[L. 90 | 97] 25 March 1964

Many thanks for your letter. I am glad to hear that somebody else likes the book, and I am not sorry that it should be 'Les Amis du Bouddhisme'. The French, in general, are not so prone to complacent mental laziness, which (according to Palinurus) 'is the English disease'.

I find reading Bradley a fascinating experience. On every other page I recognize with delighted astonishment a paragraph on some matter that has been occupying my own thoughts and that, often enough, finds a place in the Notes. In FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE [c], for example, I say that 'if anything exists, everything else does' and that 'The images involved in thinking must already in some sense be given before they can be thought'; and I find that Bradley says 'everything conceivable has existence in some sense' (p. 195). Then, in MANO [b] I say 'A universal becomes an abstraction only in so far as an attempt is made to think it in isolation from all particular or concrete content'; and Bradley makes a distinction between 'concrete universals' and 'abstract universals'. Again, Bradley remarks 'It takes two to make the same, and the least we can have is some change of event in a self-same thing, or the return to that thing from some suggested difference' (p. 141); and if you will run through the second paragraph of ATTĀ, you will see that it is purely and simply an expansion of Bradley's statement.[1] Sometimes it is almost embarrassing. I read in one place that 'in much imagination we shall find the presence of a discursive element' (p. 76); and turning to MANO, opening sentence, I find I have written 'Much mental activity (imagination) is to some extent reflexive (in a loose sense)' and I later use the expression 'discursive thought' in this very sense.

This looks as if I have simply copied Bradley; and if I were somebody else, with the task of reviewing the Notes, I should undoubtedly say that 'the author, quite clearly, owes much to Bradley, from whom he has lifted several passages almost verbatim but without having had the decency to acknowledge his source'. And yet it is not so; apart from my youthful reading (now forgotten) of another work of his, I have no knowledge of his writings, and the authors to whom I am most indebted (Sartre, Eddington, Ross Ashby[2]—whom you do not know of) have almost certainly never read him (Sartre and Bradley, independently, give much the same account of the part played by images in thinking, though their way of expressing it is quite different).

It is satisfactory, of course, to have independent confirmation of certain statements in the Notes (the heavy volumes of Bradley can be thrown at an objector with telling effect); but, at the same time, I am given a sobering reminder that nobody has ever thought anything that somebody else has not already thought before him—and this is true even of the Buddhas, who re-discover what has already been discovered (nay, re-discovered) by their predecessors. On the other hand, this perennial sameness of philosophical reflexions can be very stimulating—see this remarkable passage from Dostoievsky's The Possessed:

'Old philosophical commonplaces, always the same, from the beginning of time' murmured Stavrogin with an air of careless pity. 'Always the same! Always the same from the beginning of time and nothing else!' replied Kirilov, his eyes sparkling, as if his victory were comprised in this idea.[3]
Another consequence is that I can't afford to skip anything, since I have to make sure that I have come out in front of Bradley and not behind him, and that I have not made any blunders that he has avoided (which would make me look very foolish). But so far, at least, so good—he is stimulating, and his sometimes very acute observations (I have now quoted one in the Notes) bring things out in a clear light, and even his mistakes (his curiously unjustified assumptions about the nature of time, for example, on which his idealism rests—inherited, no doubt) are illuminating. I am glad to find, in particular, that FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE is relevant nearly everywhere, and shows the way out of several of his blind alleys.

But also, Bradley is as exciting to read as Russell is dull. Bradley has his hero—Judgement (perhaps you are familiar with him?)—and his heroine—Reality—, and we are made to wonder whether he will succeed in bringing them together (with Inference as go-between) by the end of the book. He gets Judgement into some very tight corners, and we are left in suspense until a later chapter to find out how the hero escapes (if he does). (Looking ahead a few pages, I see that the traditional syllogism is going to come to a sticky end—'A mistake that has lasted two thousand years'. I might almost have written those words myself, though in another connexion.) Part of the fun is trying to anticipate Bradley's solution and to keep a page or two ahead of him; and I felt very satisfied on one occasion when, after reading a paragraph, a scathing comment (Bradley makes them too) occurred to me; I was about to write it in the margin when I noticed that Bradley had already put it as a footnote. You have to get up early if you're going to get the better of him.

The book originally appeared in 1883, but the present edition contains Bradley's own commentary on it written forty years later. It is interesting to see how he sometimes admits to being perplexed, not only by other philosophers, but also by his earlier self. (It might be an encouragement to us when we can't make head or tail of other people's philosophy, or even our own, to remember that it happens even to the best philosophers. Mathematicians are more fortunate: given time, two mathematicians of equal intelligence can always understand each other, since the rules of mathematics are agreed upon beforehand. Not so the rules of philosophy—indeed philosophy really consists in trying to discover what the rules are, if any.) Naturally, there is nothing in Bradley of a lokuttara nature, and even the crucial lokiya questions about self and the world he does not deal with; but if one is looking for a coherent philosophical background for one's thinking, he can provide things that are quite beyond the powers of modern academical philosophy—not everything, of course, but he is nearly always relevant (even when he is mistaken), whereas our present-day realists are monotonously and almost militantly irrelevant. Not surprisingly, they don't like Bradley, and he has suffered an undeserved eclipse. Here is one of them, Miss Stebbing, a female logician (if you please):

Neither Bradley, nor Bosanquet, nor any of this school of Idealist Logicians, has ever succeeded in making clear what exactly is meant by the principle of identity-in-difference upon which the metaphysical logic of the Idealists is based. Their logic ends in 'shipwreck'.... (MIL, p. x)
But when are Stebbing and Russell and the rest going to set sail? (I speak of the 'present-day realists', but I believe that, in England anyway, they are no longer in fashion. Their place has been taken by a school of philosophers who seek ultimate truth in modern English usage—if I am to believe Russell. It would seem to follow that what is true when uttered in English is false when uttered in French, since the usages of the two languages are not the same.[a] I hardly think that one could make the Pali texts intelligible to them at all.)

Knowing your sympathy with Lin Yutang's views on European philosophy, it is perhaps rather unkind of me to send you all this. But the fact is that, just at present, this is more or less the only thing I am thinking about. In any case, I shall not ask you to read Bradley, and I shall be quite satisfied if you will contemplate him from a comfortable distance.



[90.a] Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Englishmen have one set of Ultimate Truths, while Frenchmen have quite another set—a conclusion that is sometimes not so ridiculous as it seems. [Back to text]

Editorial notes:

[90.1] Bradley quote: The quotation was subsequently incorporated into Notes, ATTĀ [b]. [Back to text]

[90.2] Ross Ashby is a prolific and intelligent writer on cybernetics, and the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera seems to have found his views to be thought-provoking, even if largely unacceptable. Some time prior to 1957 the Ven. Ñānavīra Thera had read Ross Ashby's Design for a Brain (London: Chapman and Hall, 1952), and he may also have read Introduction to Cybernetics (London: Chapman and Hall, 1957). [Back to text]

[90.3] Dostoievsky: See L. 22. [Back to text