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Saturday June 9, 2012

Professor's interest was speculative metaphysics - and a good party

Memorial University department head kept lifelong contact with former students and scholars

Special to The Globe and Mail

James Bradley had great skill in teaching and writing, producing decades of lectures as well as dozens of articles and reviews published from Turkey to Romania. As well, his people skills ranked high. He loved the kind of community the university offered - young, old, all curious, from everywhere. He was open to meeting them all, and influenced, promoted and remained in lifelong contact with an amazing number of former students, as well as an international fellowship of scholars he met at or invited to conferences.

Bradley earned a diploma in education from Cambridge, which he had entered as a "church student," potentially destined for the priesthood, in 1974, and then taught a year at St. Bede's. He also earned a bachelor's degree in English literature, a master's in theology and PhD in philosophy, all at Cambridge. He belonged to Christ College and lived at what was then St. Edmund's House. He was supervised by Donald MacKinnon, who wrote on the philosophy of theology and whose students included Iris Murdoch and Gerd Buchdahl, who founded the journal Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science.

Another contact was Peter Harris, who was a fellow there, and they became friends. Harris was hired by Memorial University and moved to Pouch Cove just outside St. John's. When Bradley had his PhD, completing his thesis on the philosopher F. H. Bradley in 1984, Harris invited him to come as a visiting professor. As a lure, he sent Bradley a photo of his backyard, which looked out over the ocean. Bradley wrote back: "One day we will discuss philosophy in your garden."

He was right; they did. Bradley made his career at Memorial, where he in turn became department head.

He died on May 17, five months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

Bradley took the philosophy department's library to a new level. And at home he probably had the best library east of Montreal, culled from shops all over the world. The piles of books were arranged by his idiosyncratic method, some intersection of subject, nationality and chronology. Time also fascinated him - he lectured on it - and he collected clocks and watches.

And he was lots of fun at a party.

James Anthony Joseph Bradley was born Dec. 21, 1947, in Liverpool. His parents were Gerard Anthony, an educator, from Northern Ireland, and Frances Mary McKenna, of Lancashire, who ran a private nursing home. He was the eldest of five, with brothers Paul, Michael and Christopher and sister Rosemary.

"His greatest interest was in speculative metaphysics, what Jim believed to be the ongoing tradition in Western philosophy from the Greeks," Harris said. "It could be defined conceptually as that approach to first philosophy that is a non-empirical but rigorously logical questioning of the ultimate nature of reality or the real - which turns out to be an activity of actualization of anything whatsoever. It focuses on three questions of fundamental significance: origin, order and relation - questions which can be asked of any 'reality' whatsoever, prior to the more specific questions about its specific character or nature.

"But it is probably easier to identify historically as that question about the nature of being that stems from the speculations of the Greek philosophers - Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Aristotle and the neo-Platonists - carried forward in a theological form by the medieval theologians, notably Aquinas and Scotus, and then in modern times by Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Bergson ..."

This dovetailed with Bradley's particular interest in thinkers like F.H. Bradley, R. G. Collingwood and A. N. Whitehead and American logician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, the focus of much of Bradley's later work.

Such deep thinking was perhaps best processed in an open, non-ivory-tower forum, with animated discussion, over drinks, and Bradley was active with the Jockey Club, founded by four undergraduate students in the late 1980s, and named for a famed local brew, which circulated papers for discussion at local pubs.

In 1972, Bradley married Irmgaard Gitschtaler, who was from Regensburg, Germany, in Southport, Britain. She had trained as an accountant but did not pursue it after their marriage. They had two children, Sonia, in 1977, and Julian, in 1981. They separated in 1994, divorcing four years later. In 1998, Bradley married Jennifer Dyer, and they had a daughter, Isobel (1996), and son Adrian (2009).

"I first met him at Jockey Club," said Dyer, now director of the Master of Philosophies in the Humanities program at Memorial. "He had returned from sabbatical early because another member of department took ill and Jim agreed to take over his courses. I thought he was wrong about the philosopher Levinas' take on infinity and we argued about it all night. He said he'd capitulate if I met him again."

Bradley was a sophisticated and dapper man, with his bow tie, Burberry trench coat and fedora. He was lively, intelligent and interesting. He never seemed to lose track of people, professionally or personally. A social animal, his presence affected the dynamics of any gathering.

"As far as parties go, he was first in, last out," Harris said.

Such energy meant Bradley was as productive as always up to his sudden diagnosis, and more than ever interested in the idea of love. In his last paper, "Philosophy and Trinity," he analyzed the proposition "Jane loves John" through various elegant and complex philosophical theories, and concluded: "It is something more than just 'mind,' something more than ordinary 'feeling,' and usually involves extraordinary action. What has to be said is that where there is such love - and we can find it manifest in artworks as well as people - we have a glimpse of the perfect unity of feeling, exertion and rule. Either this is a perfection, an ideal, that is utterly without reason, is indeed quite absurd and is even self-destructive ... or this is a perfection that has its reason - its only reason - in the ultimate order of things."

James Bradley leaves his wife, Jennifer, and children Sonia, Julian, Isobel and Adrian.

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