quite clear in his criticism of Locke's unsuccessful attempt to move from the former to the latter idea.36 At its root the contrast which is being alluded to here is, of course, the age-old dichotomy between a mathematical and a metaphysical conception of the infinite.

The third aspect of the problem about eternity and time is close to the second but not quite the same. It consists in the following worry. Does not the ‘complete’ or ‘finished’ nature of reality somehow rule out any genuine novelty, creation, or freedom? For part of what we understand in thinking of ourselves as existing in time is conceiving ourselves as having an open future. What we are and have been is fixed (p.99) but what we may yet be is still undecided. However, if one is simply unpacking what is ‘there already’—even if that process were endless—everything seems ‘already settled’. If the Absolute is complete, it cannot at the same time be open-futured. There seems no room for any freedom or creativity. This argument is as straightforward as it is hard to resist.

However to see this as a problem for Green betrays a misunderstanding of his conception of freedom. Green's reason for writing Book I of the Prolegomena, his reason for enquiring if there can be a natural science of man, was to secure a place for human freedom, yet there is nothing in Green's notion of freedom which requires novelty.37 Freedom consists, not in showing that certain actions are spontaneous or ungenerated rather than the result of causal law, but in finding a class of actions calling for explanation rationally or telelogically, rather than with reference to prior states, be that their presence or absence.38 Nothing about teleology requires an open or undetermined future. Indeed it might even be suggested that the very opposite holds, for how can something be explained by its goal unless that goal is in some sense already real? Are relations the work of the mind?

For Green, sense acquaints us with individuals but relations, the conceptual structures of experience, are work of the mind. However, this claim might be challenged. Why not say that relations too are simply experienced like everything else? An atomistic empiricism, such as that of Locke, Berkeley, or Hume, where all we are given is simple sensations, might well render relations the work of the mind, but why accept such an empiricism? Why not attempt a non-atomic empiricism, an empiricism where what is given in experience are relational wholes? Thus it has been objected that all Green has offered us here is an argument against an outdated and defunct psychology of atomic and unrelated sensations, and that were we to adopt some more holistic analysis of experience, then the entire argument would collapse.39

But the impossibility of such an answer stems from the very nature of empirical perception. Perception on any naturalistic account is simply a causal relation in which some mind is the passive recipient of an outside agency. But all causal transactions are between individual events; poisoning in general does not cause death in general, rather this specific poisoning causes this specific death. Whatever such perception acquainted us with would from that very fact be something particular. Relations are universals, however, (p.100) and thus if the mind is to know universals it must be through a quite different agency, thought. What are their terms?

Even conceding to Green that relation or synthesis is properly the work of mind, there remain further difficulties with his conception of relations. A particularly tricky problem emerges if we ask ourselves the apparently simple question: what is it that these reality-constituting relations relate? The answer to be found in his text is what Green variously calls feelings, sensations, or experiences.40 But if mind is understood in terms of its relating or synthesizing activity, this is to bring in something irreducibly other than mind—whatever it is the mental relations bind together—introducing into the eternal consciousness system a kind of dualism wholly contrary to its professed idealistic character.41 On the other hand, rigorously to exclude any such apparently non-mental element from the scheme, as his idealism appears to require, would seem to leave him with the absurdity of relations lacking any terms.42 Either way he appears to be in trouble.

Green himself was sensitive to this challenge and goes to considerable effort to avoid it.43 The main point of his reply is that, while we may characterize the difference between relations and the sensations they connect as one between the ‘form’ and the ‘matter’ of our experience, it is vital to recognize that this is only a logical or conceptual distinction, one we make in our intellect but which does not correspond to any similar division in reality itself. He insists again and again that there is, ultimately, neither pure feeling nor pure thought. ‘It is as impossible to divide knowledge into elements, one contributed by feeling, the other by thought, as to analyse the life of an animal into so much resulting from the action of the lungs, so much from the action of the heart’.44 Their only reality is as a pair of reciprocal abstractions we make from a more primitive whole. They emerge together, and their very meaning comes from opposition to each other. Together, as it were, they make up a picture, but neither is really capable of being considered in its own right for, says Green, ‘it must not be supposed that the manifold has a nature of its own apart from the unifying principle, or this principle another nature of its own apart from what it does in relation to the manifold world.’45 (p.101) It is his sense that neither is really possible on its own that lies behind Green's opposition to Kant's distinction between intuition and conception, which can easily be read as putting forward two independent sources which together combine to make up experience.

Yet this response is itself deeply puzzling, for it seems to cut right across Green's original argument for idealism. That argument used the pervasiveness of relations to argue for the ideality of all existence. But, as Hylton has argued, if thought is just one side of a distinction abstracted from experience, it cannot then constitute the whole of experience. For how can one half of an opposition drawn within the world then be used to ground the whole of that same world?46 It is unclear that Green has an answer to this question, but Edward Caird's response to a very similar one will be considered below, and Green would likely have been in accord with that.47 The external world?

The suggestion of a contrast between our reality—the reality we know—and reality itself—reality as a whole—brings to the fore another serious problem which has often been raised against Green's argument for idealism. Reality only exists for mind. But it does not simply exist for my mind; things do not simply come into being as and in virtue of, my knowing them. They are there already.48 Hence, concludes Green, there must be a wider mind in which they exist all the time. Yet this argument simply invites the challenge: how do we know that nature covers more than just what we know? We all happily assume this, but by what right?

To see this as a problem for Green represents a fundamental misunderstanding of his whole approach. It raises the classical problem of scepticism about the external world, but Green was never really troubled by such subjective scepticism; his position was never that of the ego-centric inquirer beset by fears that reality, or at least knowledge, may stretch no further than his own awareness. Like Kant, whom he follows, he simply assumes that knowledge is possible and proceeds to analyse its nature and conditions. But whether or not we think he was justified in this attitude, the point tells us something of immense importance regarding the nature of his overall argument. Perhaps because he termed it the ‘metaphysics of knowledge’, at least some of Green's contemporaries interpreted his argument as epistemological and his idealism as subjective in the manner of Berkeley.49 Yet this is wholly incorrect. Indeed, at the end of his review of John Caird's Introduction to Philosophy of Religion he takes issue with precisely such arguments for idealism. He criticizes the move from the epistemological anti-realism of reality-is-only-conceivable-by-thought to the ontological idealism of reality-only-exists-for-thought, arguing instead that in developing the case for idealism it is better directly to address the question of reality; to examine the very nature of what it (p.102) is to be real and show that this involves ideas.50 Such an idealism we might denote ‘conceptual’ as opposed to epistemological. What Green is offering us is an analysis of the concept of ‘reality’ and, whatever may be said about our knowledge of reality, our conception of reality is not one of something fenced in by our current awareness of it. Causation

If the eternal consciousness is hard to understand in its own right, it becomes even harder when we consider its relation to the finite world at large. As ever, Green offers us a number of different metaphors and phrases. The eternal consciousness ‘renders’ the relations of the world, nature ‘results from’ or ‘exists through’ its action, it ‘constitutes’ the world, understanding ‘makes’ nature, which is its ‘product’.51 But even at this level of metaphorical vagueness a problem emerges. For perhaps the most obvious thing about these expressions is that they are all causal terms. Yet causal talk in this context seems very problematic.

The problem is not hard to see. Indeed the three general difficulties considered above about language, time and consciousness each contribute to the obstacle. First, if causation is a relation and, as such, the work of the mind, we cannot speak of it as applying to ultimate reality or between ultimate reality and experience. The restriction is a Kantian one, although we should note that Kant, like Green, had a similarly unfortunate habit of speaking as though noumena somehow caused our experiences. The second problem concerns time. How can the eternal consciousness have a causal role, if causation is temporal, and it, as we have seen, is timeless? In the third place, Green's conception of the self as a Kantian unity of apperception makes it hard to find any distinction in this case between cause and effect. Although in some form it makes sense to distinguish between the agent or unifying principle and the manifold it unifies, from another point of view they are the same—the world has no character but that given to it by the unifying action of the agent, while the agent has no character but that which comes from its unifying action. If causation at all, it is an immanent self-causation for, as Green puts, ‘there is no separate particularity in the agent, on the one side, and the determined world as a whole, on the other’ but rather ‘an indivisible whole which results from the activity of a single principle’ Yet how can there be causation where there is no difference between cause and effect?52

Green is fully aware of these problems. Indeed he himself gives the example of ‘cause’ as a term which strictly speaking does not apply to ultimate reality but calls instead for metaphorical understanding.53 What prevents this term from losing all meaning or appropriateness, he suggests, is the understanding we have of our own action in knowing the world. For, just as we make possible our own experience by (p.103) rationally structuring and conceptualizing it, so the eternal consciousness makes the world by thinking it through an eternal system of relations.54

But even this picture is liable to misunderstanding. On hearing that relations are the work of the mind, the picture most naturally conjured up is of three elements: the terms to be related, the relations and the mind which creates them. However, with respect to Green's thinking this picture is misleading; for there is no self ‘behind’ the relations. Green operates with a conception of mind as a ‘unifying principle’—indeed, this is a term he very often prefers to use instead.55 Unification is not simply what consciousness does, it is what it consists in. Mind is thoroughly immanent in experience, it is not some agent behind the experience which has it and in consequence unifies it, but the very unity of the experience itself. This conception of mind or consciousness as merely a ‘unifying principle’ is a conception adopted by many of the British Idealists, and represents their understanding of what Kant meant by the transcendental unity of apperception.56

It might be charged that this is simply to explain the obscure by the even more obscure, but that would be unfair for, even if not a complete and fully luminous explanation, the comparison is nonetheless useful. Even if we cannot explain it, the relationship we have to our own thinking is something experienced by all. And it seems hard to deny that we are the authors of our thoughts; they do not simply come to us, rather they are our responsibility. In this sense the relationship is, or is like, causation. Yet our own causality in thought seems hardly to be of the same kind as that which we encounter within experience; we are not exactly the efficient causes of our thoughts. There is no prior act which we can find on the part of the agent which brings about the thought. Indeed we do not even seem clearly to be anything separate from our thoughts. Nor is it obvious that we stand temporally to our thoughts as more usual causes stand to their effects. Is a thought caused gradually as it is articulated in the mind, or must it be present in its entirety before we begin to express it? (Could one start a sentence without knowing how it is to finish?) To be sure, Green does not fully explain thought, but he points to a relation as undeniable in experience as it is creative in nature which is able to function as an effective metaphor for his meaning.

More understanding of the peculiar relation between eternal consciousness and the real world is had when we see that the former brings about the latter not just as its ‘efficient cause’ but equally as its ‘final cause’. Green calls the eternal consciousness ‘an (p.104) end gradually realising itself’, an already complete consciousness ‘itself operative in the progress towards its attainment’.57 In his moral philosophy it becomes the true good or summum bonum at which moral nature and human history aim. In other words, the world's development is not simply pushed from behind, but somehow drawn on from in front—it has a destiny or vocation to fulfil. The issue is complicated by the fact that due to the ‘unending’ nature of temporal progress the goal of the process of development cannot be identified with any actual temporal state, only an eternal ideal. This teleological component in Green (which draws our attention to the fact that he is often as indebted to Aristotle as he is to Kant or Hegel) is as uncomfortable to modern philosophers as it is central to his system, but it must be acknowledged that this is an element not simply in the metaphysics of the eternal consciousness but in his ethical and political thought as a whole, and it cannot easily be accepted in one place but rejected in another.

4.2 F.H. Bradley

Green's absolute idealist metaphysics was immensely influential, but it was not an isolated creation. Less than ten years later there appeared another system, destined perhaps even more to epitomize the metaphysics of the Absolute. This was the doctrine of Bradley's 1893 masterpiece Appearance and Reality.

A useful way to understand his system is to observe that for Bradley there are three distinct levels or orders of experience: immediate experience (which he also terms ‘feeling’), relational experience, and absolute experience. It is his position that these three together form a developmental sequence in which immediate experience gives birth to relational experience which in turn gives birth to absolute experience; although whether this sequence is just notional or manifested in an actual chronological development, either in the life of the individual or of the species, is something he never took a clear position upon. From the point of view of philosophical understanding the best place to start to understand this sequence is not in fact at the beginning but in the middle, with relational experience, which as a state points beyond itself in two directions, both to its origin and its goal.

4.2.1 Relational experience

Bradley's philosophy begins with a critique of what he calls ‘relational experience’.58 At its simplest, this is any experience or thought about the world that employs relations in any way at all; which, of course, takes in all experience or thought in any everyday sense. To appreciate this we need simply to recognize the sheer pervasiveness of relations. Wherever we go, whatever we encounter, we meet with a myriad of (p.105) relations, for they are what give structure to the world in which we live. Everything is related to the world around it, often in many different ways. Moreover we should note that relations hold, not just between things, but between their parts, between their temporal segments, between them and their properties, as well as between properties themselves.

