The term Absolute denotes unconditioned and/or independence in the strongest sense. It can include or overlap with meanings implied by other concepts such as infinite, totality, and perfection. In Christian theology, the Absolute is conceived as being synonymous with or an essential attribute of God, and it characterizes other natures of God such as His love, truth, wisdom, existence (omnipresence), knowledge (omniscience), power (omnipotence), and others. Absolute love, for example, denotes an unconditional love as opposed to conditional, limited love. Likewise, the absolute can also be understood as the Ultimate Being, or a characteristic of it, in other religious traditions.
Greek philosophers did not explicitly elaborate on the absolute, but, the idea of an ultimate principle drove their inquiries forward. In addition, while medieval philosophers did not use the term absolute, their thoughts on God were the first explicit elaborations on the absolute. Since then, there have been many interpretations of the absolute. Major philosophers who have dealt with the Absolute include the German Idealists such as Schelling, Kant, and Hegel, and British philosophers such as Herbert Spencer, William Hamilton, Bernard Bosanquet, Francis Bradley, and Thomas Hill Green, and American idealist philosopher Josiah Royce.
English word, absolute, came from Middle French "absolut," which was originated from Latin "absolutus," a past participle of "absolvo," a verb, meaning "to set free, end, and complete," and "detached, pure."
The term absolute denotes whatever is free from any condition or restriction, and independent from any other element or factor. As with other concepts such as infinite, perfection, eternity, and others, absolute can be articulated only by negating finite concepts. Something that is absolute, in itself, is not immediately or directly accessible by human perception, experience, and comprehension. Thus, the concept of absoluteness is usually defined by negating what are immediately available to human knowledge. Perception and comprehension, in a usual sense of the term, are a relational event which presupposes relative elements such as knowing subject and object of knowledge. If the term absolute is understood in the strict sense, it rejects the relativity which is inherent to the mechanism of human cognition, understanding, and language. Thomas Aquinas discussed both ontological, epistemological, and methodological difficulties in articulating and accessing knowledge of that which is absolute which is by definition beyond any conditioning and limitations. Kant elaborated, in his Critique of Pure Reason, the limit of and conditions of human knowledge and the role limit concepts play in human understanding. He also developed philosophical arguments for the positive role of limit concepts in moral discourses.
In Christian theology and philosophy, the absolute is understood in the strict sense by excluding any form of relativity, which in turn raises questions regarding the personality of God. For God to have a personality, He must exist in relation to other beings; however, if God is absolute, then it poses a paradox within God to be both absolute and relative to other beings. Spinoza, for example, denied God's personality and creatorship. He instead proposed the immanence of God in the creation and a pantheistic oneness between God and the world. As with Spinoza, Hegel attempted to explain the creation of the world without the notion of creation. Hegel developed a pantheistic concept of the absolute and its relationship with the phenomenal world. (see Spinoza and Hegel)
The question of God's relativity and absoluteness raises questions regarding God's nature and His relationships with human beings. Most contemporary philosophers do not accept the pantheistic explanations given by Spinoza or Hegel. As in German idealism, the question of absolute/relative is also intertwined with questions of transcendence and immanence. Some contemporary theories such as Open theism, for example, approaches these issues from the perspective of God's dynamic, personal, and relative relationship with human beings.
Ancient Greek philosophers pursued the ultimate rational principle that could consistently and comprehensively explain diverse natural, cosmological, and human phenomena. Although those earliest philosophers in the history of philosophy known as the Pre-Socratics did not leave much material, what we do have of them indicate that the question of the absolute, as an unconditioned or undetermined ultimate principle, was present in their philosophical inquiries. Anaximander, for example, defined the ultimate principle as “undertermined” for the reason that any form of determinacy is an indication of limitation and conditioning. If the ultimate to be genuinely ultimate, it must be free from any limitation. The “undetermined” is, thus, for Anaximander divine and eternal. Parmenides identified the ultimate principle with “being” or the fact of “to be.” Ontological fact of “to be” is, he argued, the most universal or fundamental commonality of anything that is. Be it an object of thought or cognizing subject or anything whatsoever, any being must “be” in some way to be able to be thought. So ultimate fact is “to be.” Although he did not use the term absolute, Parmenides argued for the ultimate primacy of the concept of being and characterized being or “to be” as absolute fact in the sense of unconditioned and independent.
Plato identified the good, which he characterized as permanently existing by itself in the incorporeal world, as the ultimate principle. The good, for Plato, was the absolute. Its goodness was, he argued, established by itself without recourse to any other thing whatsoever. The good is rather that which is presupposed by any human thought, action, and all social, natural phenomena. With Plato, the concept of absolute came to be conceived as the ethical principle as well as ontological principle. Plato, as well as other Greek philosophers, did not explicitly elaborate the concept of absolute but he implicitly presented the notion of absolute in his ethical ontology.
