F. H. Bradley

From New World Encyclopedia

Western Philosophy
nineteenth-century philosophy
Name: Francis Herbert (F.H.) Bradley
Birth: January 30, 1846
Death: September 18, 1924
School/tradition: British idealism
Main interests
Metaphysics, Ethics, Philosophy of history, Logic
Notable ideas
Influences Influenced
Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Hill Green G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, Robin George Collingwood

Francis Herbert Bradley (January 30, 1846 – September 18, 1924) was a leading member of the philosophical movement known as British idealism, which was strongly influenced by Immanuel Kant and the German idealists, Johann Fichte, Friedrich Shelling, and G.W.F. Hegel. Bradley argued that both pluralism and realism contained inherent contradictions and proposed instead a combination of monism, the concept that all reality is one and there are no separate “things;” and absolute idealism, the concept that reality consists entirely of ideas.

Bradley's contributions to moral philosophy and the philosophy of logic were probably more influential than his metaphysics. Bradley wrote Ethical Studies (1876), critiquing existing schemes of morality and elaborating an “ideal morality” focused on the attainment of the “best self.” One should always strive to realize one’s “best self” in every situation, and that the idea of what that best self was could be expanded by exposure to the values of other cultures and also by internal criticism of one’s own society. Thus, he taught to seek new possibilities and a higher standard, rather than to regard ethics as a set of established rules.

Though he was considered one of the greatest British philosophers during his lifetime, a combination of political circumstances and the tendency away from idealism and towards science and formal logic among intellectuals resulted in his ideas being misrepresented and largely ignored until the 1970s. One characteristic of Bradley's philosophical approach was his methodology of distinguishing ambiguity within language, especially within individual words. This approach might be seen as anticipating later advances in the tradition of analytic philosophy.


Francis Herbert Bradley was born at Clapham, Surrey, England (now part of the Greater London area) on January 30, 1846. He was the fourth child and eldest surviving son of Charles Bradley, an evangelical preacher, and Emma Linton, Charles's second wife. His half-brother through his father’s first marriage, George Granville Bradley, was successively Head Master of Marlborough College, Master of University College, Oxford, and Dean of Westminster Abbey; his younger brother A. C. Bradley was a distinguished Shakespearian critic and taught philosophy at Oxford. His parents were part of the “Clapham Sect,” a group of actively evangelical humanitarians which included among its members a Governor-General of Bengal, a Governor of Sierra Leone, several members of Parliament and a permanent head of the Colonial Office.

In 1856, Bradley entered Cheltenham College, and in 1861, he transferred to Marlborough College, where his half-brother was Headmaster. In the winter of 1862 he barely survived typhoid fever followed by pneumonia, and consequently left Marlborough in 1863. In 1865 Bradley entered University College, Oxford, as a Scholar, getting a first in classical moderations (Mods) in 1867, but only an unexpected second in literae humaniores (Greats) in 1869. After more than one failure to obtain a college fellowship, in December 1870, he was elected to a fellowship at Merton College, Oxford, tenable for life, with no teaching duties, and terminable only on marriage. He never married, and remained in his fellowship until his death.

In 1871, Bradley suffered a severe inflammation of the kidneys which permanently affected him and made him vulnerable to cold, physical anxiety, and exhaustion. After this he lived a retired life, taking an active part in the running of his college, but avoiding public occasions. This relative seclusion added an element of mystery to his philosophical reputation, a mystery enhanced by the dedication of some of his books to a person identified only by the initials E.R. He was known in public mainly through his books and articles. Bradley often traveled to warmer climates in southern England and Mediterranean resorts to protect his health. Although he exhibited a religious tendency in his writings, a letter written by Bradley in 1922 indicates that he found the evangelical religiosity of his father's household oppressive, and his attitude towards Christianity was ambivalent. Politically he was a conservative.

In 1883, Bradley received the honorary degree LL.D. from the University of Glasgow. In 1921, he was elected to membership of the Royal Danish Academy, and of the Accademia dei Lincei and the Reale Istituto Lombardo of Milan in 1922. He was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of the British Academy in 1923, and in 1924, King George V bestowed on him, the first philosopher to be singled out for this very rare honor, the Order of Merit. Three months later, on September 18, 1924, he died from blood poisoning. He is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.

Thought and works

F. H. Bradley was the most famous, original, and philosophically influential of the British Idealists, who came to prominence during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Through their students, many of whom attained powerful positions in British institutions, the idealists influenced political and social policy for several decades. Bradley was an example of the movement of British philosophy away from the empiricist and utilitarian traditions of Locke, Hume, and Mill, and towards the German idealism of Kant, Fichte, Shelling, and Hegel.

Bradley is best known for his metaphysics. He argued that both everyday conceptions of the world and the more elaborate systems of philosophers conceal contradictions, which appear when one tries to work out their consequences. Bradley particularly rejected pluralism, the view that reality consists of many objects existing independently of each other; and realism, the view that reality consists of one's experience of objects. His radical alternative was a combination of monism, the concept that all reality is one and there are no separate “things;” and absolute idealism, the concept that reality consists entirely of idea, or experience.

