Felt Masses and Divided Experience



For almost two years I have been working on a short book on the philosophy of F.H. Bradley. One of the most interesting aspects of Bradley is the role that he gives to experience and feeling. Though his foundation is a combination of Kant and Hegel (the emphasis of the self’s unity in the former and the monistic absolute in the latter) Bradley’s position is very much his own.

For Bradley, experience constitutes the basic fabric of reality. Every experience we have is an expression of an absolute experience filtered through finite centres (his name for the formal structure of an experiencing thing which includes, but is not necessarily restricted to, humans). Every thought, every judgment we make is a selection or abstraction from this massive ‘felt mass’ of absolute experience. The operation of selection that a judgment makes is, for Bradley, always an inference, at some level a guess about the greater state of things.

Every statement is a statement about the one world that we all inhabit, any local claim is a claim about what is possible as such not only in our experience but in the experience of any other finite centre. This is why for Bradley there are degrees of truth since a local judgment can be formulated in a way that maximally includes its external relations yet still holds internal coherence such that the judgment functions contextually.


But since there is no way to excise oneself from the immanent field of judgement, since there are no simple experiences (contra empiricism), no way of easily peeling off the conceptual veneer from its sensorial basis, Bradley argues that we have to rely upon feeling (whether immediate, relational, or absolute) in order to direct our ideas not towards the absolute only and fully (which, for Bradley, would mean the suicide of thought) but towards a kind of intellectual satisfaction. This satisfaction is not one of reason per se  but one that attempts to align our thinking capacities with the richness of experience.

This is not to endorse a phenomenological position since Bradley has little patience for things in themselves, or for the power of the ego, or for the function of description as adequate philosophical practice. It is more the fact that, for Bradley, the category of experience comes the closest to describing the plasticity of that from which our thoughts seem to emerge and also effect. The metaphysicalization of experience changes the meaning of the phrases used to describe it. Immediate experience is not then a question of temporally immediate understanding, but rather immediate in that it is that aspect of experience which seems to reassert itself despite the function of our intentionality, of our focus. Immediate experience is still, for Bradley, conceptually coded (and therefore not falling into Sellars’ myth of the given) but is the entire field which affords seemingly simple experiences yet these experiences are a mix of conceptual coatings, feelings, and the push of the external world. Therefore its immediacy lies in the minimum abstract labor it requires compared the work of relational consciousness or in placing a judgment or thought in the context of the absolute.


But what are the metaphysical stakes in Bradley’s claim that what is, is experience? Bradley thinks that the character of an absolute which guarantees that a plurality can be excised from it via abstraction requires that reality be experience-like in terms of being supra-relational. The fact that aspects of experience hold in place despite the different forms of attention and intent they receive pushes Bradley to think that while me must assume there is one consistent structured world, it is very difficult, because of our separate lives, to easily agree on any set of fundamental concepts. Yet Bradley thinks that immediate feeling (again thought as the complexity of experience forced on us) gives us some clue as to the close-knit nature of an experiential monism.

While one could then move into a panpsychicst position this would confuse the idealist stakes in Bradley’s account (and likewise in many easy dismissals of idealism). As I’ve probably too often repeated idealism is often dismissed in a single phrase namely that ‘idealists think the world is composed of mind.’ But, taking a look at a whole range of idealists, it would be far more accurate to say that idealists think the world may be more mind like than matter like. This does not mean the world is mind, or is composed of ideas, since the questions that follow the speculation ask about the worlds structure, the mind’s structure, and the relation between them. If the world was merely mind or idea then no further discussion would be required. Furthermore, this assumes we know what minds are like, and that when we say the world is mind-like we mean a general picture of mind and not a more narrow aspect of it. Comparing various forms of idealism would indicate that the latter is far more likely hence why for Bradley experience is a more tempting candidate whereas for Hegel it is reason and for Schelling it is nature thinking through us.


That idealism simply makes the world mental is a short-cut critique since it ends up painting all of idealism as solipsistic when the emphasis  on experimentation and collective thinking (historically and politically) contravenes such a portrait. The upswing of their approach can be seen in the various replies Bradley and others made against the early analytic philosophers who attempted to say all of monism ended in error because it made analysis or individuation of any kind impossible. In arguing that the structure of the world may be mind-like in some way meant that the idealists were in general careful about putting too much emphasis on the explanatory of of analysis and its objects. That singular atomistic logic could properly render the world into easily describable bits is something that has run into enough problems over the last 100 or so years to make us question its authority. This is not to dismiss formalism or analysis all together but to point out that the early form of it suffered, and in some ways still suffers, from a tunnel vision about the authority of reason vis a vis the purported simplicity of the world.

One quite specific application of this is the logic of mass expressions. In the last few decades many logicians and thinkers have argued that emphasizing singular terms in logic and semantics is too limiting. Starting in the 1960s many strands of logic sought to deal with plural terms and the ambiguities that arise in regards to whether they are collective or distributive. Traditionally it has been assumed that plural terms were unnecessary since singular terms could just be added up to do the same work. But certain phrases seem to betray this. For example, when someone says ‘the soldiers surrounded the fort’ a collective or distributive account does not adequately express the intermediate functioning of ‘surrounded’ since it would take a vague amount to express surrounding.


An even harder case is with concrete (iron, wine) and abstract (wisdom, pain) mass terms which have no minimal element (indexing Bradley’s complaint about fundamental divisibility). For instance ‘when I say there is beer on the table’ this could mean one can, two bottles, a pitcher, or a puddle of spilled beer from the night before. There is no smallest part and we can quite easily imagine that neither set-theoretic (modeled on belonging and counts) nor mereological (parts and wholes) approaches can account for how all these things can be coherently referred to the beer on the table. What makes Bradley’s thought interesting is that he thinks that even plurality is insufficient, that there must be some underlying structure that guarantees the necessary plural ways of referring to these felt masses. The fact that we can be in the same room and coherently talk about ‘the beer on the table’ while at the same time knowing that the judgment has meaning beyond its referent, suggests why all ideas are anchored to perception and felt content for Bradley (with the former being a selection of the latter).

If two people are talking what the perceive is clearly not what they feel but neither are the two radically disjointed. I may feel certain emotional states and environmental states but I am focused on the conversation, or half focused on it and checking my watch nervous about a future appointment. We could say that the collective mass of intentional focus is fighting against the distributive mass of felt immediacy. While I am trying to focus on what you are saying to me, and constructing the narrative and what it may mean outside what you are explicitly telling me, I am also aware of the experiential ‘spread’of the situation in which this collective is nested.

In this regard, for Bradley experience is the tissue that can be distributed and collectivized without exhausting its character and while remaining resistant to explanation by counts, aggregations, or divisions. Thus to say the world is like thought is not a short or a comfort. Nor does Bradley wish to invoke a kind of ineffability when he states that because of this inferential picture of the world’s mass we are left with only degrees of truth. The absolute is not to be discussed for its unreachable nature but as a motor for collectivizing thought and enriching the possibility of shared experience in the service of constructing the future.


One Response to “Felt Masses and Divided Experience”

  1. 1 Returns, Divides, and Bridges | Naught Thought

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