Absolute (philosophy)

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A swastika (Sanskrit: "It Is the Good") drawn by the rotation of the seven stars of the Big Dipper and Ursa Minor around the pole star, in the four phases of a day. Both the swastika symbol and the mentioned asterisms are known since immemorial times and in many cultures of the world to represent the Absolute principle of reality, the God of the Universe, in its action of manifestation as a whirlwind around the Centre.[note 1][note 2]
The Absolute represented as a World Tree

In philosophy, metaphysics, religion, spirituality, and other contexts, the Absolute is a term for the most real being, whatever that is. The Absolute is conceived as being itself or perhaps the being that transcends and comprehends all other beings.

While there is agreement that there must be some fundamental reality, there is disagreement as to what exactly that might be. For example, some theistic philosophers argue that the most real being is a personal God or gods.[3] Some pantheistic philosophers argue that the most real being is an impersonal existence, such as Reality or Awareness. Others (such as perennial philosophers) argue that various similar terms and concepts designate to the same Absolute entity.[4][5] Atheist, agnostic, and scientific pantheist philosophers[6] might argue that some natural law such as gravity or simply nature itself is the most real being.[7]

Three Conceptions of the Absolute

The Mesopotamian cuneiform ideogram An or Dingir, "Divine". It symbolises the Fountain of being as the Medium or Centre of irradiance of (a) reality.[note 3][note 4]

The basic concept of the Absolute is that it is the truest reality. However, there are three general ways of conceiving it. The Absolute might be (1) the first and greatest being, (2) not a being at all but the "ground" of being, or (3) both the ground of being and a being.

In conception (1) the Absolute is the most true and intelligible reality. It can be spoken of and known. For example, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Absolute Spirit is the most true reality. It is thinkable, speakable, and exists in objective world by comprehending everything, including people, states, and world history.

In (2) the Absolute might be conceived of as utterly outside of all other reality and hence unintelligible. It cannot be known or spoken about. Plato's Socrates says that "The Form of the Good" is "beyond being",[10] implying that it is even beyond thought, language, and normal categories of existence. St. John of the Cross says:

He who truly arrives there

cuts free from himself;

all that he knew before

now seems worthless,

and his knowledge so soars

that he is left in unknowing

transcending all knowledge.[11]

In (3) the Absolute might be conceived of as transcending duality and distinction. This concept of a fundamental reality that transcends or includes all other reality is usually (but not always) associated with divinity. While this conception initially seems contradictory, it has been highly influential. One way to understand this third conception is to consider the Tao te Ching.

The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named is not the eternal name.("Tao te Ching," 1)

These opening lines distinguish between two Taos. One is the "eternal Tao" (which cannot be named) and the other "Tao" seems to exist in space and time (and can be named). The eternal Tao is beyond existence and cannot be known, while the other Tao exists and can be known. The eternal Tao is infinite; the other is finite. The eternal Tao is formless; the other is formed. The eternal Tao is transcendent; the other is immanent.

Laozi first affirms this duality, then quickly denies it. He continues:

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth

The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly without desire, one observes its essence

Constantly with desire, one observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name

The unity is said to be the mystery.

In these lines, the eternal Tao is "nameless" and yet is the "mother" of all things, including the other Tao. Hence the two Taos are really one. The eternal Tao is first distinguished from the other Tao, and then said to be identical.

Cross-cultural Conceptions of the Absolute

One or more of these three conceptions of the Absolute can be found in various other religions or philosophies. The following is a list of concepts of divine or absolute reality:

Interpreting the Absolute

While these conceptions are superficially similar, they admit of multiple interpretations. Some philosophers, especially perennialists and pantheist philosophers, find great significance in the similarities between these different words and argue that various all cultures past and present have an identical concept of the 'Absolute'.

Other philosophers, however, argue that these concepts are not the same,[12][13] since the Logos is rational and formal whereas Brahman is formless and irrational; and since Plato's Form of the Good is impersonal where the Christian God is personal; since Bradley's Absolute is a conscious experience whereas Brand Blanshard's Absolute is an unconscious, intelligible system.

Perennialist philosophers such as John Hick argue that even if the concepts vary slightly, the reality of the Absolute reality behind the varying concepts is the same.[14]

Relation of humanity to the Absolute

Laozi taught that the Tao was not only the ultimate reality but the ideal of human life. Another conceptual similarity between various conceptions is that the ultimate reality also somehow reveals to humans the way to live. For example, Plato taught that the Good was both the source of reality, the highest object of knowledge, and the ultimate end of desire.

