The absolute

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The absolute (from the Latin absolutum, "the detached") is a term that is used in many areas of theology and philosophy and denotes the complete exemption from all (restrictive) conditions or relationships. In the philosophical tradition the term is closely related to that of the unconditional.

The absolute in the occidental tradition

Ancient and Middle Ages

Even if an exact equivalent for the expression of the absolute was missing in Greek philosophy , due to the continuous conditionality of all beings ( contingency ) one inferred that there was a supreme condition that was not itself conditional. The pre-Socratics asked about the arché , an origin of things that can no longer be traced back to anything else. According to Plato , this is to be determined as the highest good being, because only in it a final will for oneself can be thought, which is the truly unconditional, the hypothetical ( Politeia 511b). The good is the ultimate ground of all things and of all knowledge and the highest goal of striving.

Occasionally, even among the church fathers (Tertullian, Hieronymus), God is designated as the “highest good” with the predicate “absolute” (Latin: absolutum ). From Anselm of Canterbury ( Monologion ) it was directly equated with God. He says of the divine substantial spirit that only it is absolute ( qui solus absolutus est , monologion 28). It is only with Nicolaus von Cues that the absolute is deliberately thematized and introduced as a basic metaphysical category.

In scholasticism , the teaching of the absolute is greatly expanded within the framework of natural theology , particularly by Thomas Aquinas .

Modern times


Fundamental to the history of the concept of the absolute is the philosophy of Spinoza , to whose concept of God numerous philosophers of the modern age tie in with an approving or disapproving attitude (e.g. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi , Moses Mendelssohn , Gotthold Ephraim Lessing , Immanuel Kant , Johann Gottlieb Fichte , Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling , Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel , Franz von Baader , Søren Kierkegaard ).

In the first part of Spinoza's ethics ( De Deo ), Spinoza defines God as the absolute, unlimited substance ( ens absolute infinitum, hoc est, substantiam ), which is characterized by unconditional power ( absolute potentiam ) and “unconditional existence” ( absolute existit ). The absolute is also “infinite” and “indivisible” ( absolute infinita est indivisibilis ) and the unconditional first cause ( absolute causam primam ). Everything flows from God ( omnia necessario effluxisse ) as unconditionally determined and dependent ( omnia ex necessitate divinae naturae determinata sunt ), and nothing ( res nulla ) in nature could become otherwise than it is.


In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant defines the absolute as the unconditioned in knowledge. In the transcendental analytics he tries to prove that no unconditional knowledge can be achieved through the understanding concepts ( categories ). Kant declares that reason strives to “summarize all intellectual acts into an absolute whole” (KrV B 383). This is what Kant calls the concepts of reason or the transcendental ideas. They should enable “the absolute (unconditional) unity of the thinking subject”, “the absolute unity of the series of conditions of appearance” and “the absolute unity of the conditions of all objects of thought in general” (KrV B 391). The “objective” use (cf. KrV B 383) of these three transcendental ideas leads to insoluble contradictions. For theoretical reason, the absolute is a “regulative principle” for the purpose of “the systematic unity of the sensory world” (KrV B 707). In the Critique of Practical Reason , Kant defines the unconditioned as the determining ground of the will, which is given in moral law. There it is a regulative idea to bring morality and happiness together, which for Kant represents the “ highest good ” (KpV, 5, 108).


For Schelling , the absolute represents the core concept of his philosophy. In his early work, influenced by Kant and Fichte, From the ego as a principle of philosophy or about the unconditional in human knowledge (1795) he understands it to be the “ultimate real basis of our knowledge”, the like Fichte, he is located in the “absolute I” (SW V, p. 160) and identifies it with God. The knowledge of the absolute is not possible in theoretical philosophy, but only in a “practical approach to the absolute”.

With the Philosophical Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism and the development of the philosophy of identity, in which Schelling seeks to unite the philosophy of Kant and Spinoza, he defines the absolute as the “absolute identity” of knowing and being. The world is originally at odds with God, but this can be canceled by speculation and brought to a higher level. The “final purpose of history” is “complete reconciliation and redissolution into absoluteness”.

