ABSOLUTE (absolutum, ab and solvo, to loose from).— (1)
Adjective, applied to
the essence of a thing, apart from its relations or varied representations; (2)
to the perfect or completed form of existence; (3) substantive, "The Absolute,''
the Self-existent, Self-sufficient Being, independent in nature and in
action—the Uncaused—the Cause of all existence besides.
"The term absolute is of twofold (if not threefold) antiquity, corresponding to
the double (or treble) signification of the word in Latin. (1) Absolutum means
what is freed or loosed; in which sense the absolute will be what is aloof from
relation, comparison, limitation, dependence, &c, and is thus tantamount to
τὸ ἀπόλυτον of the lower Greeks. In this meaning, the
Absolute is not opposed to
(2) Absolutum means finished, perfected, completed; in
which sense the Absolute will be what is out of relation,
&c, as finished, perfect, complete, total, and
thus corresponds to
Aristotle. In this acceptation (and it is that in which I exclusively
use it) the Absolute is diametrically opposed to, is
contradictory of, the Infinite" (Sir W. Hamilton,
Discussions, p. 14, note).
"By the Absolute is meant that which exists in and by itself, having no
necessary relation to any other being. By the Infinite is meant that which is
free from all possible limitation; that than which a greater is inconceivable,
and which consequently can receive no additional attribute or mode of existence,
which it had not from all eternity'' (Mansel, Limits of Religious Thought, p.
"The plain and etymological meaning of the term is freed
or loosed, and hence it means freed from restriction or condition. In this sense
it is evident that the Infinite must be absolute, for that which is not limited
does not afford the possibility of restriction. This is the sense in which
philosophers have uniformly used the word; and in this sense Sir W. Hamilton
admits that 'the Absolute is not opposed to the Infinite'" (Calderwood,
Philosophy of the Infinite, 3rd ed., p. 165).
These definitions were the basis for discussion of the question whether the
Absolute can be known under the conditions of consciousness. Hamilton, arguing
against Cousin, maintained the negative (Discussions, pp. 1-38). Mansel
supported the position (Limits of Religious Thought; see also Mansel's Essays, p.
154, Philosophy of Kant, and German Philosophy). Calderwood argued the contrary
on the basis of faith and cognition (Philosophy of the Infinite).
Hamilton's position was accepted as an illustration of the doctrine of
relativity of knowledge (J. S. Mill's Examination of Hamilton's Philosophy, pp.
1-129; Herbert Spencer's First Principles, 3rd ed., pt. 1,—The Unknowable, pp.
The position of Herbert Spencer is indicated in the opening part of the
Principles, with extended quotations from Mansel's Limits of Religious Thought.
The following passages will indicate the general course of the
arguments:—"We are not only obliged to suppose some cause, but
also a first cause... We cannot think at all about the
impressions which the external world produces on us, without
thinking of them as caused; and we cannot carry out an inquiry
concerning their causation without inevitably committing
ourselves to the hypothesis of a First Cause.
But now, if we go a step further, and ask what is
the nature of this First Cause, we are driven by an inexorable
logic to certain further conclusions...It is impossible to
consider the First Cause as finite. And if it cannot be finite, it must be
infinite. Another inference concerning the First Cause is equally unavoidable:
It must be independent. If it be dependent, it cannot be the First Cause; for
that must be
the First Cause on which it depends...Thus the First
Cause must be in every sense perfect, complete, total; including within itself
all power, and transcending all law. Or, to
use the established word, it must be absolute" (pp. 37, 38). Treating of
conflicting religious systems, Herbert Spencer says:—«Not only is the
omnipresence of something which passes comprehension that most abstract belief
which is common to all religions, which becomes the more distinct in proportion
as they develop, and which remains after their discordant elements have been
mutually cancelled; but it is that belief which the most unsparing criticism of
each leaves unquestionable, or rather makes ever clearer " (p. 45).
Philosophy is ultimately, by its very nature, a search for the Absolute—first
for absolute truth, as distinct from mere appearance, and afterwards for The
Absolute Being, as the source and explanation of all dependent existence, ens
realissimum. Thus Plato ascends from the manifold to the one, finding in the
idea the key to all varieties of manifestation in the world, and passes beyond
ideas to that which is more than idea—The Good—the centre and source of
existence, "far exceeding essence in dignity and power" (Republic,
507-509). So it has been in modern philosophy, Spinoza maintaining that thought
is true only as we think all things in God (Ethics, pt. II. prop. 32). Kant,
while insisting that we cannot have logical demonstration of the Divine
existence, granted that the reason seeks to transcend the sphere of the
understanding, in order to reach the Absolute, and held that in the practical
sphere, duty implies Deity (Critique of Pure Reason and of Practical); in
succession to this come the speculations of Fichte and Schelling, concerning the
Absolute, and still later, of Hegel, who, defining philosophy as the thinking
view of things, makes it in substance a philosophy of The Absolute, maintaining
that all existence is strictly a manifestation of the Absolute in the evolution
of Being according to Dialectic. In Britain, philosophy, regarding absolute
intelligence as the First Cause, source of all finite existence, turned
speculation for a time on the possibility of a knowledge of the Absolute, while
granting belief in the transcendent reality (Hamilton and Mansel), and more
recently, the Sensational School, interpreting a theory of Evolution, has
discoursed of the "Unknowable" treating it as "an ultimate religious truth of
possible certainty,... the deepest, widest, and most certain of all
facts—that the power which the universe manifests to us is utterly inscrutable"
(Spencer's First Principles, p. 46).— V. INFINITE, UNCONDITIONED,