A. While Nicholas of Cusa referred to God as "the absolute," the noun form of this term came into common use through the writings of Schelling and Hegel. Its adoption spread in France through Cousin and in Britain through Hamilton. According to Kant the Ideas of Reason seek both the absolute totality of conditions and their absolutely unconditioned Ground. This Ground of the Real Fichte identified with the Absolute Ego (q.v.). For Schelling the Absolute is a primordial World Ground, a spiritual unity behind all logical and ontological oppositions, the self-differentiating source of both Mind and Nature. For Hegel, however, the Absolute is the All conceived as a timeless, perfect, organic whole of self-thinking Thought. In England the Absolute has occasionally been identified with the Real considered as unrelated or "unconditioned" and hence as the "Unknowable" (Mansel, H. Spencer). Until recently, however, it was commonly appropriated by the Absolute Idealists to connote with Hegel the complete, the whole, the perfect, i.e. the Real conceived as an all-embracing unity that complements, fulfills, or transmutes into a higher synthesis the partial, fragmentary, and "self-contradictory" experiences, thoughts, purposes, values, and achievements of finite existence. The specific emphasis given to this all-inclusive perfection varies considerably, i.e. logical wholeness or concreteness (Hegel), metaphysical completeness (Hamilton), mystical feeling (Bradley), aesthetic completeness (Bosanquet), moral perfection (Royce). The Absolute is also variously conceived by this school as an all-inclusive Person, a Society of persons, and as an impersonal whole of Experience.
More recently the term has been extended to mean also (a) the All or totality of the real, however understood, and (b) the World Ground, whether conceived idealistically or materialistically, whether pantheistically, theistically, or dualistically. It thus stands for a variety of metaphysical conceptions that have appeared widely and under various names in the history of philosophy.
In China: the Wu Chi (Non-Being), T'ai Chi (Being), and, on occasion, Tao. In India: the Vedantic Atman (Self) and Brahman (the Real), the Buddhist Bhutatathata (indeterminate Thatness), Vignaptimatra (the One, pure, changeless, eternal consciousness grounding all appearances), and the Void of Nagarjuna.
In Greece: the cosmic matrix of the Ionians, the One of the Eleatics, the Being or Good of Plato, the World Reason of Stoicism, the One of Neo-Platonism.
In patristic and scholastic Christianity: the creator God, the Ens Realissimum, Ens Perfectissimum, Sui Causa, and the God of mysticism generally (Erigena, Hugo of St. Victor, Cusa, Boehme, Bruno).
In modern thought: the Substance of Descartes and Spinoza, the God of Malebranche and Berkeley, the Energy of materialism, the Space-Time of realism, the Pure Experience of phenomenalism, the ding-an-sich (q.v.) of Kant.
B. Generically "an absolute" or "the absolute" (pl. "absolutes") means
- the real (thing-in-itself) as opposed to appearance;
- substance, the substantival, reals (possessing aseity or self-existence) as opposed to relations;
- the perfect, non-comparative, complete of its kind;
- the primordial or uncaused;
- the independent or autonomous.
- Aristotelian logic involves such absolutes as the three laws of thought and changeless, objectively real classes or species,
- In Kantian logic the categories and principles of judgment are absolutes, i.e. a priori, while the Ideas of reason seek absolute totality and unity,
- In the organic or metaphysical logic of the Hegelian school, the Absolute is considered the ultimate terminus, referent, or subject of every judgment.
Ethics and Axiology. Moral and axiological identified with the Real values, norms, principles, maxims, laws are considered absolutes when universally valid objects of acknowledgment, whether conditionally or unconditionally (e.g. the law of the best possible, the utilitarian greatest happiness principle, the Kantian categorical imperative).
Aesthetics. Aesthetic absolutes are standards, norms, principles of aesthetic taste considered as objective, i.e. universally valid. -- W.L.