From the Latin ab-solutus, meaning separated, free from, or complete, that which is independent of conditions, relations, or impediments. In philosophical language the absolute may be said to function adverbially, adjectivally, and substantively. In an adverbial sense, a consideration is said to be absolute when something is discussed without reference to conditions that may defacto attach to it but are not essential to it. For example, in comparing intelligence and will, one may maintain that, absolutely speaking, the activity of intelligence is more perfect than that of will, although in man's present condition some objects are attained more perfectly by love than by knowledge. In an adjectival sense, the most important philosophical instance of the absolute is absolute truth. truth is the relation of a mental judgment to reality, and yet some truths are said to be eternal. Finally, in a substantive sense, the Absolute is that which is perfect and complete and preeminently the supreme principle of all things. Absolute truth and absolute being are the most important senses of the term for philosophy. This article summarizes the historical development of the concept from Augustine to Hegel and concludes with a brief evaluation of absolutism as compared to relativism.
Augustine. Although there are many historical precedents to his teaching in this matter, St. augustine is among the most notable examples of a thinker who moves from the necessity of eternal truth to a subsistent truth, an absolute being. platonism, through the intermediary of plotinus, is a major source of Augustinian doctrine, and yet the great African bishop had first to formulate a defense against the skepticism of the Academy, Plato's old school. plato had held that the sensible world is incapable of grounding true knowledge but that there are other entities, the Forms or Ideas, that are objects commensurate with the demands of knowledge. The New Academy accepted Plato's teaching with respect to the inadequacy of the sensible world as a cause of knowledge, but it did not share his certitude in the existence of Ideas. In this way, the possibility of knowledge was called into question.
Augustine, in his attack on the new Academicians, appealed to the existence of the doubter as something that escapes doubt. Although this may seem an anticipation of the Cartesian cogito, it did not play the role of a truth from which all others are in some way derived. More positively, Augustine appealed to the truths of mathematics, which, being certain and independent of the sensible world, give strength to the belief that there is an intelligible world to respond to knowledge in the full sense—an intelligible world that is independent of the sensible world. Augustine employed the Platonic vocabulary to speak of the intelligible world, the realm of the Ideas. For him, the existence of Ideas is plain from the facts that this is a created world and that God must know what it is He creates. The Ideas are the patterns according to which God fashions creatures. The locus, as it were, of the Ideas is the Second Person of the Trinity; He is the wisdom philosophers are ever seeking. The supreme attribute of God, for Augustine, is truth; God is the truth who grounds all other truths. Thus the recognition of absolute truths, as in mathematics, led Augustine to the conclusion that there must be an absolute being who is subsistent truth.
Thomas Aquinas. In the teaching of St. thomas aquinas there is an intimate connection between the notion of eternal or absolute truth and absolute being. This emerges quite clearly from his discussion of the question as to whether created truth is eternal. "Notice that the truth of statements is nothing other than the truth of intellect, for what is stated exists in the mind as well as in speech, and it is in so far as it is in the mind that it has truth properly speaking. As spoken it is said to be a true statement in so far as it expresses some truth in the mind, not because of any truth existing in the enunciation as in a subject. So, too, urine is said to be healthy, not from any health in it but from the health of the animal of which it is a sign. Similarly we have pointed out that things are called true with reference to the truth of understanding. Hence if no mind were eternal, no truth would be eternal. And, because only the divine mind is eternal, in it alone does truth have eternity. Nor does it follow from this that something besides God is eternal, because the truth of the divine mind is God Himself, as we argued earlier" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 16.7). The ontology of Aquinas leads to a description of God as that being whose existence is His very nature. Any being other than God is such that it is possible for it not to exist; the cause of its existence must therefore be sought outside itself. God is His existence and His being is therefore absolute, utterly independent of every other being. It should not be thought that this involves something like the Anselmian ontological argument; Aquinas dismisses somewhat curtly the suggestion that, since the term God signifies a being than which nothing greater can be thought, such a being must necessarily exist (Summa Theologiae 1a, 2.1 ad 2). St. Thomas holds that man's warrant for asserting that God exists and, indeed, is existence, must always be found in creatures. If man knew God directly, this would not be necessary; but the human mode of knowing, which has as its commensurate object the nature of sensible reality, precludes such a direct intuition. In short, man's knowledge of absolute being is relative to his knowledge of dependent or created being.
This analysis may seem to call into question the absoluteness of divine being since, if God is not somehow relative to creatures, it would seem to follow that knowledge of creatures could not lead to knowledge of God. Indeed, many of the names man applies to God seem to imply such a relation to creatures—names such as "Creator," "Savior," and even the word "God" itself in so far as its etymology refers to divine providence. And, of course, if God is related to the world, He cannot be absolute in the desired sense.
