1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Absolute
ABSOLUTE (Lat. absolvere, to loose, set free), a term having the general signification of independent, self-existent, unconditioned. Thus we speak of “absolute” as opposed to “limited” or “constitutional” monarchy, or, in common parlance, of an “absolute failure,” i.e. unrelieved by any satisfactory circumstances. In philosophy the word has several technical uses. (1) In Logic, it has been applied to non-connotative terms which do not imply attributes (see Connotation), but more commonly, in opposition to Relative, to terms which do not imply the existence of some other (correlative) term; e.g. “father” implies “son,” “tutor” “pupil,” and therefore each of these terms is relative. In fact, however, the distinction is formal, and, though convenient in the terminology of elementary logic, cannot be strictly maintained. The term “man,” for example, which, as compared with “father,” “son,” “tutor,” seems to be absolute, is obviously relative in other connexions; in various contexts it implies its various possible opposites, e.g. “woman,” “boy,” “master,” “brute.” In other words, every term which is susceptible of definition is ipso facto relative, for definition is precisely the segregation of the thing defined from all other things which it is not, i.e. implies a relation. Every term which has a meaning is, therefore, relative, if only to its contradictory.
(2) The term is used in the phrase “absolute knowledge” to imply knowledge per se. It has been held, however, that, since all knowledge implies a knowing subject and a known object, absolute knowledge is a contradiction in terms (see Relativity). So also Herbert Spencer spoke of “absolute ethics,” as opposed to systems of conduct based on particular local or temporary laws and conventions (see Ethics).
(3) By far the most important use of the word is in the phrase “the Absolute” (see Metaphysics). It is sufficient here to indicate the problems involved in their most elementary form. The process of knowledge in the sphere of intellect as in that of natural science is one of generalization, i.e. the co-ordination of particular facts under general statements, or in other words, the explanation of one fact by another, and that other by a third, and so on. In this way the particular facts or existences are left behind in the search for higher, more inclusive conceptions; as twigs are traced to one branch, and branches to one trunk, so, it is held, all the plurality of sense-given data is absorbed in a unity which is all-inclusive and self-existent, and has no “beyond.” By a metaphor this process has been described as the ὁδὸς ἄνω (as of tracing a river to its source). Other phrases from different points of view have been used to describe the idea, e.g. First Cause, Vital Principle (in connexion with the origin of life), God (as the author and sum of all being), Unity, Truth (i.e. the sum and culmination of all knowledge), Causa Causans, &c. The idea in different senses appears both in idealistic and realistic systems of thought.
The theories of the Absolute may be summarized briefly as follows. (1) The Absolute does not exist, and is not even in any real sense thinkable. This view is held by the empiricists, who hold that nothing is knowable save phenomena. The Absolute could not be conceived, for all knowledge is susceptible of definition and, therefore, relative. The Absolute includes the idea of necessity, which the mind cannot cognize. (2) The Absolute exists for thought only. In this theory the absolute is the unknown x which the human mind is logically compelled to postulate a priori as the only coherent explanation and justification of its thought. (3) The Absolute exists but is unthinkable, because it is an aid to thought which comes into operation, as it were, as a final explanation beyond which thought cannot go. Its existence is shown by the fact that without it all demonstration would be a mere circulus in probando or verbal exercise, because the existence of separate things implies some one thing which includes and explains them. (4) The Absolute both exists and is conceivable. It is argued that we do in fact conceive it in as much as we do conceive Unity, Being, Truth. The conception is so clear that its inexplicability (admitted) is of no account. Further, since the unity of our thought implies the absolute, and since the existence of things is known only to thought, it appears absurd that the absolute itself should be regarded as non-existent. The Absolute is substance in itself, the ultimate basis and matter of existence. All things are merely manifestations of it, exist in virtue of it, but are not identical with it. (5) Metaphysical idealists pursue this line of argument in a different way. For them nothing exists save thought; the only existence that can be predicated of any thing and, therefore, of the Absolute, is that it is thought. Thought creates God, things, the Absolute. (6) Finally, it has been held that we can conceive the Absolute, though our conception is only partial, just as our conception of all things is limited by the imperfect powers of human intellect. Thus the Absolute exists for us only in our thought of it (4 above). But thought itself comes from the Absolute which, being itself the pure thought of thoughts, separates from itself individual minds. It is, therefore, perfectly natural that human thought, being essentially homogeneous with the Absolute, should be able by the consideration of the universe to arrive at some imperfect conception of the source from which all is derived.
The whole controversy is obscured by inevitable difficulties in terminology. The fundamental problem is whether a thing which is by hypothesis infinite can in any sense be defined, and if it is not defined, whether it can be said to be cognized or thought. It would appear to be almost an axiom that anything which by hypothesis transcends the intellect (i.e. by including subject and object, knowing and known) is ipso facto beyond the limits of the knower. Only an Absolute can cognize an absolute.