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The Absolute is the concept of an unconditional reality which transcends limited, conditional, everyday existence. It is often used as an alternate term for a "God" or "the Divine", especially, but by no means exclusively, by those who feel that the term "God" lends itself too easily to anthropomorphic presumptions. The concept of The Absolute may or may not (depending on one's specific doctrine) possess discrete will, intelligence, awareness or even a personal nature. It is sometimes conceived of as the source through which all being emanates. It contrasts with finite things, considered individually, and known collectively as the relative. As such, the word "Absolute" signifies a negative concept: non– relative, non– comparative, or without relation to anything else. This is reflected in its Latin origin absolūtus which means "loosened from" or "unattached."

Similarities and differences in various traditions

Examples of religions and philosophies which embrace the concept of the Absolute in one form or another include Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism, Islam, some forms of Jewish philosophy, and existential or metaphysical forms of Christianity.[citation needed] Terms which serve to identify The Absolute [1] among such beliefs include the Tao (the Way), Brahman, Parabrahman, God, the Divine and numerous other appellations.[citation needed]

The human vital essence - soul, spirit, spark of awareness, is said to have originally derived in each case from the Absolute,[citation needed] and to be indestructible after the nature of the Absolute, and to be capable of returning to its source. This returning is the goal of those Eastern religions that have such a concept.[citation needed]

The general commonalities between the various versions of the Absolute are: infinity, indescribability, formlessness, transcendence and immanence. An additional commonality is that one must renounce and/or transcend physical existence and its distractions, in some cases even to the point of extinguishing identity and individual awareness, in order to understand or co-exist with the Absolute. Uniformly, human passions and vices are regarded as barriers to spiritual advancement, and such virtues as humility, charity and righteousness or pacifism are felt to help pave the way to enlightenment.

Parallels may be drawn between such traditions and Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic (i.e., Abrahamic) thought.[citation needed] The concept is of a universal subconsciousness, undivided and incapable of being depicted through gods or icons, parent to the individual souls of men, and to which men strive to return.[citation needed] This sought-after return is impaired by evil thought and deed, and facilitated by altruism.[citation needed] In addition, the traditions share a general value system that discourages worldliness and encourages seeking higher, more intangible principles, such as righteousness, justice, and good deeds done for their own sake.

Where basic divisions begin to appear between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with regard to the Absolute, is in the separation of Godhead from God, and in the separation of Godhead from creation, nature, and the souls of men themselves. Eastern thought does the former (Western rarely defines 'Godhead' or obscures it,) but not always the latter, which Western spirituality often does.

Thing in itself

Roughly, the Absolute may be distinguished from the following concepts, although there is debate of the synonymity between them:

  • Thing-in-itself, an actual object and its properties independent of any observer.
  • Noumenon, an object as it is in itself independent of the mind.[2]

However, rather than distinguishing from the relative, the thing in itself is used to distinguish an actual object from phenomenon (the appearance of things-in-themselves to the senses).

The Absolute in Western philosophy

Heraclitus concerned himself with the knowable portion of the Absolute with his Logos. Plotinus, a Neo-Platonic philosopher, saw all forms of existence as emanating from 'The One'. The one or monad via Plotinus being as a non-sentient power or force. The concept of the Absolute was re-introduced into philosophy by Hegel, Schelling, and their followers; it is associated with various forms of philosophical idealism. The Absolute, either under that name, or as the "Ground of Being", or some similar concept, also figures in several of the attempted proofs of the existence of God, particularly the ontological argument and the cosmological argument. In scholastic philosophy, the Absolute was regarded as Pure Act, unadulterated with remaining potential.

The concept was adopted into 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, rather 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.

The mathematician Georg Cantor equated the mathematical concept of the Absolute Infinite with God.[3]

Recently, certain philosophers have attempted to reconceive Christianity as a Gnostic religion (see Mary Magdalene). Here "the Absolute" is referred to as "the All". [citation needed]

However, the concept need not be taken to imply a universal unitary consciousness. American philosopher Brand Blanshard, for example, conceived the Absolute as a single overarching intelligible system but declined to characterize it in terms of consciousness or experience.