We tend to think of a relation as something that unifies two or more distinct elements, as something that brings otherwise disparate items together into a single relational fact. However, for Bradley, relations are more than just unifiers, they also divide. Thus what he is considering here is as much the notion of division or separation, as that of union or togetherness. His topic is not just relations, but (as he puts it) the whole machinery of terms and relations. These come as one set. It is obvious that there could be no relations without distinct terms for them to relate, but Bradley finds it equally obvious that terms could not be distinct were it not for the relations which hold between them. And in this way distinction presupposes relation just as much as relation presupposes distinction.

What was Bradley's view of relations? A statement is easy enough to find. He says, ‘The conclusion to which I am brought is that a relational way of thought—any one that moves by the machinery of terms and relations—must give appearance and not truth. It is a makeshift, a device, a mere practical compromise, most necessary but in the end, most indefensible.’59 ‘The very essence of these ideas is infected and contradicts itself’60 he says, and the contradictions that he claims to find are famous. But before considering them more closely, a word of warning is due—no one should not expect to derive from relational statements some neat little reductio of the form ‘P and not P’. The contradictions are less a matter of what is being said, than of the practical implications of what is being said, almost, we might put it, of what is being done; like using a pair of scissors to glue two things together, or trying to support both sides at a football match. The problem Bradley identifies is that the relational apparatus (the mechanism, that is, of terms and relations) is trying to describe a situation for which there is, as it were, no ‘room’ conceptually; like the concept of ‘divorce’ for certain strict Christians, or the difference between ‘compromise’ and ‘defeat’ to ultra hard-line political activists. Bradley's case against relations proceeds by considering a variety of ways in which we might try to understand them, each of which fails. These analyses achieved a certain fame, even notoriety, in their day, so it will be well to follow Bradley in his own presentation of the sorry tale.

What, we must ask ourselves, is a relation? The options, as Bradley sees it, are limited. Taking any two-term relation (and these are the only kind he recognizes) we can think of the relation either as some third sort of component placed somehow ‘between’ the other two, or else as some kind of property or quality ‘attaching to’ the (p.106) terms themselves. (Bradley does not distinguish between ‘relation’ and ‘relational property’.)

The first is easily ruled out. We cannot take the relation to be any kind of extra element, for the question would then have to be asked how that element itself stood to the terms, introducing two new relations and so launching us on an infinite regress. It would, says Bradley, be like supposing that to attach two chains together, we need a further link, and then two more, and then another four, and so on…61

But if we turn to the second option, we fare no better; in the end, indeed, we seem to face the very same problem. For if the relation is but a feature of the objects related, then presumably it must set up within them a distinction between those of their features that enter into the relation and those that don't. To illustrate, being wiser than Socrates is, we may take it, a matter of one's intelligence or insight but not one's height or shoe size. But if we ask how the former set of features stands to the latter we can only be launching ourselves on yet another regress.62 And it is hardly surprising that this should be so, for it would take a subtle logician to find other than a verbal distinction between the question of how a thing stands to its own relations and the question of how stands its non-relational to its relational nature.

The only remaining option we have for understanding relations is to say that they are indeed aspects or qualities of the terms that they relate, but that they are so fused with them, as to render impossible any separation between the term's relational and non-relational nature. But now either we have lost our relation altogether here and are left with simply a term (something we have already dismissed as absurd), or else what is being offered is nothing but a relation—there being no aspect of it that is not relational. Nothing can consist solely in its relation to others; the notion of a world of relations without any terms is, argues Bradley, even more absurd than that of a world of qualities without relations.63 The options for making sense of them exhausted, Bradley concludes that relations are impossible.

4.2.2 Assessment of Bradley's case

It is only to be expected that so radical a line of argument was challenged, and one of its greatest critics was Bertrand Russell. Indeed the story of Russell's rise as a philosopher and of the emergence of analytic philosophy with which he is so closely associated was in large part the story of his break with Bradley's rejection of relations. One consequence of that triumph is the still widespread belief that Russell refuted Bradley's view of relations but, if we look at the details, the matter is less clear; for many of Russell's objections were based on fundamental confusions about or misrepresentations of Bradley's position.64

(p.107) In his 1903 book The Principles of Mathematics Russell distinguishes between two theories of relations, the monadistic which he attributes to Leibniz and Lotze and the monistic which he attributes to Spinoza and Bradley.65 In the first a relational proposition, aRb, is understood by analysing it down into two separate propositions, ar1 and br2, each attributing a different property to the two terms involved. In the second by contrast the relational proposition is understood by taking the two terms together and attributing a property to the pair, giving the schema (ab)R. Russell rejects both analyses on the grounds of their inability to deal with asymmetrical relations; on the monistic theory, for example, the distinct propositions ‘a is greater than b’ and ‘b is greater than a’ would both receive the same analysis, (ab)Greater than.

To a large extent this objection fails to touch its target for the monistic theory which Russell identifies as Bradley's is really a long way from his actual position. The analysis Bradley proposes is not merely a redistribution of the roles of subject and predicate within the proposition, but rather the translation of the entire propositional content into a predicate then referred to reality as a whole. Thus in the judgement ‘S is P’, instead of picking out S and saying that it is P, we say of reality as a whole that it is ‘S-P ish’, or as he later puts it ‘Reality is such that S is P’.66 This analysis can deal with asymmetry, for it takes up into its predication not only the relation itself (‘greater than’) but the asymmetry of actual instantiation (‘a is greater than b’ or ‘b is greater than a’).

Russell argues that the monadistic and monistic theories of relations are the only two options for someone who believes that all relations are subject–predicate in form.67 But the accusation that Bradley holds all propositions to be of subject–predicate form is equally mistaken. For while he would admit that all judgements predicate or say something about reality, the question of what they do or how they function is different from any question concerning the logical structure of their content, and he certainly would not argue that we can reduce relational propositions to subject–predicate ones. Indeed quite the reverse; it was his view that subject–predicate ones are to be rejected precisely because they are relational—they involve a relation between subject and predicate—and on these grounds Bradley is as fierce a critic of subject–predicate logic as might be found anywhere.68

Russell's position is that in addition to subjects and predicates, relations constitute a third sui generis category, too basic to reduce to anything else. It is simply the business of relations to relate, and we cannot ask how. But this would not satisfy Bradley. For him relations are part of our conceptual structure, not something we may passively accept as immediate or given in experience and, as such, the problem is not merely that we don't understand them but that they are trying to do something which by Bradley's lights is impossible.

(p.108) Of Bradley's various arguments to demonstrate the unreality of relations perhaps the most attacked has been the ‘chain argument’69 but the majority of objections against it have been misplaced, failing to appreciate that it constitutes but one half of a broader case. The understanding of relation rejected here is not his own but one of a pair that might be suggested, and as critical as he is of thinking of a relation as a third something standing somehow ‘between’ its terms, he moves straight on to condemn in equal measure the opposite view that would seek somehow to bind up the relation inside the nature of its terms. More worthy of attention has been the response of those such as Cook Wilson who have argued that the chain regress is simply verbal and not a real one of genuinely new relations.70 But if there is no need to bring in any further element to connect a and R, by the same token, it is hard to see what need there is to bring in R in the first place to connect a and b. Yet who could be satisfied with a world of just terms and no relations?

Perhaps Russell's most famous objection is that Bradley held what he calls ‘the axiom or doctrine of internal relations’, the view that all relations are internal.71 The internal/external relations terminology here calls for explanation. Broadly speaking, the difference is that between thinking of a relation as either something more or less brought in from outside and placed between its terms, and thinking of it as something more or less bound up in the nature of those terms themselves. Thus what Russell's charge amounts to is a repeat of the accusation that Bradley held that all relations are grounded in or even reducible to the natures of their terms.

There are two levels at which one might respond to Russell's charge. At the most basic level it could be said, once again, that Russell has simply misunderstood Bradley's meaning. He accuses Bradley of thinking all relations are internal, when it is in fact his view that there are no relations at all. For Bradley argues that, considered neither internally nor externally, can relations be made to work. External relations stand outside, and make no real connection with, their terms, while internal relations lose themselves wholly in their terms leaving us either with a term that has swallowed its own relation or a relation that has swallowed its own term. Indeed, the terminology serves well to express Bradley's diagnosis of the fundamental problem. Internal and external are opposing notions. But a relation by its very nature strives to be both internal and external72—the relation in which things stand is no arbitrary accident but a function of their natures, and yet a relational fact is more than just a set of terms. Bradley laments the forced dichotomy—‘the whole ‘Either-or’ between external and internal relations, to me seems unsound,’73 he says—but he is stuck with it, for (p.109) concepts draw boundaries, obliging elements to fall either within or outside their range. The one and the many remain forever opposed in thought and cannot be unified, and this is the sense in which for Bradley relational statements are trying to do something for which there is in conceptual terms simply ‘no room’. A relation tries but inevitably fails to unite the diverse, and because it fails, not as measured against some higher purer standard but simply in its own terms, as attempting something which its own nature undermines, Bradley thinks of it as self-contradictory. But note the direction of fit. Failure shows, not that things aren't the way thought is trying to tell us, but that thought just isn't up to the job of telling us how they really are.

But in an important sense it must be acknowledged that this is only half the answer. It cannot be the case that all relations are internal if all relations falsify reality, but Bradley does allow that some conceptions falsify more than others, and would agree that it is less inappropriate to view relations as internal than it is to view them as external.74 To understand why he thinks so it is necessary to look to the stages of experience before and after the relational level but, before that, note should be taken of the consequences of Bradley's argument thus far.

4.2.3 Consequences of the relational argument

Relations are contradictory and cannot belong to reality, but relations are to be found everywhere, so anything which involves them will also be contradictory. To abandon relations is, Bradley readily admits, to condemn ‘the great mass of phenomena’.75 Not only are there no relations between things but we must reject too the very notion of a thing itself which, either as a possessor or a complex of properties is a thoroughly relational notion. A further immediate consequence is the unreality of space and time, for whether we take a reductionist or substantivalist view of them, these also are essentially relational. That space is not finally real is to be expected from an idealist, but to say existence is timeless,76 that change however apparent is not ultimately real, while it aligns him with Green, separates him from several other British Idealists. Equally relational and therefore to be rejected are motion, change, and causation.

It is hard to appreciate just what it really means to dismiss in this way all the chief structures of the ordinary world. What becomes, for example, of physical nature? Bradley notes that the word ‘nature’ is ambiguous,77 and defines nature for the physical sciences as the mind-independent world: ‘Abstract from everything psychical, and then the remainder of existence will be Nature.’78 Part of what he is trying to get at by the phrase ‘abstract from everything psychical’ is the scientific distinction between primary and secondary qualities, where all properties that are relative to a perceiving mind are (p.110) downgraded as appearance leaving only as really present in objects their invariant and quantifiable properties. But why, Bradley asks, should removing qualities, and especially ones relative to the mind, get us any closer to reality? To a well-rounded view removing the secondary qualities is just to remove the ‘blood and flesh’79 of reality. To a well-rounded view ‘nature’, as defined by the poet or artist, and full of qualities that depend on the mind, is more real than this abstracted skeleton of natural science.80 In short, for Bradley, reality is found not by removing qualities or narrowing our point of view, but by widening it and adding them.

More specifically Bradley offers two arguments against any primary–secondary quality distinction. The first is taken directly from Berkeley and consists simply in pointing out that primary qualities are just as relative as secondary ones.81 Bradley's second objection, however, is more interesting and can be put this way. According to the theory of primary and secondary qualities, objects with only primary qualities produce in us the experience of secondary qualities, as apparently residing in bodies alongside those primary qualities. But how does this miracle work? Why do qualities of a single kind sometimes produce in us accurate experiences of them, but at other times produce in us an experience of qualities of a wholly different kind? And in the latter case, why do they cause the precise experiences they in fact produce? Why for instance, does a given shape or texture (or the causal chain from these to a given brain state) cause us to experience one colour, rather than another, or rather than a smell? No one seems to know. A veil of ignorance, conveniently called ‘misperception’ or ‘appearance’, is drawn over the whole process. But such an empty theory should not satisfy anyone. It certainly did not satisfy Bradley, who objected that, ‘The relation of the primary qualities to the secondary seems wholly unintelligible. For nothing is actually removed from existence by being labelled ‘appearance’. What appears is there, and must be dealt with; but materialism has no rational way of dealing with appearance’.82

If physical nature considered apart from any relation to mind is to be dismissed, what is to be said of mind itself? Turning to another very important consequence of the relational argument, Bradley considers a variety of senses of ‘self’ but pronounces all flawed, because relational. Most significantly he argues that self-consciousness, the experience of subject and object in one self, is no exception to this. In self-awareness the mind becomes its own object and, in doing so, ceases to be identical with the knowing subject.83 A relation is set up and the state thereby prevented from affording us any special key to the nature of reality. Again, Bradley distances himself from many of his Idealist colleagues.

