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Absolute (philosophy)

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In philosophy (often specifically metaphysics), the absolute,[a] in most common usage, is a perfect, self-sufficient reality that depends upon nothing external to itself.[2] In theology, the term is also used to designate the supreme being.[3]


Contrary to some popular accounts,[b] the term is not specific to Hegel. It first occurs in the work of Nicholas of Cusa, and Hegel's own usage was developed in response to that of his contemporary Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling.[4]

Hegel's use of "absolute" is easily misunderstood. Michael Inwood, however, clarifies: derived from the Latin absolutus, it means "not dependent on, conditional on, relative to or restricted by anything else; self-contained, perfect, complete."[4] In the words of scholar Allegra de Laurentiis, this means that absolute knowing can only denote "an 'absolute relation' in which the ground of experience and the experiencing agent are one and the same: the object known is explicitly the subject who knows."[5] That is, the only "thing" (which is really an activity) that is truly absolute is that which is entirely self-conditioned, and according to Hegel, this only occurs when spirit takes itself up as its own object. In some respects, this view of Hegel was anticipated by Johann Gottlieb Fichte's theory of the absolute self.[6] The final section of Hegel's Philosophy of Spirit presents the three modes of such absolute knowing: art, religion, and philosophy.[c]

For Hegel, as understood by Martin Heidegger, the absolute is "spirit, that which is present to itself in the certainty of unconditional self-knowing".[8] As Hegel is understood by Frederick Copleston, "[l]ogic studies the absolute 'in itself'; the philosophy of nature studies the absolute 'for itself'; and the philosophy of spirit studies the absolute 'in and for itself'."[9]

In British philosophy, self-identified neo-Hegelian F. H. Bradley distinguishes the concept of absolute from God, whereas Josiah Royce, another neo-Hegelian and founder of the American idealism school of philosophy, has equated them.[6]

Indian religions[edit]

The concept of the Absolute has been used to interpret the early texts of the Indian religions such as those attributed to Yajnavalkya, Nagarjuna and Adi Shankara.[10]

According to Takeshi Umehara, some ancient texts of Buddhism state that the "truly Absolute and the truly Free must be nothingness",[11] the "void".[12] Yet, the early Buddhist scholar Nagarjuna, states Paul Williams, does not present "emptiness" as some kind of Absolute; rather, it is "the very absence (a pure non-existence) of inherent existence" in Mādhyamaka school of the Buddhist philosophy.[13]

According to Glyn Richards, the early texts of Hinduism state that the Brahman or the nondual Brahman–Atman is the Absolute.[14][15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hegel capitalized das Absolute because German grammar requires this of all nouns. Yet, in the words of one of Hegel's recent translators, capitalization in English has "no justification in Hegel's text and, in my view, draws an unwarranted sharp distinction between what is a technical use and what is not. Again, it should be left to the reader (or to a note) to decide this question and not imposed by the translator."[1] Regardless, the word is sometimes capitalized in English works, whether in relation to Hegel or not.
  2. ^ E.g., Copleston 1963, pp. 166–80.
  3. ^ As Walter Jaeschke, German scholar and editor of the critical Gesammelte Werke edition of Hegel's works puts it, "It is only in this sphere [of absolute knowing] that spirit brings forth a shape – an image of itself, as it were – and relates itself to this shape in the forms of intuition [art], representation [religion], and comprehending thinking [philosophy/logic]. It is here that spirit relates itself to itself and is absolute precisely in its self-relation. It cognizes itself as what it is and it is with itself (bei sich) and free in this cognition. Only with this cognition is the concept of spirit – as the concept of a thinking relation to self – complete."[7]


  1. ^ Inwood 2018, p. xxi.
  2. ^ Clément, Élisabeth; Demonque, Chantal; Hansen-Løve, Laurence; et al. (2011). "absolu". In Hansen-Løve, Laurence (ed.). La philosophie de A à Z (in French). Paris: Hatier. p. 11. ISBN 978-2-218-94735-3. OCLC 795416746.
  3. ^ Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "The Absolute" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  4. ^ a b Inwood 1992, p. 27.
  5. ^ de Laurentiis 2009, p. 249.
  6. ^ a b Sprigge, T. L. S. (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Taylor and Francis. doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N001-1.
  7. ^ Jaeschke 2013, p. 179.
  8. ^ Heidegger, Martin (2002). Heidegger: Off the Beaten Track. Cambridge University Press. pp. 97–98. ISBN 978-0-521-80507-0.
  9. ^ Frederick Charles Copleston (2003). 18th and 19th Century German Philosophy. A&C Black. pp. 173–174. ISBN 978-0-8264-6901-4.
  10. ^ Nakamura, Hajime (1964). The Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples: India-China-Tibet-Japan. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 53–57. ISBN 978-0-8248-0078-9., Quote: "Thus the ultimate Absolute presumed by the Indians is not a personal god but an impersonal and metaphysical Principle. Here we can see the impersonal character of the Absolute in Indian thought. The inclination of grasping Absolute negatively necessarily leads (as Hegel would say) to the negation of the negative expression itself."
  11. ^ Umehara, Takeshi (1970). "Heidegger and Buddhism". Philosophy East and West. 20 (3): 271–281. doi:10.2307/1398308. JSTOR 1398308.
  12. ^ Orru, Marco; Wang, Amy (1992). "Durkheim, Religion, and Buddhism". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 31 (1): 47–61. doi:10.2307/1386831. JSTOR 1386831. S2CID 144043208.
  13. ^ Williams, Paul (2002). Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. pp. 146–148.
  14. ^ Richards, Glyn (1995). "Modern Hinduism". Studies in Religion. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 117–127. doi:10.1007/978-1-349-24147-7_9. ISBN 978-1-349-24149-1.
  15. ^ Chaudhuri, Haridas (1954). "The Concept of Brahman in Hindu Philosophy". Philosophy East and West. 4 (1): 47–66. doi:10.2307/1396951. JSTOR 1396951., Quote: "The Self or Atman is the Absolute viewed from the subjective standpoint (arkara), or a real mode of existence of the Absolute."
  16. ^ Simoni-Wastila, Henry (2002). "Māyā and radical particularity: Can particular persons be one with Brahman?". International Journal of Hindu Studies. 6 (1). Springer: 1–18. doi:10.1007/s11407-002-0009-5. S2CID 144665828.

Works cited[edit]

  • Copleston, Frederick Charles (1963). History of Philosophy: Fichte to Nietzsche. Paulist Press. ISBN 978-0-8091-0071-2.
  • de Laurentiis, Allegra (2009). "Absolute Knowing". In Kenneth R. Westphal (ed.). The Blackwell Guide to Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Inwood, Michael (1992). A Hegel Dictionary. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631175339.
  • Inwood, Michael (2018). "Note on the Translation and Commentary". The Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press.
  • Jaeschke, Walter (2013). "Absolute Spirit: Art, Religion and Philosophy". In Allegra de Laurentiis and Jeffrey Edwards (ed.). The Bloomsbury Companion to Hegel. Bloomsbury Academic.