To philosophers, however, Bradley's contributions to moral philosophy and the philosophy of logic were far more influential than his metaphysics. One characteristic of Bradley's philosophical approach was his technique of distinguishing ambiguity within language, especially within individual words. This technique might be seen as anticipating later advances in the philosophy of language.


Bradley expressed his views on ethics in his first widely acknowledged publication, the highly polemical Ethical Studies (1876). Bradley stated in his Preface that his object was "mainly critical" and that the ethical theory of his time rested on "preconceptions metaphysical and psychological," which are "confused or even false," and then set out to expose the flaws in each system of ethics, each system rectifying the previous sytsem’s contradictions. Bradley himself said that the essays "must be read in the order in which they stand;" taking them out of context gives an incorrect understanding of Bradley’s moral thinking. He contended that any moral system should be judged on how well it accomplished the self-realization of the agent.

His critique of hedonistic utilitarianism has remained a classic. Bradley declared that hedonism had an initial practical appeal, but that the maximization of pleasure did not result in self-realization for anyone. He pointed out that its individualism was unsupportable, and that the hedonistic conception of happiness was unacceptable because the state of happiness was dissociated from the means by which that happiness was achieved. In addition, happiness consisted of a series of “perishing moments;” individual incidences of pleasure occur at different times and never exist together, therefore they never form a real totality. Bradley retained, however, the importance of happiness as the point of morality.

Bradley attacked the Kantian moral ideal of “duty for duty’s sake,” as a purely formal concept of morality that provided neither a reliable guide for human behavior nor real human satisfaction. The famous My Station and Its Duties outlined a Hegelian form of morality with such vigor that some readers came to believe it was Bradley’s own position. Morality was explained in terms of assuming a role in a concrete historical community which was capable of providing a satisfying life for real empirical people. Bradley rejected this concept on the grounds that such a community itself might have a questionable morality if viewed from a higher standard, and also on the grounds that realization of the self was more than a social process.

Bradley went on to posit an “ideal morality,” which was the effort to realize the “best self” in every situation; the concept of best self arose originally from the ideals learned in family and community, but could go on to encompass values learned from other cultures or from internal criticism of one's own society. The ideal morality should result in an individual who is a “concrete universal” living in unity within himself and within his community. In the last essay, Bradley suggested that realization of the ideal self is unattainable through morality, because morality itself depends on the existence of evil, but that it could possibly be attained through religion.

The Principles of Logic

In The Principles of Logic (1883) Bradley developed his own theory while criticizing empiricist logic. He used an older vocabulary which was soon to be superseded; what he called "ideas" and "judgments" were later referred to as “subjects” and “predicates.” He argued that those, including Hume, who thought that judgments were made up of separate ideas, had failed to grasp the sense in which ideas are important to logic, as abstract universals. Bradley rejected the view that judgments were formed by conjoining ideas, and proposed instead that a group of related ideas were suggestive of a greater, but elusive reality, and that judgment involved grasping this greater reality. He maintained that many propositions did not conform to the traditional Aristotelian analysis into subject and predicate, or subject and attribute.

Some of Bradley’s doctrines of logic have become standard assumptions through their acceptance by Bertrand Russell, who retained them even after he rejected idealist logic and metaphysics at the beginning of the twentieth century.


During his lifetime Bradly was regarded by many as the greatest English philosopher of his generation, but shortly after his death, his reputation quickly declined and until the 1970s, his ideas received little attention. After World War I, the British idealists were criticized for justifying British imperialism with the concept that Britain had some kind of spiritual mission, a justification that had been carried into the political arena by their students. Philosophy turned away from metaphysics and towards science, mathematics, formal logic, and common sense. G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell rejected idealism and actively criticized Bradley. Alfred Jules Ayer, in his logical empiricist work, Language, Truth and Logic, took one of Bradley’s statements out of context and ridiculed it. Analytic philosophers developed a misleading and dismissive stereotype of Bradley in their textbooks, with the consequence that he was ignored and underrated. Though his ideas were an early influence on Bertrand Russell, and the two carried on an extended debate, there are few, if any references to Bradley in books and articles about Russell.


  • The literary scholar A. C. Bradley was his younger brother.
  • The poet T. S. Eliot wrote a Harvard Ph.D. thesis on Bradley's work but was never granted the degree.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bradley, Francis Herbert. Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay. Adamant Media Corporation, 2003. ISBN 978-1402187636
  • Mallinson, J.E. T.S. Eliot's Interpretation of F.H. Bradley: Seven Essays. Springer, 2002. ISBN 978-1402009884
  • Stock, Guy. Appearance Versus Reality: New Essays on the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley. Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0198236597
  • Wollheim, Richard. F.H. Bradley. Penguin Books, 1960.

External links

All links retrieved August 8, 2017.

General Philosophy Sources


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