(p.111) But if self is not ultimately real, that is not at all the same as to say it is no significance at all. Of all the ways in which reality may appear to us this is the highest, argues Bradley,84 and if faced with a choice, it would be better to think of ultimate reality—the Absolute—as personal rather than impersonal.85 Not a fictitious grafting on, but a failure clearly to see something much fuller, ‘the Absolute is not personal, because it is personal and more,’ argues Bradley; ‘It is, in a word, super-personal.’86 What this could possibly mean has left many puzzled,87 but it is not unconnected with Lotze's view of limitless personality which was popular with the Personal Idealists.88

One final but nonetheless vital consequence of Bradley's anti-relationism is monism. The common-sense view of the universe as containing many distinct substances—pluralism—must be rejected. A non-relational world is a monistic world; ‘Reality is one’ he argues.89 Relations unite, but they only unite what they first divide, and so their dismissal brings us to monism, not pluralism. But care is needed here, for what Bradley has in mind is not—as Russell once accused90—some sort of homogeneous unity like that of Parmenides. His Absolute is an Hegelian many-in-one or one-in-many. It does not exclude difference—though its differences are felt and not thought—but it is one.

4.2.4 Pre-relational experience

Bradley is a firm adherent of a principle that most would accept, the coherence of reality. ‘Ultimate reality is such that it does not contradict itself,’91 he says, and hence if contradiction is found in our experience—if the concepts we use to structure it refuse to sit alongside each other—that must be something we have introduced; the mind in trying to grasp reality must have distorted it. If this is so, then we get back nearer to something like the truth, if we discount all our troublesome contributions. In this way the contradictory realm of relational thought or experience points to something behind itself, to its origin in ‘feeling’ or ‘immediate experience’. There is more than an echo of Kant here.

‘Immediate Experience’ or ‘feeling’ are the technical terms Bradley uses to designate the basic experiential state in which reality is given or encountered. ‘The real’ he says ‘is that which is known in presentation or intuitive knowledge. It is what we encounter in feeling or perception.’92 However exotic their flower may be, that the roots of Bradley's thinking on this score are to be found in the tradition of British empiricism is seen in his further insistence that such experience is our only handle on reality; (p.112) ‘Nothing in the end is real but what is felt.’93 However, what Bradley has in mind here is not simply the ordinary experience of everyday life, but rather something deeper which underlies that experience.

By calling it ‘feeling’ or ‘experience’, he wishes to protest against any more narrow or one-sided starting point, such as merely the experience of our senses. What Bradley intends with this term is a state that includes all types of sensation, emotion, will, and desire—in short, anything of which we are in any manner aware.94 By calling it ‘immediate’, he wishes to stress that it is something presentational and pre-conceptual.95 Although it contains diversity, it is ‘seamless’,96 not yet broken up by our concepts and relations. ‘It is all one blur with differences, that work and that are felt, but are not discriminated,’ he says.97 Notably, it is prior both to the distinction between self and not-self—it is a state as yet without either an object or a subject98—and to the distinction between knowing and being—the separation and downgrading of knowledge or concepts relative to existence or objects has yet to take place.99 No doubt this is all very mysterious, and we might be tempted to cast about for examples that could help illustrate Bradley's meaning here; aesthetic or religious experiences, perhaps. However this is not a promising strategy, and such cases offer at best just analogies. For if feeling is given, it is not given in any experience which we as conscious selves could ever recognize and draw on, but has rather to be considered as something inferred from the kind of experiences we do enjoy, as their only possible basis and explanation. For purely logical reflection convicts ordinary experience, and so we are forced to postulate something more consistent and more coherent lying behind it.

Another important point to note about immediate experience is that it manifests itself filtered through what Bradley calls ‘finite centres’.100 These numerous101 centres of experience are not to be thought of as objects existing in time or capable of standing in relation to one another; they are rather the raw data from which such objects and relations are built up as ideal constructions.102 They are, we might say, the pre-conceptual experiential base from which we construct our entire conception of the world. Finite centres need also to be distinguished from selves. This is so in two respects. First, selves are objects that endure through time, and second, they are distinguished from their states. A finite centre, in contrast, has no duration and contains (p.113) no subject–object distinction. For Bradley the self is something made out of, or abstracted from, a finite centre, and thus he allows that in so far as I think of myself as something developed out of a given finite centre, I may describe that centre as ‘mine’,103 but it must always be remembered that I belong to the finite centre, not vice versa, and the self which is thus developed is but an ideal construction lacking any ultimate reality.104 All experience we know is filtered in this fashion, but Bradley allows at least the possibility that there obtains within the Absolute some ‘centreless’ experience. He says, ‘Why should there not be elements experienced in the total, and yet not experienced within any subordinate focus?…The abstraction of a finite centre does not lead visibly to self-contradiction. And hence I cannot refuse to regard its result as possible.’105

Worth noting is Bradley's description of these finite experiences as centres. What he wishes to convey with this word can be seen by examining the context in which finite centres make their first entrance. This is his discussion of indexical experience, what he calls the ‘this’ and the ‘mine’, in chapter 19 of Appearance and Reality. Just as we suppose there to be many finite centres,106 he tells us that ‘We are to assume that there does exist an indefinite number of ‘this-mines’.107 Just as all knowledge comes to us through finite centres,108 we are informed that ‘all our knowledge, in the first place, arises from the “this”.’109 And just as finite centres are immediate and pre-conceptual in nature,110 we learn that ‘the “this” is immediate…because it is at a level below distinctions’.111 These parallels show us that he is here identifying finite centres with indexical experience, and indeed he says, ‘the “this” and the “mine” express the immediate character of feeling, and the appearance of this character in a finite centre.’112 The this-mine of indexical experience is something centred and the identification suggests that finite centres be thought of as centred in the very same way.

Equally noteworthy is Bradley's claim that they are finite. This refers not to their duration for, strictly speaking, they have no duration, but rather to their content, which is limited in its extent. They do not stretch out forever but have, as we might say, edges. They are bounded. This seems to be immediately and intuitively correct. For curiously, even if we ourselves can have no real grasp of what an infinite experience might be, we can be fairly certain that our own experience is finite in nature. As Bradley says, ‘More or less of content may come from time to time within the man's feeling centre. But so long as that centre exists, there is a world within it which is (p.114) experienced immediately and a world without it which is not in this sense experienced at all.’113

It is important to note that immediate experience in and of itself is not essentially finite. It is only in so far as it is filtered through finite centres that it becomes so; a fact which plays an absolutely crucial role in Bradley's developmental scheme. Although in some sense nearer to the truth than relational experience, immediate experience is not fully harmonious. And its lack of harmony leads it to break up and develop into the relational consciousness. The transition from immediate experience to relational thought results from the clash between the finitude of its feeling centres and its immediacy. It presents itself as a harmonious state, something that is no more than what it appears to itself to be, a being and knowing in one. But in Bradley's eyes the finitude attributable to its manifestation through the ‘this’ and the ‘mine’ generates a tension which destabilizes that harmony.114 Understanding the finite in Hegelian manner as that which is limited from outside, the centre in its finitude points beyond itself to a wider feeling of which it is but a portion and against which at the same time it is contrasted. Fully spelt out, its contents over-reach the limits of its own being, it feels wider than it is, and in this way enters in that distinction between subject and object which is the hallmark of thought, and which spells the demise of the immediacy of feeling.

Too much talk of change or development should not lead us astray, however, for Bradley is insistent that immediate experience is not left completely behind, but rather remains present in relational thought as a kind of foundation.115 Immediate experience provides us with the very experiential content that is subsequently conceptualized in relational experience. Prior to the distinction between subject and object, it cannot for that reason become known to us as an object of awareness,116 the focus of some act of introspection, but as the base from which all such awareness is drawn it is still known.

4.2.5 Supra-relational experience

If the contradictions of thought point backwards to immediate experience, they also point forwards beyond themselves to the Absolute. The developmental process which caused the breach, left to continue, heals itself again; for it is the nature of thought to aim at truth, and in uncovering its own defects it at the same time shows what would be necessary to rectify them. Specifically it is seen that error arises precisely from the separation of things one from another, from which it follows that the more they are reconnected, the more things are returned in understanding to the context from which they were abstracted, the more holistic our picture becomes, and the closer we will (p.115) approximate to truth. By putting the jigsaw back together, we replace the pluralistic vision with a holistic one.

Bradley recommends connected and holistic thinking over separated and pluralistic schemes, but he insists that more healthy patterns of thought can never give a complete solution to our problem. For however much we try to compensate for it, and however much we are aware of doing it, the very nature of thought is to differentiate—to separate one object from another, and all objects from the subject which thinks them. But to differentiate is to falsify. We divide A from B but then add that, of course, A and B must be taken together. Yet they are still separate in thought. In the end, argues Bradley, if the road to truth is the road of reconciliation, it must take us beyond thought, to an Absolute experience undifferentiated by concepts. It should thus be noted that Bradley has an importantly realist concept of the Absolute as something existing beyond (what he poetically describes as) thought's suicide.117

There are two kinds of things to know about any object: its character, and whether it exists, or as Bradley neatly puts it ‘what it is’ and ‘that it is’. He attempts to use this distinction to explain the nature of thought itself, saying that thought consists essentially in a separation of the ‘what’ from the ‘that’. His meaning here is that ideas and judgements concern themselves entirely with the nature of things, and are unable to assert their own instantiation or truth. Whatever they say, it is always a separate question whether they say something true. Another way of understanding this is to say that thought is general or universal in its nature, but reality is not—it is particular and individual. No thought—not even the very best there could be—is ever the same as that which is thought about; they are too different and too separate. The solution, as he sees it, is to attempt to reduce the generality of any thought by incorporating into the thought itself the wider context from which its object is taken, thus simultaneously increasing both its detail and the range of its application, or as he alternatively puts it, beginning to reunite the ‘what’ and the ‘that’. But this is an unachievable task, in that its completion would result in the very undoing of thought itself, for which such separation is an essential condition. Bradley concludes that the search for ultimate truth is self-defeating, it is to embark on a process that carried through to its end can only result in thought's removal of itself from the picture—its ‘suicide’.

For Bradley Absolute experience, experience driven by its own internal logic or engine to find a final consistency, contains all that is ultimately real. But what about all those elements of experience that get discarded along the way? Bradley designates these appearance, but what exactly does he mean when he says relations (and all those things that involve relations) are appearance, rather than reality? We might think this is to say they do not exist, to which we are likely to respond in a tone of common-sense indignation that surely such things do exist. But our indignation would be misplaced; Bradley does not, for a moment, want to deny that relations exist—nothing has been (p.116) spirited away. In this respect his position is comparable to the doctrine of secondary qualities, which says, not that objects don't really have colours, that colours don't exist, but rather that phenomenal colour is not a category applicable to ultimate reality. The reference to secondary qualities might suggest to us the metaphysical dualist's way of dealing with appearance, namely to think of it as mental representation (an idea or sense-datum) interposing between us and the world beyond, a kind of screen that gets in the way and prevents us from seeing things as they really are. However, Bradley's monism precludes any such move—his appearances are not in that sense appearances of anything.118 For Bradley, the Absolute is its appearances. They are its content. To call something unreal or appearance is to deny that it possesses genuinely independent being which, of course, covers everything except the Absolute. Seen falsely and picked out one by one, aspects of the world present a misleading face and must be called appearance, but seen truly as participants in an integrated whole, they are transformed together to form reality, or the Absolute. As Bradley puts it, ‘The Absolute, we may say in general, has no assets beyond appearances; and again, with appearances alone to its credit, the Absolute would be bankrupt. All these are worthless alike apart from transmutation.’119 Ultimate reality is so far beyond conception that we could never think it, but at the same time it is all around us.

Appearance then for Bradley is a distorted vision or perspective on reality. It is a matter of taking something out of context and treating it as though it were fully and independently real. But distortion here is a matter of degree, hence Bradley believes that there is room for a theory of degrees of reality—where how much reality any given experience is accorded is a function of the amount of supplementation and transformation that would be required to turn it into Absolute experience. It is in this sense that statements of internal relations are truer than those of external ones.