There is no text in which the Buddha explicitly argues that the universe lacks an essence; he instead mocks positions regarding an ultimate nature of reality - such as those found in the Upanishads - in the manner of later Prasangikas.[4] The Buddha of the early texts does speak of experiencing "luminous consciousness" beyond the six sense media.[5] Passages in which the Buddha criticizes those who talk about things not amenable to experience are quite common in the early texts.[6] Some of the Buddha's followers have not held to this paradigm.[7]

Some prominent Buddhist philosophers have; Nagarjuna, one of the most prominent philosophers of Mahayana Buddhism, was misinterpreted by early scholarship as propounding an absolutist doctrine with his development of the Buddhist concept of shunyata. This is now universally regarded as incorrect and in no way grounded on textual evidence.[8] Nagarjuna defended the classical Buddhist emphasis on phenomena.[9] For him shunyata is explicitly used as a middle way between absolutism and nihilism, and that is where its soteriological power lies. It does not refer to an ultimate, universal, or absolute nature of reality.[10] Holding up emptiness as an absolute or ultimate truth without reference to that which is empty is the last thing either the Buddha or Nagarjuna would advocate.[11] Nagarjuna criticized those who viewed shunyata as an Absolute: "The Victorious Ones have announced that emptiness is the relinquishing of all views. Those who are possessed of the view of emptiness are said to be incorrigible."[12]

By contrast, still later schools of Chinese Buddhism, particularly those under the sway of Tathagatagarbha scriptures, affirmed the notion of a (loosely speaking) positive absolute, identifying if with the true or original substance of the Buddha, though they were frequently challenged in this by other Chinese Buddhists. In postulating an underlying, invariant, universal metaphysical "source", these schools returned to the metaphysical assumptions that had flourished in China before Buddhism's arrival.[13]


Kant questioned whether the absolute can be thought.

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.

Critique of Pure Reason, A593

Nietzsche criticized Hegel's claims about the non–relative Absolute.

Words are but symbols for the relations of things to one another and to us; nowhere do they touch upon absolute truth. ... Thus it is, today, after Kant, an audacious ignorance if here and there, especially among badly informed theologians who like to play philosopher, the task of philosophy is represented as being quite certainly "comprehending the Absolute with the consciousness," somewhat completely in the form "the Absolute is already present, how could it be sought somewhere else?" as Hegel has expressed it.

Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, § 11.

See also


  1. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on the Bhagavad-Gita, a New Translation and Commentary, Chapter 1-6. Penguin Books, 1969, p 188 (v 5)
  3. §3.2, Ignacio Jané (May 1995). The role of the absolute infinite in Cantor's conception of set. Erkenntnis 42 (3): 375–402.
  4. Richard Gombrich, How Buddhism began: the Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. Continuum International Publishing Group, 1996, page 34.
  5. Brahma-nimantanika Sutta, translation and commentary by Thanissaro Bhikkhu: [1].
  6. Pratap Chandra, Was Early Buddhism Influenced by the Upanishads? Philosophy East and West Vol. 21, No. 3 (July 1971) pp. 317-324.
  7. A.K. Warder, A Course in Indian Philosophy. Second edition published by Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, page 81.
  8. Jorge Noguera Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. SUNY Press, 2002, page 102.
  9. Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Harvard University Press, 2000, pages 221-222.
  10. Jorge Noguera Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. SUNY Press, 2002, pages 102-103.
  11. David J. Kalupahana, Nagarjuna: The Philosophy of the Middle Way. SUNY Press, 1986, page 49.
  12. Jorge Noguera Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. SUNY Press, 2002, pages 102. The quote is from the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā.
  13. Dan Lusthaus, "Critical Buddhism and Returning to the Sources." Pages 30-55 of Jamie Hubbard, Paul Loren Swanson, editors, Pruning the bodhi tree: the storm over critical Buddhism. University of Hawaii Press, 1997, page 36.

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