Literature scholar C. S. Lewis explains the connection between the highest reality and human action in this way:

In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta—that great ritual or pattern of nature and supernature which is revealed alike in the cosmic order, the moral virtues, and the ceremonial of the temple. Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality. As Plato said that the Good was 'beyond existence' and Wordsworth that through virtue the stars were strong, so the Indian masters say that the gods themselves are born of the Rta and obey it. The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao. It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every man should tread in imitation of that cosmic and supercosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar. 'In ritual', say the Analects, 'it is harmony with Nature that is prized.' The ancient Jews likewise praise the Law as being 'true'. This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as 'the Tao'.

Taimni says:

Because the Ultimate Reality which is denoted by the word 'Absolute' or 'Parabrahman' (卍) is the very core of our being as well as the cause and basis of the universe of which we are part, we can no more get away from it than our solar system can get away from the sun round which it resolves and from which it receives everything which keeps it alive and moving. Although the Absolute is sometimes referred to by such epithets as the Void, Ever-Darkness etc. and is beyond intellectual comprehension, still, from the intellectual point of view it is the most profound concept in the whole realm of philosophy. The fact that it is called 'Unknowable' does not mean that it is beyond the range of philosophical or religious thought and something on which thinking is impossible or undesirable. The very fact that it is the heart and the basis of the universe should make it the most intriguing object of enquiry within the realms of the intellect.

— I.K. Taimni, Man, God and the Universe

Aldous Huxley says:

"Only the transcendent, the completely other, can be immanent without being modified by the becoming of that in which it dwells. The Perennial Philosophy teaches that it is desirable and indeed necessary to know the spiritual Ground of things, not only within the soul, but also outside in the world and, beyond world and soul, in its transcendent otherness 'in heaven.' ... God within and God without; these are two abstract notions, which can be entertained by the understanding and expressed in words.

Similarly, the Hindu Taimni describes the Parabrahman as unknowable by the human mind and unthinkable but the highest object of realization and the most profound object of philosophical enquiry.[16]

Plotinus likewise taught that the goal of philosophy was to "contemplate the One".[17]

Experiencing the Absolute

Philosophers and religious adherents who aim to pattern their life after the Absolute reality sometimes claim to have experienced the Absolute. They report mystical experiences, feelings of oneness, transcendence of their everyday personality or of personhood altogether.

Representing the Absolute

The Absolute is conceptually defined as something inexpressible and perhaps unthinkable. This concept creates special problems for expression in words, poetry, mythology, and art. Writers, painters, storytellers, filmmakers[18] often use paradox or contradiction because the "contradictory aspect of the ultimate reality".[19] According to Eliade:[20]

According to Mircea Eliade, the Absolute can be mediated or revealed through symbols.[21] For Eliade the "archaic" mind is constantly aware of the presence of the Sacred, and for this mind all symbols are religious (relinking to the Origin).[21] Through symbols human beings can get an immediate "intuition" of certain features of the inexhaustible Sacred.[21] The mind makes use of images to grasp the ultimate reality of things because reality manifests itself in contradictory ways and therefore can't be described in concepts.[21] It is therefore the image as such, as a whole bundle of meaning, that is "true" (faithful, trustworthy).[21] Eliade says :[22]

...the sacred is equivalent to a power, and, in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being. Sacred power means reality, and at the same time enduringness and efficacy. The polarity sacred-profane is often expressed as opposition between real and unreal or pseudoreal. [...] Thus is easy to understand that religious man deeply desires to be, to participate in reality, to be saturated with Love.

Common symbols of the absolute include world trees, the tree of life, microcosm, fire, children,[23] circles, mandalas, and the human body.