To fill out this schema it is useful to consider in more detail what Bradley says about science. He attacks the specifically scientific approach to the world. Science is guided by the idea of generality. It is concerned not with particular things and events, but is rather a search for general laws and types. However, for Bradley this means that it can never be true of ultimate reality, for Reality is particular. Indeed the more general science becomes, the less true it is, and so in this sense science must be seen as aiming in an essentially falsifying direction. An illustration may help here. From the particular whole we abstract, for example, the notion of a body. We might formulate laws about bodies, but typically we do not, abstracting instead one aspect of them, for example, their motion. Again we might formulate laws about motion in general, but typically (p.117) we do not, rather from that concept we abstract, say, the idea of rectilinear motion, making that the subject of our laws. There, at least for the moment we rest, but the point to note is that for Bradley each such division is a further falsifying move. It assumes that the thing or aspect we have carved off is independent from and unaffected by its context, or as the terminology puts it, that it is connected to it by a merely external relation. Thus Bradley says that, ‘the external relations, which work, are summed up in the laws’.120 But, though pragmatically justified, this assumption of externality is theoretically quite false, he claims.

In view of this fundamental criticism of the basic project of natural science, one might expect Bradley to counsel scientists to simply hang up their coats and call it a day. But this he does not do; indeed far from it. Despite these criticisms and within their framework, Bradley finds space to develop a sympathetic and intelligent positive philosophy of science. It is true that, for him, science is an irredeemably falsifying abstraction from the immediate whole that is reality. But paradoxically this should not be thought any special cause for concern. Since the perfection of knowledge is impossible, abstraction is a practical necessity of life which, so long as we appreciate its inevitable presence, need not be considered a fatal defect. It is no special problem because a degree of falsehood proportionate to the level of abstraction does not exclude a degree of truth proportionate to the same thing. What is important is to recognize and accept the level of abstraction involved in any intellectual activity. For natural science, what this means is that although its theories can never attain perfect truth, they may nonetheless be instrumentally or practically true. This thinks Bradley is their sole aim. ‘The question is not whether the principles of physical science possess an absolute truth to which they make no claim. The question is whether the abstraction employed by that science, is legitimate and useful.’121 Although ultimately unreal abstractions, the concepts of science are to be thought of as ‘working ideas’,122 and as such, legitimate in so far as and only in so far as they do work. ‘I do not object to anything that is offered, so long as and so far as it works, and so long as it is offered merely as something which works.’123

The task for which their instrumental or pragmatic success is to be judged is a purely phenomenalist one: ‘To find and systematize the ways in which spatial phenomena are connected and happen—this is all the mark which these conceptions aim at.’124 Bradley's most thorough defence of this phenomenalist viewpoint is given for psychology. In the course of that defence he defines phenomenalism as ‘the confinement of one's attention to events with their laws of coexistence and sequence. It involves the complete abjuration of any attempt to ask…for ultimate truth or consistency, and it (p.118) involves the adoption as relative truth of whatever serves best to explain the detailed course of facts or those particular ways in which things happen.’125 Although he rejects phenomenalism as a method in metaphysics,126 he thinks that in science it is the only possible way. For if science persisted in demanding absolute truth of its ideas, it would be wholly absorbed into metaphysics, and bogging itself down in unending contextual detail and disputes over first principles, become quite unable to advance in what everyone agrees to be one of its essential roles (even if they cannot agree that that is its only role), namely the systematization and prediction of phenomena.127

As an instrumentalist he naturally has to face the charge that mere phenomenal laws are insufficient to account for the explanatory role of science. It is certainly true that within this view of science Bradley cannot offer any deeper theoretical truths to serve as explanations of phenomena, however, he does not believe that this is necessary. Explanation for Bradley consists simply in the deduction of a statement about an event from some more general statement about the occurrence of such events, irrespective of its truth value. He claims that, ‘You can only explain events…by the laws of their happening, and it does not matter for your purpose, so long as these laws work, whether they possess ultimate truth or are more or less fictitious and false.’128 Explanation, in other words, is what has been called a ‘pragmatic virtue’129 quite unconnected with either truth or depth. ‘What in short we want,’ he says, ‘are explanations that truly explain, and above all things we do not want true explanations.’130

It is crucial that calling Bradley an instrumentalist, or his own description of his position as phenomenalism, should not mislead us. For he does not, like some who have worn these titles, believe that the duty of a scientific theory is simply to give a true general description of the behaviour of observable things. He does not think this, because he does not believe in any realm of pure observation. ‘The merely given facts are,’ he says, ‘the imaginary creatures of false theory. They are manufactured by a mind which abstracts one aspect of the concrete known whole, and sets this abstracted aspect out by itself as a real thing.’131 Thus long before contemporary scientific realists took up the cry, Bradley was quite clear that no viable distinction could ever be made between the deliverances of our sense-perception and those of our theorizing. All perception is, he thinks, irredeemably laden with thinking.

4.2.6 Idealism

Bradley's three-step metaphysical scheme—which has the felt directness of immediate experience giving way to the plurality of relational experience, and then reconciling (p.119) itself in the diverse-unity of Absolute experience—picks out three kinds of experience. But is there not more to life than experience? Bradley insists that there is not. That is to say, he was an idealist. His argument for idealism is nothing like as developed as his argument for monism. It has even been suggested that he just assumes it,132 but that is problematic, for the kind of idealism he offers cannot be simply assimilated to other known types available to take off the peg.

In many respects his might seem an Hegelian species of idealism, for it postulates something like an Absolute spirit in which we, together with everything else, are taken up. But for all Bradley was influenced by Hegel, it is clear that his idealism was not of this stripe; for Hegel's panlogicism repelled him. As he says of that view at the end of the Principles of Logic:

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. That the glory of this world in the end is appearance leaves the world more glorious, if we feel it is a show of some fuller splendour; but the sensuous curtain is a deception and a cheat, if it hides some colourless movement of atoms, some spectral woof of impalpable abstractions, or unearthly ballet of bloodless categories. Though dragged to such conclusions, we can not embrace them.…They no more make that Whole which commands our devotion, than some shredded dissection of human tatters is that warm and breathing beauty of flesh which our hearts found delightful.133

Should we then think of him as offering an idealism more like that of Berkeley, who argues in anti-realist fashion that we can never pass outside the sphere of our own cognition, that we have no grounds for belief in anything beyond the ideas we encounter? The argument which he offers for this conclusion in Appearance and Reality might seem rather like Berkeley's famous ‘one-step’ argument. It is even, like that argument, put in the form of an instruction.

Find any piece of existence, take up anything that any one could possibly call a fact, or could in any sense assert to have being, and then judge if it does not consist in sentient experience. Try to discover any sense in which you can still continue to speak of it, when all perception and feeling have been removed; or point out any fragment of its matter, any aspect of its being, which is not derived from and is not still relative to this source. When the experiment is made strictly, I can myself conceive of nothing else than the experienced. Anything, in no sense felt or perceived, becomes to me quite unmeaning. And as I cannot try to think of it without realizing either that I am not thinking at all, or that I am thinking of it against my will as being experienced, I am driven to the conclusion that for me experience is the same as reality.134

But while superficially Bradley might seem to be arguing after Berkeley, in the end his case is very different. Where Berkeley's argument precludes the existence of anything (p.120) lying outside our subjective grasp, Bradley is quite clear that reality transcends the subjective point of view. It is unfortunate that his argument here is put, like Berkeley's, in the first person form, for his thesis is that we are locked into experience, not that we are locked into our own experience.

Bradley holds that reality is composed of a species of mind which is fundamentally non-cognitive (i.e. neither perceptual nor conceptual) and supra-personal and in this respect the idealism with which it comes closest is in fact that of Schopenhauer whose doctrine of the Will proposes a comparable species of non-cognitive mentality as the underlying constitution of all reality, personal and impersonal.

4.3 Edward Caird

Bradley and Green offered largely original arguments for Absolute Idealism and, were theirs the only systems on offer, ‘British Hegelianism’ might be thought an odd epithet to locate the school, but other Idealists took their metaphysics more directly from Hegel. Chief among these was Edward Caird.

Because he developed his ideas historically, anyone who knows Caird's expositions of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant, or Hegel will know already the main outlines of his metaphysics. Its chief claim is one of diversity reconciled in the embrace of a wider organic whole, whose work is not to obliterate difference (it is no ‘facile monism’)135 but to manifest itself through such multiplicity. The unity is able to bring together any diversity, be it between sense and reason, form and matter, necessity and contingency, universal and particular; for all, argues Caird, are ‘included within’ that great dualism between subject and object which itself finds synthesis in the unity of self-consciousness.136 And because this coming together is a force whose underlying character most fully shows itself in self-consciousness, the result (which he also sometimes refers to by its Hegelian name, ‘the Absolute’)137 is fundamentally idealistic, as well as monistic. Says Caird, ‘the world we live in is a spiritual world—a divine order, the source of which is akin to the principle of intelligence in our own souls’.138 There are three elements to this widely adopted metaphysical system which come out more clearly in Caird's account than in any other, and these are worth bringing out in a little more detail.

4.3.1 Dialectic and progress

We learn more about Caird's metaphysics if we focus on something of a paradox that presents itself at first sight: very often we find in his writing what we might describe as a (p.121) ‘direction of truth’, but equally often he seems to tell us that the truth lies, not at the end of any given road, but in some kind of reconciliation between opposing paths.

To expand on this, again and again we find in Caird the claim that, over time, thought progresses in various directions towards the truth.139 Note has already been made (in the context of his discussion of Kant) of his thesis that there takes place a development from the a posteriori to the a priori, and another example of the same sort of thing may be found in his essay, ‘The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time,’ where he urges a similar progress in the direction of synthesis, a progress from multiplicity to unity. Against stoics, sceptics, and those who would follow Pope's injunction that ‘the proper study of mankind is man’, Caird argues that mind cannot shut itself up in its own sphere. We cannot know or realize ourselves without knowing the larger world or realizing its larger aims; for if we withdraw from the world we only reduce ourselves.140 But our commitment is to more than just this synthesis; if we cannot keep separate subject and object, we cannot deny the rationality of reality itself, nor consequently maintain any absolute division in things. The urge for synthesis can stop nowhere short of absolute synthesis, the unity that embraces everything—God.141 The path to philosophic truth is the path of fusion, the more we show that apparent differences or oppositions are really but one-sided abstractions from a higher organizational unity that embraces both, the closer we approach the truth. Nor are a prioricity and synthesis the only directions in which thought must properly travel. Caird further suggests that philosophical thought consists in rising from the particular to the universal,142 and closely related to that, in an advance from the natural to the spiritual.143 Equally importantly—although care must be taken to construe these terms correctly—truth is to be arrived at by moving in the direction of the concrete rather than the abstract. The path of increasing abstraction leads away from reality, the path of increasing concreteness towards it.144 Taking all of these various directions together, a neat mechanism by which we could plot his final metaphysical position might seem to suggest itself. Is not the Absolute the culmination or zenith of all these tendencies? The point described by our highest concepts: a priori, unity, universality, spirituality, concretion, infinity.

But against this needs to be set another picture of Caird, as the great reconciler. His constant appeal to the doctrine of identity-in-difference, whereby all contrasts are held within and referred back to a higher unity that embraces both, makes him critical of the (p.122) unswerving pursuit of any single idea or insight; for that can only lead to one-sidedness when the highest truth must give due acknowledgement to all points of view. Again and again he suggests that the reality is not to be found in any extreme position. Universal and particular, self and not-self, form and matter, analysis and synthesis—always, we need both of these.145

How are these opposing thoughts to be combined? The matter is very difficult and has vexed Caird's commentators; nowhere, perhaps, more so than with respect to that puzzling but ubiquitous term of his thinking, ‘self-consciousness’. Is this something mental, or some sort of neutral mid-point which is neither subject nor object? The name itself suggests the former, and much of the time Caird speaks in that way. The lesson of Kant, which subsequent philosophies only develop not contradict, he tells us, is that in knowledge our mind meets not with something different but with itself:

in bringing more and more of the facts of the universe within his thought, man is not, so to speak, losing himself in the object, or taking into his mind an alien matter: he is only providing the appropriate nutriment for his growing intelligence. For the facts which he appropriates in knowledge are by the same process transmuted into the substance of the mind that grasps them, and so become the means to the development of the ideas which constitute it as a mind.146

But at times the result seems more symmetrical. In discovering the essential relation between self and object, we realize (argues Caird) that ‘all our progress in knowledge of objects must deepen and widen our consciousness of the self; and all our knowledge of ourselves…must, in its turn, be an increase in our knowledge of the objective world.’ We break down the alleged wall of division between them, and so stand on neither side.147 Caird certainly did call himself an idealist, but complicates the point by adding that the idealism to which he is closest is that of Plato,148 for whom ideas were ‘primarily and emphatically objective’ and whose idea of a thing was just ‘the thing itself’.149 But while it is clear how this distances Caird from any Berkleyean or psychological interpretation of idealism, it is unclear quite how if helps to relate him to the two poles of subject and object.

