I wish first of all, then, to explain more adequately what I mean by calling Reality 'supra-rational.' I certainly do mean that it is in principle unknowable. Moreover, the whole value which the doctrine carries for subsequent philosophic construction depends, I believe, upon being in full earnest with this 'unknowability,' and not succumbing to the very present temptation to whittle it down into insignificance in order to save oneself from the supposed stigma of scepticism. But since there are certain characters which Bradley, even when speaking in apparently sceptical vein, deems it legitimate to ascribe to Reality, it will be well for us to examine at once the credentials of these characters. Can they, or any one of them, be ascribed with propriety to Reality, and if so, can their ascription be understood in a way which does not conflict with Reality's unknowability? The consideration of these questions will make it possible to define more adequately the view of Reality which the present work is concerned to maintain.
The most important by far of these characters, and the only one which will occupy us at length, is that denoted by the term 'experience.' That Reality, whatever else it is, is at least.'experience,' is an assertion which recurs with notable frequency throughout Bradley's writings. 'We perceive, on reflection,' says Bradley in one typical passage, 'that to be real, or even barely to exist, must be to fall within sentience.'1 And again, developing the doctrine on the following page: 'Find any piece of existence, take up anything that anyone 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.... 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... [thus] I am driven to the conclusion that for me experience is the same as reality. The fact that falls elsewhere... is a vicious abstraction whose existence is meaningless nonsense, and is therefore not possible.' 2 As Bradley later explains, of course, such statements must not be taken as meaning that facts are 'subjective states.' 'Subject' and'object' are ideal distinctions made within the whole of sentient experience. Neither comes to us as an independent or primary reality. When we say that every fact consists in experience, we mean only that it is 'indissolubly one thing with sentience.' A reality apart from experience in this sense is, it is claimed, a sheer abstraction.
1 Appearance and Reality, p. 144.
2 Ibid., p. 145.
Now so far as Bradley's doctrine rests upon the kind of 'experiment' which is suggested in the latter of these passages, it seems to lie open to a fairly obvious objection derived from Bradley's own principles. For if the so-called facts of finite experience are as disparate from ultimate reality as the contrasted terms 'relational' and 'supra-relational' would seem to signify, then it is not at all evident what right Bradley has to appeal to a certain character, viz. sentient experience, in the'facts' of finite experience, in order to substantiate the presence of a similar character in the one 'ultimate 'fact, Reality itself. The application of 'ideal experiment' seems here out of place. It may very well be that while everything which finite mind, with its deficient equipment, can regard as 'fact' is charged with the character of 'experience' the fact, genuine Reality, is not.
This particular line of argument, then, does not seem to me to be at all effective as a proof of the doctrine that 'experience' or 'sentience' must be ascribed to Reality. But, although it is the line of argument commonly adopted by Bradley1 and evidently felt by him to be conclusive, it is not, I think, by any means the sole consideration which supported him in his exceedingly strong conviction. We have not so far judged it necessary to ask what exactly Bradley means by this 'sentient experience' which plays so ubiquitous a role. But when we do ask, we find that it possesses for Bradley certain characteristics which, from a new angle, lend distinct colour to the suggestion that Reality can significantly be said to be 'experience.' For sentient experience, so it appears, is capable of giving us an awareness of 'the many in the one' - even though it be at a pre-relational level. And so far as it does, it seems to resemble in formal structure the nature which we must suppose to belong to that ideal consummation of thought's aspirations in which thought and Reality are one and indistinguishable. The implication is that the 'lower' unity may be used as at least a 'clue' to the nature of the 'higher' unity. Bradley himself certainly takes this structural resemblance to afford a 'clue.' He expressly holds that it enables us to give some positive content to our notion of Reality's 'unity.'1 And it is, I think, at least intelligible how on these premises Reality should be said to be 'of the nature of experience' - though, even granting the premises, the leap of faith required seems to me not inconsiderable.
1 Another good example occurs in Appearance and Reality, pp. 522-3.
To appraise with any justice the adequacy of this line of approach, however, it is needful to set out, in however condensed a form, certain of the central features in Bradley's doctrine of 'immediate' or 'sentient' experience.2 Let me state the doctrine first of all without attempt at criticism.
Immediate experience, experience in which there is 'no distinction between my awareness and that of which it is aware'3 is, Bradley holds, a quite obvious character of at least some of our mental states. Pleasure, pain, desire, volition - it is hopeless to maintain that of these we have no direct awareness.