See also

Additional concepts:


  1. «[...] a swastika, the symbol of crative whirlwind around which the hierarchies it creates fan out. This symbol, which obviously indicates a circular movement around the center, the action of divine principle on manifestation, was long considered to be an emblem of Christ. In India it was made into the emblem of the Buddha [...] the Wheel of the Law (Dharmachakra), but also the emblem of Ganesh, the god of knowledge. In China the swastika symbolizes the number ten thousand, which is the sum of total beings and manifestation. It is also the original form of feng: it indicates the four directions of squared space of the earth as a horizontal expansion emanating from the center. [...] the pole star is depicted at the center of the swastika, and the four arms (the Greek letter gamma, which shape is that of a square) of which it consists are the four cardinal positions of the Big Dipper around it (the Big Dipper symbolizes a guiding or enlightening center).»[1]
  2. «[...] the swastika first symbolized the axial motion of Ursa Major (which contains the Big Dipper) around the polestar, a vast spiral movement.»[2]
  3. «il grafema rappresenta un punto da cui si irradiano delle linee in otto direzioni dello spazio (ovvero: le bisettrici dei quattro punti angoli del mondo): esso è quindi da riferire al concetto studiato da Eliade e indicato con l'espressione "ombelico del mondo", ovvero il concetto di un centro di irradiazione da cui scaturisce una realtà, così come il feto si forma attorno all'ombelico [...]. I significati "spiga", "grappolo" per il grafema AN corroborano questa interpretazione: infatti le spighe e il grappolo di datteri si dipartono rispettivamente dallo stelo e dal picciolo in maniera analoga al feto dell'ombelico (ovvero come appare il neonato rispetto al cordone ombelicale). [...] An era concepito come realtà divina celeste che costituiva la fonte, il principio delle divinità».[8]
  4. «Da quanto precede risulta che il "vero mondo" è sempre nel "mezzo", al "Centro", cioè sul punto di rottura del livello, e di comunicazione tra zone cosmiche. [...] Ci sembra quindi di dover concludere che l'uomo delle società premoderne aspira a vivere il più possibile al Centro del Mondo».[9]


  1. Quote, p. 3: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Marianne Costa. The Way of Tarot: The Spiritual Teacher in the Cards. Destiny Books, 2011. ASIN: B0062C5RNA
  2. Quote, p. 106: Gentle Swastika. Last Gap of San Francisco, 2001. ISBN 0968871607
  3. Swinburne, Richard (2004-06-03). The Existence of God (2 edition ed.). Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780199271689.CS1 maint: extra text (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Huxley, Aldous (2009-01-01). The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics. ISBN 9780061724947.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Tillich, Paul (1951-01-01). Systematic Theology. Vol. I. University of Chicago Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. http://www.pantheism.net/natural.htm
  7. Hawking, Stephen; Mlodinow, Leonard (2012-02-21). The Grand Design (Reprint edition ed.). New York: Bantam. ISBN 9780553384666.CS1 maint: extra text (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Quote, p. 70: Pietro Mander. La religione dell'antica Mesopotamia. Carocci, 2009. ISBN 8843051091
  9. Quote, p. 32: Mircea Eliade. Il sacro e il profano. Bollati Boringhieri, 2006. ISBN 8833924408
  10. Plato, Republic, Book VI, 508.
  11. Cross, St John of the (2015-01-16). The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross, Volume 1 of 2. Waxkeep Publishing.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Yandell, Keith E. (2002-01-22). Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge. ISBN 9781134827237.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Moser, Paul (2009-01-01). "Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Kardiatheology". Philosophia Christi. 11 (2): 293–308.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Hick, John | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy". www.iep.utm.edu. Retrieved 2016-04-27.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. The phrase "core of our being" is Freudian; see Bettina Bock von Wülfingen (2013). "Freud's 'Core of our Being' Between Cytology and Psychoanalysis". Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte. 36 (3): 226–244. doi:10.1002/bewi.201301604.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. I.K. Taimni Man, God and the Universe Quest Books, 1974, p. 1-2
  17. http://www.iep.utm.edu/plotinus/
  18. Cf. Terrence Malick's Tree of Life and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey are two good examples (one religious, one atheistic) of the use of contradiction to convey the Absolute in the final sequences.
  19. Dadosky, 2004. p. 86
  20. Dadosky, 2004. pp. 86-87
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 Dadosky, 2004. p. 85
  22. Dadosky, 2004. p. 100
  23. See George MacDonald's The Golden Key


  • John Daniel Dadosky. The Structure of Religious Knowing: Encountering the Sacred in Eliade and Lonergan. State University of New York Press, 2004. ISBN 0791460614

External links

  • Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). [https%3A%2F%2Fen.wikisource.org%2Fwiki%2FCatholic_Encyclopedia_%281913%29%2FThe_Absolute "The Absolute" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>