It will be recognized that the problem here is essentially the same as that which was raised above against Green, namely how if thought is just one side of a distinction abstracted from experience it can yet go on to constitute the whole of experience? But Caird's Hegelianism makes the solution to the puzzle somewhat easier to see. The key is to appreciate that dialectical transition from one point X to another Y, is much more than a simple movement from one element to its ‘opposite’ or ‘negation’. Specifically it (p.123) must be appreciated that Y has a nature of its own, that it is more than simply ‘not X’. In this way while there is a genuine and permanent advance from X to Y, the starting point X is never wholly left behind and the movement is more like a synthesis than a lurch from one extreme to another. Thus, for example, the result of philosophical reflection is certainly universal, rather than particular, but it needs to be remembered that the genuinely universal is more than just the not-particular; it incorporates and relates itself to the particular. Likewise the ideal is not just the negation of the natural; it somehow includes it. It might almost seem as though there are two kinds of thought; thought as a part of reality and thought as constitutive of reality in its entirety. However, it is possible to view this not as a difference of kind but as one between the thought which constitutes our own reality and the thought which constitutes reality as a whole. As our thought grounds our reality, our thought perfected—that is, thought itself—may be supposed to ground reality itself. It is in just such terms that Green speaks. Our difficulty in seeing how ego and non-ego are both abstractions from thought stems from our confusing thought in itself (from which they stem) with the thought experienced by each of us, something which, as he puts it, ‘is related to thought in its truth as the undeveloped to the full actuality’.150

4.3.2 The infinite

One of the tendencies of thought in which Caird believes most strongly is its drive to move from the finite to the infinite; experience starts with the finite but pushes on to the infinite, breaking down the barrier between them.151 However, Caird's sense of the ‘infinite’ needs to be carefully understood.

Both we and the world as we encounter it present themselves to us as but limited islands of understanding set out against and conditioned by an unknown universe in space and time stretching out, without limits, on every side. But this consciousness of a limited world, argues Caird, presupposes a deeper consciousness of a world without limit, not in the trivial mathematical sense of not yet stopping—the mere endlessness of space and time—but in the true metaphysical sense of limiting itself. The finite object which points away from itself for its explanation shows that understanding cannot rest with anything but a self-bound self-determined whole.152 The germ of this insight, that to recognize ourselves as finite we have first to have the idea of the infinite, Caird rightly attributes to Descartes153—although Descartes did not, of course, have quite the same Hegelian sense of the infinite that he endorses; a sense highly characteristic of British Idealism.

(p.124) We get an even closer look at Caird's conception of the infinite in The Evolution of Religion where he compares it with that of two contemporaries, Max Müller and Herbert Spencer. For Max Müller the infinite is the negation of the finite. And as such, we can say nothing about this. For Spencer all thought is limitation or finitude and thus the infinite is what remains when all such limiting finitude is abstracted away. It is the underlying affirmative basis of the finite. But still the result is the same: we can say nothing about it. Caird argues that they both arrive at this common fate because, for all their difference, they make the same mistake. Setting the infinite against the finite, they limit it, and thereby turn it into another kind of finite.

What is needed instead is an alternative positive conception of the infinite. It is ‘the unity of the differences of the finite,’154 ‘the all-embracing unity implied in all our consciousness of the finite’.155 It must be conceived, ‘not merely as that which the finite is not, but as that which includes and explains it; not merely as an indeterminate background of the finite but as a self-determining principle, which manifests itself in all the determinations of the finite without losing its unity with itself.’156 There is, Caird insists, no ultimate distinction between the finite and the infinite157—although, as was noted above, this is not to say that the result is some neutral mid-point between the two.

4.3.3 Individual psychology

The discussion of Caird's interpretation of Kant drew attention to his opposition to any psychological or mentalist reading of the Critical Philosophy, and this point deserves to be emphasized. Although the temptation to do so, Caird appreciates, is strong to those brought up in the Lockean tradition, the relativity of all objects to the knowing self is not to be taken in a psychological sense.158 Kant reaches a truth, which Aristotle too had grasped, in regarding mind as something universal in nature and the world it knows as something particular, namely that ‘the intelligence is not one thing among others in the intelligible world, but the principle in reference to which alone that world exists’.159 ‘The world we know is a world which exists only as it exists for us, for the thinking subject; hence the thinking subject, the ego, cannot be taken as an object like other objects.’160 As the source of space, time, and the categories that govern the world (especially causation), but not itself subject to them, the self is free—even if such a negative sense of liberty does not capture the whole depth of its freedom.161

(p.125) But, of course, it cannot be denied that we are also a part of that world and so it is vital, insists Caird, if confusion is to be avoided, that we learn to separate the conscious self or subject implied in all knowledge, from the empirical self which is one part of that known world, one object distinct from and alongside others. The former belongs to metaphysics, the latter to psychology.162 But what is the relation between them, for they are not simply distinct or parallel points of view? On the contrary, the self-consciousness unity which grounds all reality is progressively realized or manifested in the life of the psychological individual.163 As a natural being man is subject to external influence like any other, but as a simultaneously self-conscious being, he is also continually emancipating himself. An adequate understanding of human nature must find room for both of these points of view; ‘it must conceive of man as at once both spiritual and natural; it must find a reconciliation between freedom and necessity’.164 Caird, it would seem, wants to distinguish between a naturalistic psychology which treats man as just phenomena and a more adequate psychology that tries to take in his curious ‘dual-standing’.

This does not exhaust all that Caird had to say on individual psychology. For looking more closely it may be wondered if he does not leave room, between the universal consciousness that grounds all reality and the experienced self of psychology, for a kind of individual self with metaphysical import. We catch a glimpse of this in writings such as his 1905 lay sermon on immortality. Using an argument that was to prove popular among Personal Idealists, he suggests that the spiritual experience of laying down one's life brings not moral death but growth,165 and that ‘if we think of the world as the manifestation of a rational and moral principle…we must regard it as existing for the realisation of that which is best and highest; and that best and highest we can hardly conceive as anything but the training and development of immortal spirits.’166

While this suggestion clearly has metaphysical implications, Caird never addressed how such immortality might be squared with his more universal Absolute. But certainly he did not think that the finite self could be the last or the final reality. Our minds stand out from the rest of the world as organically unified and, most importantly, self-conscious. But self-consciousness, which binds subject and object together in one whole cannot rest in mere finitude,

for no finite spirit is complete in itself. As finite, he is part of a greater whole, the member of a society which itself is but one phase of humanity, conditioned by all the other phases of it, and, indeed, by all the other elements that enter into the constitution of the universe. We can, (p.126) therefore, find that which is absolutely real or substantial only in a creative mind, from whom all things and beings must be conceived as deriving whatever reality or substantiality they possess.167

4.4 Comparison

The metaphysics of British Idealism is often dismissed as ‘Absolute Theory’ as though there existed a single doctrine to which they all ascribed. The three analyses just given should be enough to demonstrate that the actual situation was one of affinity rather than uniformity, but to fully establish the point it may be useful to make a few comparative remarks. But first of all it is worth noting something of the historical context.

Coming up to Balliol in 1855, Green was a Fellow there from 1860, and held the White's Chair in moral philosophy from 1877 until his death in 1882. His Prolegomena to Ethics was published posthumously in 1883, but the greater part had already been presented in lectures from at least 1878 onwards.168 Coming as a senior student from Glasgow, Edward Caird entered Balliol in 1860 there striking up a life-long friendship with Green, who was a year younger than him. Following his degree he was for a while a junior fellow at Merton, before leaving Oxford in 1866 to become Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow.169 Bradley came up to Oxford in 1865 to University College. There is no record of his ever having met Caird (who left the next year) at that time, but it is known that he had contact with Green.170 His Ethical Studies appeared in 1876, and his Logic in 1882, but full statement of his metaphysics had to wait until Appearance and Reality in 1893. Of course, in the task of helping to explain philosophical similarities and differences between them, these personal connections can only supplement and in no sense supplant the more fundamental philosophical ones.

4.4.1 Green and Caird

Clearly both Green and Caird espouse metaphysical systems in which the diversity of the universe is held together by an underlying ‘principle of unity’ which is more fundamentally spiritual or conscious than it is anything else. The world is for consciousnesses and cannot intelligibly be considered outside of this relation. Since both reject any hint of subjectivism and will not identify this consciousness with any finite mind, they need to say how it relates to finite minds, and here too they are very close. Caird's conception of the relation between consciousness itself and the individual (p.127) psychological life, between freedom and natural law, is very similar to Green's understanding of the eternal mind as something which progressively realizes itself in finite consciousness.171

But despite these similarities it would be a mistake simply to identify their two positions, for there are also important differences. Caird voices two main criticisms of Green. He complains first of the remnant of Kantianism in Green's work which makes him suppose that our categories cannot apply to their source—the eternal consciousness. Green insists that we can only speak of it in negatives, that we can only know that it is not what it is,172 but for Caird nothing can be beyond the grasp of reason. There seemed to him a contradiction between claiming both that reality is ‘spiritual’ and that we have no real or positive knowledge of its final nature;173 although in his Preface to the memorial volume this is dressed up as a compliment—Green was one to work on the ‘foundations’ not the ‘superstructure’ and, feeling he had no right to views until he had subjected them to years of rigorous testing, his positions remained tentative.174

Of course (as was noted above and as Caird also observes) Green does not stick resolutely to his own restrictions and offers at least some ‘metaphorical’ hints as to the nature of the Absolute. But here too Caird voices a worry. He suggests that insofar as Green attempts to set out the idealist nature of the real, he has a tendency to subjectivism and psychologizing. To be sure, there occurs nothing so objectionable as Berkeley's ‘mentalism’ but Caird does detect overtones of something similar in Green.175 His mind that makes relations has disconcerting similarities with Locke's.

From the other side, Green never lived long enough to criticize Caird's metaphysics, although his doubts about the over-enthusiastic and over-confident Hegelianism of his brother John (noted in Chapter 2)176 would no doubt have been regarded as equally applicable to Edward. Where Green makes cautious suggestions, Caird ventures bold and sweeping assertions.

4.4.2 Bradley and Caird

As with Green and Caird, initial comparison of Bradley and Caird also presents a picture of similarity. Both philosophers develop systems of monistic idealism which, stressing the reconciling power of their Absolute, are more indebted to the Hegelian dialectic than is Green's. For both of them the Absolute is something which transcends (p.128) the contradictions and differences of the world and, particularly, which transcends the distinction between subject and object.

But as before, closer inspection uncovers difference as well. There is no record of what Bradley thought about Caird, but his rejection of feeling or unconceptualized awareness as a source of knowledge must, for Bradley, have placed him among the rejected class of those who too closely assimilated thought and reality, those ‘Hegelians’ who would turn reality into a ‘ballet of bloodless categories’.177 Another difference between them concerns the reality of time. In some sense all three metaphysicians accept that time is but an appearance of an ultimately atemporal reality, but within that scheme there is room for difference, and it is Bradley who stresses most the ultimate unreality of time while Caird gives greatest emphasis to the essential temporality of all the Absolute's manifestations.

Certainly, if we look from the other side, these were grounds on which Caird was critical of Bradley. Here fortunately we have more material.178 Caird's chief complaint was that Bradley used reason only to destroy and never positively; his thought was ‘All blade and no handle’.179 As critical as he was of Green's claims that the nature of the Absolute is inexpressible, Caird finds the same problem in Bradley's doctrine of thought's suicide, his picture of cognition as something which must develop until it ultimately destroys itself, its failure forlornly pointing towards something it was unable to achieve itself. Reason cannot be limited in this way. In short, Caird objected to Bradley's departure from the orthodox Hegelian fold; a point he well appreciated, describing himself in a letter to Bradley as ‘an unregenerate Hegelian’.180

To Caird, Bradley's result is not just epistemically problematic—an attempt to reach behind thought—it is also metaphysically doubtful. He objects that in the great One beyond all discursive thought, everything just gets swamped together. Bradley's position was described earlier as ‘monism’ but this was a term Caird rejected for his own system. Monism for him, along with pantheism and mysticism, was the reduction of all diversity into featureless unity, and by contrast he strongly affirms the reality of diversity. He objects that Bradley's Absolute is too much like Spinoza's in which all differentiation is lost.181 Of course, the objection is in a way unfair to Bradley, for he allows difference into his Absolute. But as merely felt and not discriminated by thought, or expressible in concepts, this concession is insufficient to appease Caird's rationalism.

(p.129) 4.4.3 Green and Bradley

The comparison between Green and Bradley yields the highest value of the three. The most startling similarity between their metaphysics is that both philosophers agree about the central place that must be given to relations in any attempt to understand our everyday experience, for both recognize the thoroughly relational character of that experience.182 The world we know is saturated by a complex of relational linkages. Green finds relations at the heart of everything, while Bradley, in identifying what he calls the ‘relational way of thought’, brings out the manner in which all our basic categories are in one way or another relational. To condemn relations, he points out, is to condemn the entire world of ordinary experience.