Aristotle placed a study of god (theology) as the first philosophy for the reason that it deals with the “unmoved mover” of all phenomenal. For Aristotle, the ultimate principle had to be that which is unconditional and independent, which has no prior condition whatsoever.
Although the term absolute was not a part of medieval philosophy, they identified God as the absolute and made explicit discourses accordingly on the absolute.
According to medieval philosophy, human knowledge, cognition, and languages are relative, limited, and conditional, whereas absoluteness is defined by negating those limitations and conditioning. Thus, knowing, discussing, and even describing the absolute are inherently difficult. God is not only inaccessible by human sense perception, but cognition is in itself an interactive relationship between the subject of cognition and its object. Likewise, thinking is an interactive process between the thinking subject and the objects of thought. Absolute means by definition a negation of relativity. Then, how can human beings approach such an absolute being?
Thomas Aquinas was fully aware of these difficulties in knowing, describing, and approaching the Absolute. He developed methodologies to answer these questions, which included the Negative Way (Via Negativa; Latin), Affirmative Way, and Analogy.
Aquinas argues that we can affirmatively predicate God by such words as good and wise. Thus, we can say “God is good or wise.” What human beings understand by “good” or “wise” are, however, all taken from their own experiences from the world. Human knowledge is finite, limited, relative, and imperfect. Thus, those finite human knowledge must be qualified or denied (Negative Way) in order to properly apply to God. The question is how can the limited knowledge that human beings acquired from the world be applied to God, who transcends all forms of limitation. Aquinas suggests that by analogy, we finite human beings can apply our limited and imperfect human knowledge to a transcendent God.
When the term absolute is applied to existence, the absolute can be understood as a being whose essence is existence. If the existence of a being is dependent on others, it cannot be absolute. Hence, God was characterized as a unique being whose essence is existence. Anselm of Canterbury used this argument for his Ontological argument for the existence of God.
Questions regarding the absolute carried over into modern philosophy. Kant reformulated the unknowability of God, discussed by Thomas Aquinas, in his Critique of Pure Reason, one of the best known epistemological treatises in the history of philosophy. Kant tried to present the conditions of human knowledge and reveal the limit of what is knowable. Kant argued that the content of human knowledge is provided by an object and a priori forms (the way contents are organized) in the mind.
People have always spoken of the absolutely necessary (absolutnotwendigen) being, and have taken pains, not so much to understand whether and how a thing of this kind can even be thought, but rather to prove its existence.… if by means of the word unconditioned I dismiss all the conditions that the understanding always requires in order to regard something as necessary, this does not come close to enabling me to understand whether I then still think something through a concept of an unconditionally necessary being, or perhaps think nothing at all through it.
– Kant Critique of Pure Reason, A593
Human reason, however, tends to posit the unconditioned in relation to objects (the conditioned) of human experiences. Due to this inherent tendency of reason, human beings posit the unconditioned such as God, the soul, and the world. For Kant, the unconditioned is in principle unknowable.
While Kant excluded the unconditioned (God, the soul, and the world) from the realm of the knowable, he argued for the necessity of God, immortality of the soul, and freedom in the sphere of morality. Human beings have a rational reason to believe in them as the fundamental presupposition of morality, which Kant called “rational faith.”
German philosophers after Kant such as Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, known as the German idealists, returned to speculative metaphysics and developed various theories based upon their understanding of the absolute.
The concept of absoluteness was then adopted into a neo-Hegelian British idealism (though without Hegel's complex logical and dialectical apparatus), where it received an almost mystical exposition at the hands of F.H. Bradley. Bradley (followed by others including Timothy L.S. Sprigge) conceived the absolute as a single all-encompassing experience, along the lines of Shankara and Advaita Vedanta. Likewise, Josiah Royce in the United States conceived the absolute as a unitary Knower whose experience constitutes what we know as the "external" world.
In various religious traditions, the term absolute is also ascribed to various values and natures of God, or the Ultimate being, and to human beings. Absolute love is characterized as unconditional love, which constitutes unconditional forgiveness, unconditional giving without expectation of reward or benefits, and service for the sake of others. A few examples of absolute love in religious traditions include Agape love in Christianity, Mercy or compassion in Buddhism, etc.
Platonic metaphysics was built upon the eternal existence of the Good. Goodness of the Good (absolute goodness) is established by itself without recourse to any other condition. Kant's moral philosophy also presupposes the unconditionality of the good.
In religious traditions, truth is also understood as an attribute of God or the Ultimate being. Absolute, unconditional truth is often distinguished from natural truths and the former is said to be accessible by faith or revelation.
Faith in religion can also be qualified as unconditional. A Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard characterized faith as an act beyond rational reasoning. Faith is required for one to enter into the religious realm precisely because faith involves some rationally incomprehensible elements and an existential commitment.
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