Absolute means not limited by exceptions or conditions. That which does not depend on another for its existence, as opposed to “conditioned,” “dependent,” and does not preclude the relationship for which another would depend on it. The term is used in many different ways in mathematics, physics, philosophy, and everyday language.

Etymologically, the term absolute derives from the Latin compound ab + solutus, which means “dissolved from”. Plato, for example, considered the world of ideas or Hyperuranium as an independent and autonomous reality, precisely because it is “dissolved from” every other, not related to something else. Conversely, the sensory world exists only in relation to ideas, as it depends ontologically on the latter. To the Ideas he attributed the Being of which Parmenides already spoke. The absolute is in fact what has the being in itself and for itself, being causa sui (cause of itself). Relative is instead what according to Plato does not have the being, but only the existence, or is only from something else, existence means in fact properly, in the etymological sense, “to be from”, that is to receive the being from another (from Latin ex + sistentia).

In some philosophies, the absolute stands behind the reality we see – independent, transcendent, unconditional, and all-encompassing. The American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916) took the absolute to be a spiritual entity whose self-consciousness is imperfectly reflected in the totality of human thought. Mathematics, too, reaches beyond imagination with its absolute infinity.

The first to use the term absolute in the field of philosophy was N. Cusano, for whom there are an absolute maximum and an absolute minimum, both elusive to human understanding, both coinciding in God. God himself is therefore absolute as coincidence of opposites. If Cusano particularly highlights the substantive form of the term absolute, J.G. Fichte uses both (the attributive and the substantive), identifying not only the absolute with the Ego as a creative principle (and then identifying this principle with God himself), but also defining “absolute” the activity of the Ego and “absolute” the knowledge that captures this activity. The term absolute is also found in other forms of classical German idealism, in F. W. J. Schelling and in G. W. F. Hegel. The latter considers the absolute as the final moment of the process of reason, that is, the moment of the unity of being and thought, which is fully realized through the position, both ideal and historical, of conceptual determinations as real determinations. Hegelian thought therefore conceives the absolute as an exhaustive, necessary and necessitating reality, and Schelling opposes this conception, especially in the last phase of his thought. The main reason for Schelling’s opposition is the need to highlight the free gift of God to man. After Romanticism and Idealism, the term absolute has been repeatedly taken up by various philosophical currents, but always in meanings similar to those developed by the idealists: such is the use that is made, for example, by V. Cousin, by W. Hamilton and H. Mansel, by F. H. Bradley, by B. Croce and G. Gentile. Croce and G. Gentile.

From Greek thought to Scholasticism

In Aristotle, absolute is the pure act, that is, God, insofar as it is fully realized; it is not moved by anything other than itself, but is rather a motor that attracts towards itself while remaining perfectly still. For Plotinus it is the One, that is a supreme reality that does not contain within it any division: everything is in Him. The Absolute can be understood by thought only by rising above the dualism subject/object, through the mystical union of ecstasy. In this way, man is able to place himself, as the One, above the Aristotelian principle of non-contradiction, identifying himself with his absolute freedom, free from any rational necessity.

In the wake of Greek philosophy, Christian theology will identify the Absolute with the God of Biblical Revelation. In Scholasticism, it was then evident that the philosophical knowledge of the Absolute had to pass through an act of faith or through the immediacy of intuition: to know means in fact to connect, to relate something with something other than itself; but since the Absolute already has everything inside, it has no external term of reference with which it can relate. The five ways proposed by Thomas Aquinas to raise oneself to the intelligence of the revealed truths, therefore, only allow one to arrive at an intuitive knowledge of the existence of God, without the pretension of demonstrating them logically. In the Age of Enlightenment, however, they were confused with the ability to “demonstrate” the foundations of faith through reason.

The modern age

In the modern age we go from the transcendent conception of Cusanus, for whom the Absolute is the supreme point in which opposites coincide, and in which there is no more distinction between the objects of multiplicity, to the immanent conception of Spinoza. The latter, aiming to recompose the Cartesian dualism between res cogitans and res extensa, argues that everything in nature is caused by a unique and absolute principle, that is God, who is not to be understood as the first link in the chain of causes present in it, but as the unitary substance of this same chain.