But not only do they both consider relations utterly pervasive, they both take them very seriously. They are agreed that no attempt to understand reality could succeed in which relations were treated as somehow secondary or an afterthought. For both philosophers, unity is as important and basic as distinction. In this insight they join together in attacking the atomism of their empiricist predecessors. Nothing is wholly or ultimately separate from anything else, and the more you probe into experience the more relations you unearth. This resultant relational matrix uncovered is one source of their common monism.183

There is a second very important point of agreement between Green and Bradley. They concur, not just in the views they hold of their importance, but also in the accounts that they give of the origin of relations. Although their reasons for thinking this differ, and that difference will be considered below, both thinkers agree that relations come from us and not from external reality; they are our own mental creations not pre-existing realities awaiting discovery by us. Connected to this point, both philosophers hold also, not simply that it is thought which relates things together, but that it is the essence of thinking to generate such relations. That is the key function of mind. This stems, of course, from a common debt to Kant who emphasizes the distinctive work of the mind as one of synthesis.

If relations are integral to the world we experience, but nonetheless mental, it follows that that world is something through and through ideal, that is to say, something constructed by mind. This result is endorsed by both Green and Bradley, placing them squarely in that idealist tradition which sees the work of the mind in everything we experience; in which our concepts and categories are seen to flow, not from the world, but from us. This further Kantian debt is very clearly acknowledged in (p.130) Green,184 but remains rather more hidden in Bradley where the critical implications of the idea tend to shout much louder than its constructive significance.

But all is not agreement and it should be noted that these major similarities between Green and Bradley are partnered by some equally major dissimilarities. The most important of these can be very simply put: Green accepts relations while Bradley rejects them. For Green relations are real, for Bradley they are unreal. Green has no worries about the possibility or coherence of relations. Indeed, far from worrying about them, he holds up relationality as the very mark of reality itself. Reality is precisely the fixed and unalterable order of relations. Bradley, by contrast, worries deeply about relations and, looking at them from all angles, in the end judges them incoherent and impossible. Relationality, for Bradley, however permanent or pervasive it may be, far from being a badge of reality, is an incurable defect and a sign that we are dealing merely with appearance. For Bradley, in the last analysis, ultimate reality is something wholly non-relational (or as he prefers to put it, ‘supra-relational’185).

Behind this ontological disagreement about ultimate reality lies a difference, not just in what is found acceptable, but also in the role that relations are seen to be playing. For Green relational thought unifies and binds together what would otherwise be distinct, it is the glue that holds the world together. Bradley, by contrast, sees relational thought as something disruptive and destructive, something that pulls apart what was originally together in a whole, the hammer that smashes the world apart. Bradley's point of view may seem perverse, but the idea behind it is not difficult. He does not want to deny that relations unify, but asks us to reflect more deeply on what that entails. You can only unify what is already disunified, he argues, and so relations, with their machinery of distinct terms and connecting links, are as much agents of disintegration as combination. They perversely offer to stitch back together what they at the same time pull apart.

This difference in their attitude towards relations connects interestingly with their relational holism noted above. At one level they are both monists because they believe that everything is related to everything else, and that nothing is so isolated as to be unaffected by its relations to its neighbours. But at a deeper level the picture changes. Green persists in thinking reality a unity because of its relational character. For Bradley, by contrast, at the deepest level, reality is a unity precisely despite its relations. Notwithstanding the attempts by our relational concepts to tear it asunder, it remains at bottom a non-relational unity.

Two qualifications are in order here. To say that Green accepts relations while Bradley rejects them is to draw the difference between them a little too sharply. Although he attacks the apparatus of terms and relations, Bradley accepts that beyond thought, in the Absolute, there does exist some kind of (non-relational) coming (p.131) together of unity and diversity. Green, on the other hand, accepts that the unity-in-difference which relations claim to create for us is something mysterious, experienced in our own self-consciousness but not fully explained by it. In this way the contrast between the two philosophers closes slightly, and the issue becomes not whether differences can be brought together (which they both hold possible), nor whether this is mysterious (which they both accept it is), but whether this can in any sense be thought or not. Bradley thinks it a union forever beyond intelligible thought, something which we can see must be the case, but which we can never hope to grasp. Green, on the other hand, together with most of the other British Idealists, thinks it something we can intelligibly conceive because it is something uniquely revealed to us in our own self-consciousness. For Green, human self-consciousness, which he explicitly identifies with Kant's ‘unity of apperception’, provides the key to understanding the fundamental nature of reality; for Bradley, by contrast, it is just one more contradiction separating us from that reality.186

The second qualification concerns the use of relations as a criterion for reality. Whilst disagreeing, in the final analysis, with Green's idea that a thing's reality lies precisely in its relations, Bradley does see a limited role for this idea. His universe is a very democratic and full one offering at least a degree of reality to the worlds of myth, fiction, dreaming, and so forth. But how, within this crowd, can he pick out that subset which we commonly call the ‘real world’? For this task he appeals, like Green, to relations, defining it as the universe of those things which are continuous in space with my body. It earns its place of pre-eminence because of its superior relational integrity; ‘The order of things which I can construct from the basis of my waking body, is far more consistent and comprehensive than any other possible arrangement.’187 Bradley and Green's methods of picking out ‘reality’ here are identical, the difference simply that the prize Bradley thinks he has captured in this net is smaller in scope and less fundamental in significance than that which Green claims to have caught.

Alongside that concerning relations, a further important contrast may be drawn between Green and Bradley's views regarding the relative roles of reason and experience in our investigation of reality. The explanation of Bradley's agreement with Green that relations are mental is that he finds them contradictory or impossible, and ‘Reality is such that it does not contradict itself,’ he tells us.188 Thus, for him, their being mental is indicative of their unreality. But Green, it will be remembered, was trying to undermine precisely this traditional association of ‘work of the mind’ and ‘that which is unreal’. Thus, far from following in his footsteps, Bradley is undoing all Green's efforts in this direction, and in a very real sense going back to Locke. ‘Created (p.132) by us’ is once again contrasted with ‘really there’, and ‘ultimate reality’ to be thought of as the residue remaining once all input or contamination by ‘us’ has been removed.

As an anti-realist, Green accepts that we can know only what knowing itself has created, but he insists that what we know is none the less real for that. Moreover, as itself a product of our thought, the universe is rationally intelligible and may be uncovered through the use of our reason; for the world is relational and relations are something of which the knowing subject is conscious only because he thinks.189 For Bradley, on the other hand, ultimate reality is unknowable or beyond thought, and intellect is consequently engaged on a hopeless quest, attempting to recover what it has already destroyed. With a gap opening up in this way between thought and reality, Bradley argues that our only true contact with uncontaminated being is in feeling or immediate experience, and hence that it is through feeling not reason that we come closest to knowing how things really are. Ultimate reality turns out to be a matter of feeling or experience, rather than thought. Green differs from Bradley, not so much by taking the opposite line, as by refusing to accept the sharp distinctions which Bradley here insists on. ‘We deny that there is really such a thing as ‘mere feeling’ or ‘mere thought,’ he says, ‘We hold that these phrases represent abstractions to which no reality corresponds.’190 While, with respect to the Absolute, he holds that, ‘It is one and the same living world of experience which, considered as the manifold object presented by a self-distinguishing subject to itself, may be called feeling, and, considered as the subject presenting such an object to itself, may be called thought.’191 Looked at another way, the difference between Bradley and Green here could be put like this. While Bradley operates with a very strong nominalist intuition of reality as something particular, for Green universality is an eliminable aspect of what it is to be real.

Bradley's philosophical system is in many respects a development of Green's. He strengthens Green's admittedly sketchy arguments for the mind-dependence of relations, he realizes that the power of relations to unite presupposes a prior function of dissolution on their part, and he sees that if we are to criticize the data of experience for their conceptual or relational contamination we may not simply halt this critique where it suits us, but must press on to include the data of our own self-consciousness. But for each of these ‘advances’ there is a price to pay, and as a whole they tend to take his position in an anti-intellectualist, even a somewhat mystical, direction. Thus in the end it remains an open question whether we should view Bradley's philosophy as a legitimate and natural development of Green's or as its reductio ad absurdum. But certainly we see that it would be a great mistake to think of Bradley as belonging in any simple sense to ‘the school of Green’.192

(p.133) 4.5 The School of Absolute Idealism

Sketches completed of the three central systems of Absolute idealist metaphysics that came to dominate and define the British Idealist movement, it remains to show how these views were echoed in many other early Idealist philosophers, producing the effect of something close to a metaphysical orthodoxy. For if not doctrinal identity, undeniably there was close enough kinship between them to make it permissible to speak of a common metaphysical worldview—the philosophy of the Absolute.193

A very similar kind of monism may be observed, for example, in Nettleship. As early as 1889 in a short discussion of individuality we find him arguing that an individual is ‘something that cannot be divided’, that ‘from which none can be taken away without the unity ceasing’. If the situation in which some object lies in any way shapes, affects, or colours it, such that to remove the context would alter or take away some part of the object's nature, then its individuality stands hostage to its surroundings. Strictly speaking, therefore, a complete individual could have no environment and would have to be all-embracing.194 The monism of the Absolute.

Less strictly—‘for everything except the absolute’—it may be allowed that individuality implies environment or limitation which, since that comes in degree, means that individuality also is a degree notion. Capable of being measured in two ways—by how much it takes within itself and by what it excludes against itself—‘One might compare individuality to centre of gravity. Every material body has a centre of gravity.…On the other hand, each centre of gravity is determined by those about it.’195 He envisions a fluidity in the scheme, both in terms of the framework chosen—one's centre of gravity may vary from one frame of reference to another; should we say, for example, that the poem lies in the poet or that the poet is to be found in the poem?—and in terms of the constantly shifting interplay between object and environment. ‘The difficulty is to keep between the two extremes, as Aristotle might say, that of being nothing because one has only one centre, and that of being nothing because one has no centre; death by stagnation and death by dissipation.’196

For some, such as Bradley's colleague at Merton, William Wallace,197 this general metaphysics of the Absolute emerged largely from their study of Hegel. Wallace never (p.134) made any attempt to set down systematically his own metaphysical position. Perhaps even more than Caird, he was content to develop his ideas by way of exposition and criticism of others—Epicurus, Lotze, Hegel, Kant, Schopenhauer—his accounts striving always to show forth their positive contributions, rather than attack their errors. But although in such accounts he rarely distinguishes with any explicitness between his own voice and that of whichever thinker he is expounding, no one can read his commentaries and be left in doubt about his philosophical standpoint. For example, almost as an aside, in the following (gentle) comments on the limitations of Kant's vision, we see his commitment to the broad principles of objective idealism.

Here and there, as in his aesthetic criticisms, there are glimpses vouchsafed to him of something within us and without us which proclaims the infinity in the finite and the universality in the individual. But the glimpses are distrusted under the prevailing sense that all is but an effect of the human position,—the inherent limitation of the human view.

‘The great ideal realities of life’ were acknowledged, Wallace continues, but only as ideas which human consciousness uses to regulate, round off, and unify the world, not as lying in the heart of the real itself.198 And again, easy to miss as he expounds a point in Hegel's philosophy of nature, he lets slip that, ‘We need hardly go to Hegel to be told that to know one thing thoroughly well is to know all things. The finite, which we inertly rest content with, would, if we were in full sympathy with it, open up its heart and show us the infinite.’199 If the precise nature of that immanent infinity is left vague, that is deliberately so; for no more than any of the other Idealists would Wallace endorse the precise details of the Hegelian metaphysical system; each age must work these details afresh, he argues.200 He is quite clear, however, that that system must be idealist; although ideas must not be hypostatized as some further mode of being, existing in abstraction from things as, in their different ways, both the realist and the subjective idealist are prone to do. Rather to have an idea of something is simply to know or think it. An idea is not given: it is a thing which is given in the idea. An idea is not an additional and intervening object of our knowledge or supposed knowledge. That a thing is our object of thought is another word for its being our idea, and that means we know it.'201 Consequently truth must be understood not as a function of some comparison between an idea and something beyond, but as the result of growth in our knowledge, the successful bringing together of one idea with another.

A second figure to find himself under the general influence of Hegel was Bosanquet, who, in his contribution to the 1882 Green memorial volume, puts forward the view that there can be no sharp distinction between logic and metaphysics.202 We can hardly (p.135) say that the one deals with thought and the other with something beyond thought, for thought and reality imply each other. Nor can we see one as process and the other as product, the science of thinking versus the theories arrived at, for again these two depend on each other. The significance of this view, for logic, will be discussed at some length in Chapter 8, but it is worth noting too at this point its significance for metaphysics. On this view, suggests Bosanquet, ‘ontological speculation will assume a less rigid form.’203 Rather than treated in abstraction or in isolation, metaphysical matters must be settled by their overall ability to increase the coherence of experience.