St. Thomas's solution to this difficulty involves a distinction between real relations and relations of reason. A real relation is had when one thing is dependent on another for its being. Such a relation is often reciprocal. For example, a son is dependent on his father; but the father is dependent on his son as well since, if he had no child, he could not be a father. In the case of God and creatures, St. Thomas argues that while creatures are really related to God, the relation of God to creatures is one of reason alone (De pot. 7.11). Thus, in knowing that God's existence is absolute, man does not know Him absolutely, that is, independently of his knowledge of things that are quite distinct from, and inessential to, God. That man comes to know God through His created effects is an indication of the imperfection of man's knowledge of God, since there is an infinite distance between created and divine perfection. "Perfect knowledge of a cause cannot be gained through effects that are not proportioned to the cause, but from any effect it can be clearly demonstrated to us that the cause exists, as we have argued. So it is that from the effects of God we demonstrate that God exists, although they do not permit us to know Him perfectly in His very essence" (Summa Theologiae 1a, 2.2 ad 3).
The position of St. Thomas, here as elsewhere, depends on the possibility of distinguishing what man knows from the way in which he knows it. If the human manner of knowing were a complete determinant of what man knows, he could not have knowledge even that an absolute exists. But, given the distinction, it can be maintained that, while the human manner of knowing absolute being necessarily entails relating absolute being to being other than itself—hence preventing man's knowing it absolutely—nevertheless what man knows is absolute being. In the case of God, however, one must quickly add that, since on the level of what is known creatures are the necessary bridge to knowledge of His existence, human knowledge of God is unavoidably imperfect and derived.
Spinoza. The absolute implies an opposite: the nonabsolute, or relative; given at least the definition of the absolute, the nonabsolute appears to have but a precarious hold on its claim to reality. For Aquinas, the distinction between the relative and the absolute could be expressed by the dualism of created and uncreated substance. This same dualism, though admittedly on quite another basis, was retained by R. descartes; but, in his wake, B. spinoza argued that the very concept of substance leads to the conclusion that there can be but one substance and that substance is absolute. For him, thought and extension—one might simply say, the created—cannot be thought of as substances when compared to God. If they exist, they can exist only as attributes of the one substance. Thus Spinoza's insistence on absolute substance leads to a monism of substance; the only dualism remaining consists of parallel systems of attributes, mental and physical. Everything is reduced in pantheistic fashion to God (see pantheism).
Fichte. The significance of the absolute ego in the thought of J. G. fichte has to be understood against the general background of his insistence on the will, or ego, as a corrective of Kantian critical idealism. The upshot of the Kantian Critiques was that these provided man with a basis for a rational faith in the realm of freedom. The thing-in-itself, originally a postulated and surd element in the Kantian system, became the realm of morality and of God, which is inaccessible to critical reason. For Kant, the moral law within provides a ground for belief in, but not knowledge of, the existence of God, the spiritual order, and the immortality of the soul. In his view, while man cannot know any of these things by way of proof, he does have a warrant that will allow him to accept them on practical grounds.
Fichte refused to accept this relegation of freedom and self to the fringes of true knowledge; his own philosophy began with the assertion of the conception of freedom, of the ego or self, as the absolutely basic principle. From this principle must be derived the categories of experience. This was, in its own way, a Copernican revolution. The willing, free self became the source of all knowledge and experience. Freedom, the world order, and God were the basic realities; if anything else was to be admitted as real, it had to be deduced from these. The practical order was not merely saved as a realm unto itself, then; it became the fundamental and regulative order of reality. Fichte, in order to avoid the charge that he was deducing all reality from his own self, introduced a distinction between particular selves and the absolute self of which individual selves are manifestations. For this reason he would have denied that he had developed a system of subjective idealism. He was able to account, to his own satisfaction, for the existence of the external world, since it did not depend in its entirety on his ego. The absolute ego that thus became the center of Fichte's philosophy is God, but God understood as a process, a self-determining spiritual evolution. This absolute self expresses and manifests itself in individual selves; it lives and acts in them as the law of their nature, the ultimate ground of both the phenomenal world and the necessary laws of thought.