From Kant to German Idealism

The philosophical theme of the Absolute is therefore a limited development but lightning fast and exceptionally important in the history of European thought at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1781 was published the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, by Immanuel Kant. The intention of the philosopher is to enter the debate on science and the foundations of knowledge, moving the investigation from the object (nature, the being of the entity) to the subject. With his “Copernican revolution” he tries to establish a difference no longer debatable between what is knowable (phenomenon) and what is not (noumenon), but poses in this way a problem that will become the decisive reason of the subsequent debate that will open in Germany.

By separating the theoretical function of philosophy from the practical (or ethical) one, he gave in fact the impression of addressing the question without due depth, an element, this, that diverts the attention of critics and readers towards outcomes completely different from those that Kant had imagined. The problem becomes in fact that of the “unjustifiable” nature of the thing itself, and how to overcome the Kantian dichotomy between intellect and experience, that is, ultimately between subject and object.

In 1787 Friedrich H. Jacobi advances his objections on the unknowability of the noumenon by publishing David Hume on faith. At the same time Kant released a second edition, revised and corrected, of the Critique, in order to clarify the difficulties of interpretation that arose around the noumenon and the hypothesis of pure intuition. Also in ’87 comes out the Critique of Practical Reason, in which Kant clearly distinguishes practical philosophy from theoretical philosophy: while the former can draw on the Absolute, because it obeys only the laws that reason discovers within itself, on the cognitive level the subject is bound by the phenomenal limits that, as a sensory endowment, he builds on the object.

In 1789 Karl Leonhard Reinhold writes the Essay on a new theory of the human faculty of representation; with this work the author, who considers himself a faithful follower of Kant, tries to unify phenomenon and noumenon, seeing them no longer as the opposite terms of a contradiction, but originating from the same unifying activity of the subject. According to Reinhold, the thing itself is not something external to the subject, but a pure concept (limit) belonging to its own representation. With this operation Reinhold directs the debate towards the problem of the absolute, which will not be abandoned.

In 1790, while Salomon Maimon, with his Researches on transcendental philosophy, makes the decisive step to include the noumenon among the factors of consciousness, comes out the Critique of Judgment, the last of the three greatest works of Kant, who in the ongoing debate joins the concept of absolute to that of freedom: this in fact, according to Kant, is because the subject, formulating their aesthetic judgments, is no longer subjected to the necessity of the cognitive laws of cause and effect, but is free to formulate their associative links, and therefore lives the dimension of the absolute that was precluded instead to pure reason.

In 1792 Gottlob Ernst Schulze, with his pamphlet entitled Enesidemo, made Kant’s theories turn to skeptical positions. Just to answer Schulze’s objections and defend the reasons of criticism, Fichte elaborates, between 1793 and 1797, the foundations of his Doctrine of Science, a work with which the definitive bases of idealism are laid. In this path, which represents only the first phase of the debate, the absolute, which appeared in Kant as the insurmountable limit of human knowledge, comes to coincide with consciousness itself, transformed into the transcendental act of self-formation of the subject: he is no longer limited by an external noumenon, but by an internal limit that he sets himself unconsciously. The opposition between subject and object is thus brought back to a unitary principle: the absolute ego. It is absolute because it is unlimited, but it can always be accessed through ethics, with an act of freedom, because on the cognitive level the opposition I/non-ego remains.

The appearance of Schelling’s Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature – we are still in 1797, only 14 years after Kant’s Prolegomena to any future metaphysics – further shifts the thematic horizon of criticism, involving in the scenario the major figures of German Romantic culture, including Schiller, Goethe, Hölderlin. In addition to this, the naturalistic researches of scientists and doctors gravitating around the new frontiers of physics and chemistry (the discoveries related to magnetism and the function of oxygen), and, precisely, the intellectual commitment of a writer like Goethe around the new strand of the “Philosophy of Nature”, counted for a lot, if not a great deal. Schelling objects that the Fichtian Ego, although absolute and unlimited, needed to remain bound to the non-ego, since a subject can exist only in relation to an object. So he sets as a principle of his philosophy an Absolute in which the subject and the object are two poles with equal dignity; it is the immediate union of Spirit and Nature. With Schelling, Kant’s search for a unitary principle expands to the extreme limit of a Spinozian idealism of pantheistic imprint, of which art and religion are central elements.