Others followed Green more closely than they did Hegel. One enthusiastic supporter was D.G. Ritchie. In an 1890 essay on ‘Natural Selection and the Spiritual World’ Ritchie argues the need to recognize the existence of a spiritual principle, not in the exceptional, but everywhere as a condition of our knowing nature at all.204 Defending the idealism that results, Ritchie argues that we may speak indifferently of ‘Reality as such’ or ‘experience as a whole’, since reality can have no meaning except insofar as it enters into some actual or possible experience. To suppose otherwise, that there is reality outside of all possible experience, is self-contradictory; for it is a claim to know that of which nothing may be known, since experience here is taken in the widest possible sense to include not just what we sense or feel, but what we think.205 To object to such a wide use, to think reality given in sense but not thought, is unsustainable, for on the one hand what we are given in sense already involves judgement, while on the other, if reality is but what we think, it is not simply what you or I think, but what we would all think on the fullest information.206 The echoes of Green here are strong.

To Green the eternal consciousness progressively manifests itself in the temporal expansion of human knowledge, which same growth Caird understands as the mind's gradual coming to full self-consciousness. In 1891 Henry Jones made interesting application of these ideas in relation to the poetry of Robert Browning, whose scepticism about human knowledge he takes exception to. The conciliatory nature of his idealism allows him to find a measure of truth in Browning's epistemic pessimism. Man, he admits, ‘will never know reality, nor be able to hold up in his hand the very heart of the simplest thing in the world. For the world is an organic totality, and its simplest thing will not be seen, through and through, till everything is known, till every fact and event is related to every other under principles which are universal.’207 But that is only half of the story. (p.136)

The complete failure of knowledge is as impossible as its complete success. It is at no time severed from reality; it is never its mere adumbration, nor are its contents mere phenomena. On the contrary, it is reality partially revealed, the ideal incompletely actualized. Our very errors are the working of reality within us, and apart from it they would be impossible. The process towards truth by man is the process of truth in man; the movement of knowledge towards reality is the movement of reality into knowledge.208

Browning allows that God reveals himself to us in morality and in religion, but is it then reasonable to suppose that the matter is otherwise with knowledge?209 If he sees in human love the manifestation of God's love, should he not take the same attitude towards human reason?210 Though neither name is mentioned in the text, it is clear that this argument draws heavily on both Green and Caird. Of particular interest is the close connection Jones highlights here between knowledge and metaphysics, or we might even say the lack of connection, for in his argument epistemology is almost taken up bodily into metaphysics. Indeed only two years later we find him arguing that idealism neither contains nor needs an epistemology, because it recognizes no distinction between subject and object.211

Although always something of a maverick and an enigma at the same time, Bradley's metaphysics too exerted a strong influence. Some thirty years later in 1924 Mackenzie still felt it appropriate to describe Appearance and Reality as ‘the most notable book, I suppose, in recent British Philosophy.’212 Much adopted was his doctrine of degrees of truth and reality.213


(1) Bradley wrote on both ethics and logic before attempting a treatise on metaphysics, but it should not be inferred from this fact that either of his first two works are free from metaphysical significance, or that they are not constantly straining against their own self-imposed directive to avoid it. And in the end he was compelled to spell out fully the implicit underlying metaphysic that had been guiding him thus far.

(2) Appearance and Reality, 1.

(3) Prolegomena, §9. ‘Can there be a Natural Science of Man?’ For a listing of Green's Professorial lectures incorporated into Prolegomena see Nettleship's ‘Memoir’ cxxv. For an account of Green's discussion of Lewes see above §

(4) Prolegomena, §9–10.

(5) Prolegomena, §22.

(6) Prolegomena, §21.

(7) Though no debt is acknowledged, the origin of this view is most likely Lotze. The dictum that ‘to be is to be related’ is one which recurs throughout his metaphysics. See, e.g., Metaphysics, volume I, 38ff, 53; Outlines of Metaphysic, 18–19.

(8) Prolegomena, §21.

(9) Nettleship, ‘Memoir’, lxxviii; Nettleship, ‘Lectures on Logic’, 113–21.

(10) ‘Lectures on Logic’, 179.

(11) Prolegomena, §54.

(12) Locke, Essay, 322 (Bk.II ch.25 §8). We should not exaggerate the degree of consensus between Green and the empiricists over the mentality of relations. The empiricists acknowledge that it is mind which makes relations, but when we come to think about those relations themselves their position becomes rather more complicated. For considering such relations as identity, sequence, contiguity, cause, and the like, the empiricists tend to see these as elements which, if not actually given in experience, can nonetheless be pretty straight forwardly derived from it, through such simple procedures as comparison, union, abstraction. Green sees no possibility of this. For him, experience as a doctrine of passive sensations cannot account for our grasp of relations, since they are neither given in sensation, nor constructible solely out of what is given in sensation.

(13) See Chapter below. The word ‘perception’ is here being used in the empiricist sense of a mental act other than conception. Used in the idealist sense of an action that includes conception Green would, of course, have no objection to saying that we perceive one thing to be related to another.

(14) Prolegomena, §16 (see also §§18, 35, 84) The problem as Green well knew was one that had defeated Mill, who had in the end found it inexplicable that mind ‘which ex hypothesi is but a series of feelings should be aware of itself as a series’ (Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy, ch. XII, 248).

(15) ‘Lectures on Logic’, 170.

(16) Prolegomena, §37.

(17) The doctrine of the specious present was introduced to overcome this problem. It did not.

(18) Prolegomena, §§28–9.

(19) Prolegomena, §67.

(20) ‘Lectures on Kant’, 32; See also his review of John Caird's Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, 145; Green, ‘Faith’, 267–8.

(21) For a list of critics of the eternal consciousness see C. Tyler, Thomas Hill Green and the Philosophical Foundations of Politics, 26, note 25.

(22) Prolegomena, §§29, 77, 68, 52, 51, 77, 50, 63, 24.

(23) The Principles of Psychology, 660.

(24) Although it also true that it stems in part from the tentative and exploratory nature of his own thought. His brother in law described him as someone who ‘never possessed, even to his last days, a complete grasp of his own philosophical position’ (Memoirs of John Addington Symonds, 119).

(25) Prolegomena, §75. ‘As to what that consciousness in itself or in its completeness is, we can only make negative statements’ (Prolegomena, §51).

(26) So opposed is he to the notion that, in his loyalty to Kant, he even doubts whether this really was Kant's view (‘Review of J. Watson, Kant and his English Critics’, 151).

(27) ‘Mr Herbert Spencer and Mr G.H. Lewes’, 449.

(28) Prolegomena, §54.

(29) McGilvarey, ‘The Eternal Consciousness’ 481, 489–92. Sidgwick more modestly claims that Green equivocates between the two senses (Lectures on philosophy of Kant, 261). The notion of ‘unalterability’ is another of Green's metaphorical terms, for clearly I can alter many of the relations that go to make up the real world (Quinton, ‘T.H. Green's ‘Metaphysics of Knowledge’, 30).

(30) ‘a consciousness of events as a related series…cannot properly be said to be developed out of, a mere series of related events, of successive modifications of body and soul.…No one and no number of a series of related events can be the consciousness of the series as related’ (Prolegomena, §16).

(31) Prolegomena,§§173.

(32) It is worth remembering that this basic problem is not unique with Green, but found in all classical religious conceptions which posit a timeless God that knows or acts in an essentially temporal world.

(33) Prolegomena, §§67, 72.

(34) ‘In reading [a] sentence we see the words successively, we attend to them successively, we recall their meaning successively. But throughout the succession there must be present continuously the consciousness that the sentence has a meaning as a whole; otherwise the successive vision, attention and recollection would not end in a comprehension of what the meaning is’ (Prolegomena, §71). It must be confessed that Green's choice of metaphor here is not entirely a happy one, in so far as realizing that some sentence has a meaning and knowing what that meaning is are really two completely different states (you could know the first but have no idea about the second) not temporally different manifestations of the same state.

(35) Reproduction: Prolegomena, §§68, 71, 72, 99. It is in this context of reproduction, perhaps, that we ought to consider Green's even more obscure metaphor of a ‘vehicle’ (Prolegomena, §67) with its suggestion of distinction between the vehicle and what it conveys. Participation: ‘Review of J. Caird, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion’, 146; ‘Value and Influence of Works of Fiction’, 22; Lectures on Logic, 190. Another anomalous metaphor to note here is the suggestion that we ‘co-operate’ (Prolegomena, §10) with the eternal consciousness in making the world. Realization: Prolegomena §§67, 68, 82.

(36) Introduction, §§140–2.

(37) It is at this point that he parts company with Martineau. Green's account of the relation between eternal completeness and freedom should also be compared with Edward Caird's. See Chapter 5.4.3 below.

(38) Human activity for Green is free (Prolegomena, §82), but this freedom is not acausal (‘Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant’, 95).

(39) Seth Pringle-Pattison, The Idea of God, 196. In a similar vein, Knox argues that William James' radical empiricism, in which we enjoy a direct experience of change, constitutes a way of refuting Green's argument for idealism. (‘Has Green answered Locke?’, 334–48). The objection has resurfaced too in modern times: Dimova-Cookson objects ‘Green's mistake was to believe that all sensations come from “outside,” all relations from the “inside”’. (T.H.Green's Moral and Political Philosophy, 29–30).

(40) Prolegomena, §§32, 48, 13, 20.

(41) For a contemporary occurrence of this charge see Pringle-Pattison, Hegelianism and Personality, 74ff. It will not do to respond that feelings or sensations are mental too, for Green builds his idealism on a distinction between thought and feeling, rather than on one between the mental and the non-mental. For Green, the key claim is that reality is something thought not felt, and that is how he distinguishes his own objective Absolute idealism from any more subjective Berkeleyan idealism. ‘We object intuitively to any idealism which is understood to imply an identification of the realities of the world with the feelings of men’ (Prolegomena, §37).

(42) For a list of earlier instances of this objection see Tyler, Thomas Hill Green and the Philosophical Foundations of Politics, 16, note 12. Curiously enough Green does refer at one point to his own position as that of ‘the reduction of facts to relations’ (Prolegomena, §37).

(43) Green tackles the point at length in Prolegomena, §§ 42–51. See also ‘Lectures on Logic’, 181–2.

(44) ‘Lectures on the Philosophy Kant’, 6.

(45) Prolegomena, §75.

(46) Russell Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy, 38.

(47) See 4.3.1 below.

(48) Prolegomena, §69; ‘Mr Herbert Spencer and Mr G.H. Lewes’, 487.

(49) This is the charge of Seth Pringle-Pattison in The Idea of God, 195–9.

(50) ‘Review of J. Caird, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion’, 144–5.

(51) Prolegomena, §§52, 63, 46, 50, 38, 29.

(52) Prolegomena, §§76, 36. This criticism can be found in Sidgwick, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant, 262.

(53) Prolegomena, §75.

(54) Prolegomena, §77.

(55) Prolegomena, §§29, 32, 50, 75.

(56) Green explicitly identifies it with Kant's synthetic unity of apperception (Prolegomena, §33) arguing that its unity is correlative to that of the experience (Prolegomena, §32). Although Kant was rather vague about the metaphysical significance of the ‘I’ of the transcendental unity of apperception, the British Idealists were far more bold. For them this was the self and it was real, not just formal. However, there was not complete agreement. Pringle-Pattison in his Hegelianism and Personality (23–30) objected to this conception of self precisely on the grounds of its abstract thinness, a worry echoed by Dewey in ‘On Some Current Conceptions of the Term “Self”’ (73–4). But it was Bradley alone who saw that it is also—even just as much—the role of consciousness to divide as it is to unite.

(57) Prolegomena, §§68, 70.

(58) For recent discussion of Bradley on relations see W. Mander, An Introduction to Bradley's Metaphysics; P. Basile, Experience and Relations.

(59) Appearance and Reality, 28.

(60) Appearance and Reality, 21.

(61) Appearance and Reality, 28.

(62) Appearance and Reality, 26.

(63) Appearance and Reality, 27.

(64) For detailed discussions of the debate between Bradley and Russell see Hylton, Russell, Idealism and the Emergence of Analytic Philosophy and Candlish, The Russell/Bradley Dispute.

(65) Russell, Principles of Mathematics, §§212–16.

(66) Essays on Truth and Reality, 333; Principles of Logic, 630.

(67) Russell, Principles of Mathematics, §212.

(68) For further detail on Bradley's theory of judgement see Chapter 8.3.2 below.

(69) C.D. Broad said of it ‘Charity bids us avert our eyes from the pitiable spectacle of a great philosopher using an argument that would disgrace a child or a savage’ (Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, I:85).