Schelling. In Fichte nature is a product of the absolute ego; with reference to the individual ego, however, it is merely an obstacle. F. W. J. schelling attempted to go beneath this remaining dualism to find, in the concept of the absolute as nature or process, a completely monistic ground for reality. Nature, for him, is no longer a dead, mechanical process; it is unconscious intelligence just as man is conscious intelligence. There is therefore an affinity that permits knowledge. The common note of reality, for Schelling, is pure activity, self-determining energy; nature and mind are not parallel aspects but stages in the development of the absolute ego. The absolute is not something that exists, but something that evolves, unfolds, has a history; and nature and mind are moments in that history. Thus, Schelling maintains that individual selves, since they are the loci where blind intelligence becomes self-conscious, cannot be real except as rooted in the absolute. Schelling's nature is thus very much like the pre-Socratic physis; the ideal he sets for science is the ultimate identification of the laws of thought and the laws of nature. By such an identity, the whole of reality is reduced to intelligence.
Hegel. The identification of the laws of thought and the laws of reality, taught by Schelling, was accepted by G. W. F. hegel. Whether in knowledge or in the world, for Hegel one and the same process or development is taking place and the laws according to which it happens are the same. The real is the rational, the rational is the real. The absolute for Hegel is not something vague and amorphous, as he took Schelling's absolute to be, nor is it substance, as it was for Spinoza. The absolute is process that passes through unconscious moments but whose telos is total self-consciousness. The meaning of the process is had in that ultimate goal where the absolute has become completely conscious of itself and recognizes its identity with the ultimate purpose of the universe.
The Hegelian absolute is at once present in, and emerging from, every process. The business of philosophy is therefore to seek and find reason in every process, however apparently irrational and absurd. Hegel's interest in history is predictable: he urges man to seek the absolute in history. He provides religious motives for this search, saying that man is told not only to love God but to know Him as well. God reveals Himself to man in history, which is the theater of providence. One may think that things happen haphazardly and adventitiously in history, but this cannot be. Man must not think that there is any distinction between the way things are and the way they ought to be. In history everything happens necessarily and for the best, and it is the task of the philosopher to show this (see history, philosophy of).
The dialectical process and the claim that the principle of contradiction rules all are both revealing of Hegel's identification of thought and reality. Just as one might think of thought as a process that moves from global confusion to determination and distinction, so Hegel views reality as progressing from the homogenous and undifferentiated abstract to concrete distinction. Each step of the process looks backward and forward. What is is not what it was or what it will be: a present state is the contradictory of a previous state and drives toward the contradictory of what it now is. Contradiction is the law of life and movement. In the whole, opposites and contradictories are swallowed up and reconciled. World development on the natural plane is unconscious, but the thinker must, so to speak, relive the process by thinking it. The dialectical method of thought begins with an abstract notion that gives rise to its contradiction, and these two are reconciled in a third concept: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The movement is from the abstract to the concrete universal. Thus Hegel's description of the progress of thought and the evolution of reality are the same.
Hegel's absolute is the evolutionary process of reality and the goal of that process. God does not exist prior to the world, which Hegel holds is eternally created; God is the logos, the reason, the law of the universe; the evolutionary process is the absolute's progressive consciousness of self. Hegel's absolute, accordingly, is unintelligible without the world.
Absolutism. The opposition between absolutism and relativism is best understood as indicating epistemological options, even though these are based on ontological judgments. In the discussion of Aquinas, a distinction he would wish to make between absolute being and man's manner of knowing it was indicated. An absolute being is by definition one that exists in utter independence of all else. However, as known by someone other than itself, absolute being is relative to that knower, and it would seem to be doubly relative in a doctrine according to which it can be known only relative to another object of knowledge. Unless one can distinguish a thing's manner of being known from its manner of being, such considerations would effectively do away with the absolute. The relatedness to a knower implicit in all knowledge has been a source both of absolutism and relativism. Thus the observation that sense qualities are relative to sense organs leads to a questioning of their objectivity. Some thinkers go on to insist on the existence of other absolute aspects of reality, while others conclude that whatever one knows is relative to his mode of knowing. These latter may then seek to ground the laws of knowing in an absolute subject. A thinker who maintains both that what one knows is essentially colored by his way of knowing and that his way of knowing is simply contingent may be called a relativist. Whether the relativist can ever successfully explain the relativity of knowledge without appeal to at least an ideal of absoluteness must, of course, be asked.
Summary. The Absolute is preeminently a changeless, eternal being, independent of all else. As applied to knowledge, absolute knowledge bears on objects whose being is independent of the knower, even though as known they are related to a knower. Whether in reality or in thought, an absolute is required; but it is not necessary to identify, as Hegel did, what is absolute in knowledge and what is absolute in reality.
See Also: panentheism; immanence; hegelianism and neo-hegelianism.
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[r. m. mcinerny]