With Hegel the conversation reaches its highest point but also historically definitive: the task that he assumes is in fact to heal the contradictions inherent in the attitude of criticism and idealism, due to their inability to explain why the Absolute should polarize into a duality, subject and object, one opposed to the other. Hegel is able to do this by making philosophy part of history, making it the outcome of real life, and not the antagonist, but at the cost of abandoning the formal logic of non-contradiction that had guided philosophical thought since the time of Parmenides and Aristotle. With his representation of the absolute that finds reconciliation between opposites in their struggle and mutual contention, rather than in principles uncritically placed a priori, Hegel puts a definitive end to that separation between subject and object that had been the cross of all post-Kantian philosophy. In this sense, Hegel’s textual itinerary is almost the outward sign of that unity of which his thought wants to be the highest representation: from the first essay on the Difference between the philosophical system of Fichte and that of Schelling, through the Phenomenology of Spirit, the Science of Logic and the Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences, Hegel’s work stands as the complete and systematic ideal representation of reality – or the absolute.

The Absolute of Hegel

Hegel inaugurates a new conception of the Absolute, able to resolve, in his view, the aporias of previous metaphysics, according to him unable to explain why it needs to generate multiplicity. He conceives it as Plotinus’ One in a reversed sense: while Plotinus’ One was placed on a mystical and transcendent level, from which it generated the becoming and dispersed itself in the multiple without an apparent reason, the Hegelian Absolute enters the becoming in order to explain itself. The multiplicity serves, therefore, to the One in order to become eventually conscious of itself, to recognize itself, through various steps, in itself.

The Plotinian perspective, where the One was placed at the origin in a state of ecstasy that faded as it emanated the manifold, is thus turned upside down: for Hegel the One is composed from the manifold and will become aware of itself only at the end, acquiring concreteness in its worldly journey.

This new conception involves the subversion of the logic of non-contradiction, since the One now comes to coincide with its opposite, that is, with multiplicity. The Hegelian Absolute is no longer something static, which is already “in itself and for itself”, but it is a becoming, a being for itself, whose truth flows from a dialectical demonstration, instead of being placed with an original intuition. In Hegel certainty and truth coincide again, as well as thought and being, but in a mediated form (by reason).

Criticism of Hegelianism

The Hegelian solution, however, will give rise to numerous criticisms by his contemporaries: according to Schelling, for example, thought can only establish the negative or necessary conditions (but not sufficient) for something to exist; the actual and absolute reality, however, can not be created, determined by logical thought, because it arises from a free will and irreducible to mere rational necessity. The positive conditions that make existence possible arise in fact from an unconditional and precisely absolute act that as such is above any dialectical explanation, while Hegel intended to make the Absolute precisely the result of a logical mediation, which would reach self-awareness only at the conclusion of the dialectical process.

“As for Hegel, the latter boasted precisely of having God as the Absolute Spirit at the conclusion of philosophy. Now, can one think of an Absolute Spirit who is not at the same time absolute personality, an absolutely self-conscious being?”

Schelling, Philosophy of Revelation

Marx’s criticism was of a different tenor, who, while contesting the abstractness of Hegel’s Absolute, however, appreciated the idea of the struggle as a conciliation of social disputes, preferring it to that concord between opposites postulated uncritically, according to him, by the theological-philosophical doctrines that had preceded him. Marx then simply replaced the Hegelian Absolute with History, making the latter the outcome of the clash between opposing classes.

This approach of thought was instead criticized, on other sides, by philosophers turned more to existential issues, such as Schopenhauer, or Kierkegaard, in the eyes of which the Hegelian doctrine appeared as the vain pretension to understand rationally what by nature can be known only by going beyond the reason itself: what Hegel had believed to find was actually a sort of “relative” disguised as absolute, not a “whole” but only the prevarication of a part on the other.

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