(70) Cook Wilson, Statement and Inference, II:692–5. See also Saxena, Studies in the Metaphysics of F.H. Bradley, 130–40; Tacelli, ‘Cook Wilson as Critic of Bradley’, 199–205.

(71) Russell, Philosophical Essays, 139; Logic and Knowledge, 335.

(72) Collected Essays, 677.

(73) Essays on Truth and Reality, 238.

(74) Essays on Truth and Reality, 312. For more on degrees of truth and reality see Chapter 8.3.11 below.

(75) Appearance and Reality, 29.

(76) ‘If time is not unreal, I admit that our Absolute is a delusion’ (Appearance and Reality, 182). See also Essays on Truth and Reality, 336.

(77) Appearance and Reality, 434.

(78) Appearance and Reality, 231.

(79) Appearance and Reality, 438.

(80) Appearance and Reality, 436.

(81) Appearance and Reality, 12–13. This argument repeats the traditional mistake of supposing that the distinction is one made on grounds of introspective epistemology. In truth an examination of its origins in Locke and Boyle clearly reveals it to be a hypothesis adopted on the basis of its explanatory power.

(82) Appearance and Reality, 12.

(83) Appearance and Reality, 94.

(84) Appearance and Reality, 103.

(85) Appearance and Reality, 472.

(86) Appearance and Reality, 471.

(87) For example, Henry Jones. See p.428 below.

(88) See below Chapter 10.

(89) Appearance and Reality, 463.

(90) My Philosophical Development, 290.

(91) Appearance and Reality, 120.

(92) Principles of Logic, 44.

(93) Essays on Truth and Reality, 190.

(94) Essays on Truth and Reality, 189.

(95) Qualification is in order here. Immediate experience need not be wholly free from concepts, for Bradley allows that it may become coloured or infused to a degree by previous thought or judgement (Essays on Truth and Reality, 177). See Ferreira, Bradley and the Structure of Knowledge, 158–9.

(96) Ferreira, Bradley and the Structure of Knowledge, 157.

(97) Collected Essays, 216; Appearance and Reality, 90.

(98) Appearance and Reality, 465.

(99) Essays on Truth and Reality, 159.

(100) Essays on Truth and Reality, 410.

(101) Appearance and Reality, 468.

(102) Essays on Truth and Reality, 411.

(103) Essays on Truth and Reality, 418.

(104) Essays on Truth and Reality, 248.

(105) Appearance and Reality, 467; cf. Appearance and Reality, 241–2, Appearance and Reality, 411 n.

(106) Appearance and Reality, 468; Essays on Truth and Reality, 412.

(107) Appearance and Reality, 197.

(108) Appearance and Reality, 416.

(109) Appearance and Reality, 198.

(110) Essays on Truth and Reality, 247–8, 415.

(111) Appearance and Reality, 199.

(112) Appearance and Reality, 198.

(113) Essays on Truth and Reality, 173.

(114) Appearance and Reality, 407; Essays on Truth and Reality, 189.

(115) Essays on Truth and Reality, 160, 175, 178.

(116) Essays on Truth and Reality, 160.

(117) Appearance and Reality, 150. Realism here is to be taken in the sense of a belief in reality beyond the compass of thought, not in any sort of commitment to the correspondence of reality and thought.

(118) In historical terms, Collingwood has pointed out that Bradley is rejecting here a long-standing conception of ‘appearance’ which, taking its origin in Locke and Hume, reached a high pitch of development in the work of Bradley's more immediate predecessors, Hamilton and (especially) Mansel. For both thinkers human knowledge is limited to mind-relative phenomena cutting us off from an unknown ultimate reality. It is true that Mansel is rarely mentioned explicitly, but in Oxford at that time, the applicability would have been obvious (‘The Metaphysics of F.H. Bradley’, 232–8).

(119) Appearance and Reality, 433.

(120) Appearance and Reality, 313.

(121) Appearance and Reality, 251.

(122) Appearance and Reality, 251.

(123) ‘A Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology’, 373.

(124) Appearance and Reality, 251.

(125) ‘A Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology’, 364.

(126) Appearance and Reality, ch XI.

(127) ‘A Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology’, 364.

(128) ‘A Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology’, 375.

(129) Van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, 87–96.

(130) ‘A Defence of Phenomenalism in Psychology’, 375.

(131) Essays on Truth and Reality, 108.

(132) Candlish, The Russell/Bradley Dispute, 45.

(133) Principles of Logic, 590–1.

(134) Appearance and Reality, 127–8.

(135) Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, II: 371.

(136) Evolution of Religion, I: 67.

(137) For example, Evolution of Religion, II:30; ‘The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time’, 225.

(138) ‘The Faith of Job’, Lay Sermons, 304.

(139) ‘There is a certain trend or direction of progress from multiplicity to unity, from the natural to the spiritual, from the particular to the universal’ (Evolution of Religion, I:62).

(140) ‘The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time’, 202.

(141) ‘The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time’, 203, 205.

(142) ‘Religion is simply a higher form of that tendency which, in science, leads us to seek the universal beyond the particular, the one beyond the many’ (Evolution of Religion, I:110–11).

(143) Caird speaks of ‘the spiritual principle which urges him [man] forward in his unhasting, unresting course’ (Evolution of Religion, I: 231).

(144) Evolution of Religion, I:150–1. ‘the whole process of Hegel's philosophy is a movement from the abstract to the concrete’ (Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, II: 247).

(145) See, for example, ‘Metaphysic’ (460–4) where he argues that during the early modern period religion became increasingly subjective while science became more and more objective, when what was needed was a fusion or synthesis between these one-sided extremes. This tendency to bring together seeming opposites was given even more prominence in the work of Caird's pupil, Henry Jones.

(146) Evolution of Religion, I:158.

(147) Evolution of Religion, I:136.

(148) ‘Idealism and the Theory of Knowledge’, 96.

(149) ‘Idealism and the Theory of Knowledge’, 95.

(150) Green, ‘Herbert Spencer and G.H. Lewes’, 432.

(151) Evolution of Religion, I:136.

(152) ‘Metaphysic’, 474–6. This argument from finite to infinite is very similar to one put forward by his brother John in his Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (112–22).

(153) ‘Cartesianism’, 280–4.

(154) Evolution of Religion, I: 97.

(155) Evolution of Religion, I:102.

(156) Evolution of Religion, I:108.

(157) ‘The Problem of Philosophy at the Present Time’, 205.

(158) ‘Metaphysic’, 443.

(159) Hegel, 153.

(160) ‘Metaphysic’, 408; cf. Hegel, 117.

(161) Hegel, 118.

(162) ‘Metaphysic’, 447.

(163) ‘Metaphysic’, 448.

(164) ‘Metaphysic’, 451.

(165) Lay Sermons, 270–1; see also Chapter 6.3.5 below.

(166) Lay Sermons, 281; also, 276–7.

(167) Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers, I:195.

(168) Nettleship, ‘Memoir’, cxxv.

(169) He eventually returned to Oxford as Master of Balliol College in 1893.

(170) Bradley attended some of Green's lectures, and what are undoubtedly his notes from these lectures have been reproduced in the collected works of both Bradley and Green (see note 10 to Chapter 3 above). Moreover a few of his undergraduate essays bear what appear to be comments by Green (Keene, ‘The Interplay of Bradley's Social and Moral Philosophy’, 87n.1) Of note also is a letter from 1872 or 1873 in which Bradley, along with some others, asked Green to join a philosophical essay society that they had formed, although it is not known whether Green did join (see Collected Works, 4:1–2).

(171) Indeed, in explaining this point in his 1883 essay ‘Metaphysics’ (447) Caird appeals for support to Green's claim in his 1874 General Introduction to Hume's Treatise that that ‘knowledge…is only possible as the progressive actualisation in us of a self-consciousness in itself complete, and which in its completeness includes the world as its object’ (§152).

(172) ‘Professor Green's Last Work’, 560.

(173) Watson, ‘Idealism of Edward Caird’, 162.

(174) Seth Pringle‐Pattison with Haldane, Essays in Philosophical Criticism, 5–6.

(175) ‘Idealism and the Theory of Knowledge’, 105. Caird's pupil, Mackenzie (‘Edward Caird as Philosophical Teacher’, 518) joins his teacher in thinking that Green's presentation of idealism tends towards such subjectivism as, somewhat later, did Seth Pringle-Pattison (Idea of God, 190–9).

(176) See above p.21.

(177) Principles of Logic, 591.

(178) As well as comments in Caird's published works, there are relevant letters to Henry Jones (see Life and Philosophy of Edward Caird, 188–95) and to F.H. Bradley himself (see Bradley Collected Works, 4: 9–10, 73–4, 76–7).

(179) Jones and Muirhead, The Life and Philosophy of Edward Caird, 206.

(180) 28 August 1893. In Bradley, Collected Works, 4:77.

(181) Jones and Muirhead, The Life and Philosophy of Edward Caird, 286–7, 298. Jones follows him in this objection, Idealism as a Practical Creed, 263–4.

(182) Instead of asking who influenced who here, arguably both owe their insight that relations provide the key to Lotze. And in this connection there exists an interesting exchange of letters between Jones and Bradley on Lotze (see Hetherington, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Jones, 186–90; Bradley, Collected Works, 4:96–100.) An alternative possibility, worth exploring, is that their common interest in relations stems from their common interest in Herbart.

(183) See below (p.130) for an important qualification of this claim.

(184) Kant's error for Green was simply that he did not go far enough in thinking through the consequences of the principles he established (Prolegomena, §41).

(185) Appearance and Reality, 494.

(186) Their differing attitudes towards self-consciousness have other consequences as well. Both philosophers reach idealist and monistic conclusions, in as much as Bradley's Absolute is parallel to Green's eternal consciousness. But Green (albeit tentatively) identifies his with God, something that Bradley's attitude toward the self absolutely precludes.

(187) Essays on Truth and Reality, 462.

(188) Appearance and Reality, 120.

(189) ‘Lectures on Logic’, 171. ‘Reason is self-consciousness’ argues Green, and ‘It is only as taken into our self-consciousness, and so presented to us as an object, that anything is known to us’ (‘Faith’, 267).

(190) Prolegomena, §51.

(191) Prolegomena, §50.

(192) In this connection the fact that Bradley did not contribute to the memorial volume for T.H. Green is perhaps significant (although there exists no direct evidence bearing on the point either way).

(193) One name that might perhaps be expected to appear in this context is that of George Jamieson, whose 1895 The Great Problem of Substance and its Attributes puts forward a doctrine of the Absolute, as the all-comprehending and fundamental totality, the ground of all being and the source from which all particulars emanate. It is capable of being viewed, either objectively as Absolute Impersonality, out of which material reality is developed, or else in its subjective aspect as Absolute Personality, which he associates with Deity. Jamieson's idealistic Absolutism, however, is developed without use of—indeed in opposition to—the idealism of Kant and Hegel, which he regards as ‘one of the most complicated and at the same time most mischievous structures ever built up by the perverted ingenuity of man’ (The Great Problem of Substance, ix), and the main stream of British Idealism was quite uninfluenced by it.

(194) ‘Individuality’, 34.

(195) ‘Individuality’, 36.

(196) ‘Individuality’, 37–8.

(197) Wallace was elected in 1867. They overlapped from Bradley's election three years later until Wallace's untimely death in 1897.

(198) Kant, 218.

(199) Prolegomena, 64.

(200) Prolegomena, 12.

(201) Hegel's Philosophy of Mind, Introductory Essay III, cv.

(202) ‘Logic as the Science of Knowledge’, 74.

(203) ‘Logic as the Science of Knowledge’, 75.

(204) ‘Natural Selection and the Spiritual World’, 115. See also his argument that ‘a conception of the self as rational and universal…seems to be a necessary conclusion from the conditions of knowledge’ in his Natural Rights, 96.

(205) Cogitatio Metaphysica, 85–8.

(206) ‘What is Reality?’, 81, 87, 91.

(207) Browning as Philosophical and Religious Teacher, 284–5.

(208) Browning as Philosophical and Religious Teacher, 285–6.

(209) Browning as Philosophical and Religious Teacher, 300.

(210) ‘To be sure, no more than in morality, is completion or perfection ever attained in cognition, but since it lies in the very nature of such series to lack a final term, that is no mark against regarding them as manifestations of perfection’ (Browning as Philosophical and Religious Teacher, 318).

(211) ‘Idealism and Epistemology’. For further discussion of this essay see p.360.

(212) Ultimate Value in the Light of Contemporary Thought, 27.

(213) E.g. Bosanquet, ‘Philosophy of Religion’, 457; Seth Pringle-Pattison, Idea of God, 222; Illingworth, Divine Immanence, 187; Joachim, The Nature of Truth, §30ff; Mackenzie takes some issue with it (‘The New Realism and the Old Idealism’, 326–7).