Not very many, I suppose, of those who are entitled to pass an opinion would dissent from the judgment that the most distinguished figure in the last half-century of British philosophy was the author of Appearance and Reality. It is natural to ask, therefore, why Bradley's central doctrine - a doctrine propounded unceasingly, and with the evident consciousness (much as he disdained claims to originality) that herein lay such individual contribution as he could make to the progress of philosophic thought - should at the present day be little better than ignored. For upwards of thirty years Bradley laboured to secure, if not an acceptance, at least an intelligent recognition of the existence, of his epistemological arguments for metaphysical scepticism. But that this aspiration has in any substantial measure been realised no student of Bradley's writings would, I venture to think, be prepared to admit. It is true enough, of course, that contemporary philosophy in this country abounds in allusions to the 'Bradleian scepticism.' But it is, I think, equally beyond dispute that a very small proportion of these references (whose general vein is one of denunciation and summary dismissal) imply more than a casual acquaintance with the grounds upon which Bradley's disconcerting conclusions rest; and that Bradley himself was acutely aware of the virtual irrelevance of most of the comments on his position is, I think, a fair inference from the tenor of his later writings, which are directed not so much to answering professed criticisms of his scepticism as to removing current misapprehensions as to its nature and basis.
This disinclination to treat seriously the distinctive doctrine of a philosopher whose eminence is at least verbally acknowledged on all hands, constitutes something of an anomaly. But it may be explained in part, and in part even excused. I wish here to indicate briefly three influences which have been operative. To grasp them clearly is in some measure to purge one's mind of the hostile bias which they tend to engender.
The first is the general Western prejudice against the very possibility of scepticism as the final issue of metaphysics. It seems to be felt that however subtle and brilliant may be the dialectic which suggests such a result, it must be regarded, after all, as no more than an intellectual tour deforce. Just as we know that Achilles does catch up with the tortoise, even although we may feel a difficulty in exposing the precise fallacy in the argument which denies it, so we know that Bradley must be wrong in erecting a philosophy which destroys philosophy, even although we do not see just how we are to refute him. Western philosophy, it may be suspected, has never quite got over Hegel's ridicule of Schelling's Absolute. A unity beyond the difference of subject and object, a unity in which all the features of our world are transformed out of recognition, is "a night in which all cows are black!" It has become the fashion to look upon this epigram as though, through some magical property, it conveys decisive proof that the view of Ultimate Reality to which it refers is merely absurd: so that frequently philosophical critics appear to consider their destructive purpose satisfactorily accomplished, and further argument to be all but superfluous, if only they have succeeded in reducing the metaphysics of their opponents to something approximating to this ill-starred Schellingian Absolutism. Now in a subsequent chapter I (The Epistemological Approach To The Supra-Rational Absolute. Section I. Introductory) shall try to face squarely the genuine arguments which may be brought against the doctrine of a 'supra-rational' Absolute. At present I wish merely to enter a protest against the uncritical tendency to give to Hegel's epigram the force of a conclusive argument. There is nothing self-evidently ridiculous in a view which holds that 'the All' must remain opaque to the categories of the intellect. Those of us who believe it to be the true view are in excellent company. Not only Bradley and Schelling, not only Plotinus, not only - as I should be prepared to argue - Plato in his profoundest utterances, but the whole vast army of mystics of all religions, the persons who, by common consent, embody the religious genius of a people at its highest level, have borne a like testimony. Or again, now that a broader culture is making it evident to all save the incorrigibly parochial that the Oriental absorption in 'the One' is not a symptom of barbaric ignorance or neurotic superstition, but has the support of critical philosophical thinking no less worthy of attention than many admired systems of the Occident, we might appeal to the Vedic literature for impressive evidence of the prima facie reasonableness of such a view as that of Bradley. But in truth there is a veritable 'cloud of witnesses.' There have been, I suspect, moments in the meditations of well-nigh every great philosopher in history when the reason-transcending character of Reality has suddenly presented itself, not so much as a more or less defensible doctrine, but rather as sheer platitude. Enough has perhaps been said, however, without attempting further extension of our list, to suggest that those - and they are not few - who would condemn the Supra-rational Absolute without a hearing are on the side of complacent dogmatism rather than of critical philosophy.
A second major influence has been Bradley's own doctrine of Degrees of Truth and Reality. About this I shall have to say a good deal in the sequel. It is enough here to point out that Bradley's adherence to this doctrine has enormously weakened the effect of his statement of the argument for the Supra-rational Absolute. For whereas every serious student of philosophy is aware that he cannot legitimately ignore Bradley's thought, Bradley has, by his championship of this essentially non-sceptical doctrine, made it possible for friends and foes alike to treat his work as though the really fundamental and significant thing in it were not his presentation of the case for scepticism. This attitude to Bradley, which would regard him as characteristically a Hegelian, although subject to occasional wayward aberrations into scepticism, cannot, I am confident, be justified by a survey of Bradley's writings in extenso. But the doctrine of 'Degrees' affords strong proximate justification, and Bradley must accordingly accept a fair share of personal responsibility for the misapprehension.
The third influence is this. Bradley has, in the course of his writings, led up to his theory of the relation of thought and Reality in a considerable variety of ways. Now some of these approaches are notably less satisfactory than others. At times the conclusion is made to depend upon, or is at least closely interwoven with, specific doctrines which even those who support Bradley's main contention would without much hesitation reject. Unhappily the most familiar statements of Bradley's position suffer especially from this disability. To mention one conspicuous instance, a good deal of the argument in Appearance and Reality is coloured by adherence to the very doubtful doctrine of 'ideality' as the 'loosening of content from psychical existence.' Again, Bradley's doctrine of Immediate Experience bristles with difficulties: yet from the great importance which Bradley himself appears to attach to it, the reader may easily be misled into supposing that the rejection of this doctrine logically involves the rejection of Bradley's whole theory. It is not to be denied, I think, that there are a number of factors in Bradley's presentation which militate against the maximum persuasiveness of which his sceptical proposition is inherently capable.
This last consideration determines the form which the epistemological part of this essay may most profitably take. My chief interest is not in Bradley's ipsissima verba, and I shall make no attempt to sketch his several methods of dealing with his problem. I am concerned with the validity of his sceptical conclusions rather than with the manner of their presentation. For I wish to use these conclusions, in later chapters, as the basis for a constructive treatment of some of the central issues of philosophy. I shall proceed, therefore, by endeavouring to present the sceptical argument in what appears to me to be its least vulnerable form, freed, as far as possible, from all 'appendages' which might provoke independent controversy. I shall, in so doing, utilise principally the important' Note A' in the Appendix to Appearance and Reality. But I shall supplement freely from other sources where this seems desirable.