In the philosophy of identity , the absolute is recognized in the “ intellectual intuition ”. It represents the common source for the two basic sciences of philosophy, natural and transcendental philosophy. Transcendental philosophy has "to subordinate the real to the ideal"; the natural philosophy "to explain the ideal from the real". For Schelling, art is the representation of "the forms of things [...] as they are in the absolute". It abolishes the “infinite division” in “aesthetic production”.

The absolute nothing of the Kyoto school

In contrast to the occidental tradition of the absolute in ontology as absolute being , in the philosophy of the Kyoto school the absolute was understood as absolute nothing ( 絶 対 無 , zettai- mu ). The thoughts formulated by Nishida Kitarō , Tanabe Hajime , Nishitani Keiji and other representatives of the Kyoto school subsequently gave impetus to a religious-philosophical approach to Christian-Buddhist dialogue based on the Buddhist topoi of the emptiness or non- substantiality of all being ( Shunyata ) and of the not- self ( Anatta ) on the one hand and on the other hand on Christian mysticism (as with Meister Eckhart ) and the tradition of negative theology .


  • Bruno Brülisauer: The Concept of the Absolute in Modern Philosophy , Bern 1969
  • Wolfgang Cramer : The absolute and the contingent. Studies on the concept of substance , Frankfurt / Main 2nd edition 1976
  • JN Findlay: Ascent to the Absolute. Metaphysical papers and lectures , London 1970
  • Wilhelm G. Jacobs : Absolute, that . In: Hans Jörg Sandkühler u. a. (Ed.): Encyclopedia Philosophy . Vol. 1, Meiner, Hamburg 2010
  • Gerhard Huber : Being u. das Absolute , Basel 1955
  • Rainer Kuhlen : Absolut, the Absolute , in HWPh , Vol. 1, pp. 12–31
  • Klaus Müller: Das Absolute , In: Petra Kolmer, Armin G. Wildfeuer (Ed.): New Handbook of Philosophical Basic Concepts , Karl Alber, Freiburg / Munich 2011, Vol. 1, pp. 12–24

Web links

Wiktionary: Absolutes  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations



SW FWJ von Schellings all works. Edited by KFA Schelling. 1st section: 10 vols. (= IX), Stuttgart / Augsburg 1856–61.
  1. So determined z. B. Johannes Hoffmeister in his dictionary of philosophical terms , Hamburg 2nd edition 1955, the absolute as "that which exists in itself, the unconditioned, the unrestricted"
  2. See Spinoza: Ethica I: Def. 6; Propos. XI, Schol; Propos. XIII; Propos. XVI, Coroll. III; Coroll. II
  3. See Spinoza: Ethica I: Propos. XXIX; Propos. XXXIII
  4. Johannes Hoffmeister (Ed.): Letters from and to Hegel , 1952. Vol. 1, p. 22
  5. Schelling: Presentation of my system of philosophy (1801) in SW IV, pp. 115, 114, 127, 125.
  6. Schelling: About the relationship between natural philosophy and philosophy in general (1803) in SW V, pp. 121, 115, 117, 121.
  7. Schelling: Philosophy and Religion (1804), in SW VI, pp. 6, 43, 57
  8. Schelling: System of the whole philosophy (1804) in SW VI, p. 153.
  9. Schelling: System des transcendental Idealismus (1800), in SW III, p. 603
  10. Schelling: Introduction to the draft of a system of natural philosophy (1799), in SW III, pp. 272, 273
  11. Schelling: Philosophy of Art (1802/03), in SW V, p. 386
  12. Schelling: System des transcendental Idealismus (1800), in SW III, p. 626
  13. ^ Bret W. Davis:  The Kyoto School. In: Edward N. Zalta (Ed.): Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
  14. Hans Waldenfels : “ Absolute Nothingness. Preliminary Considerations on a Central Notion on the Philosophy of Nishida Kitarō and the Kyoto School ", in: Monumenta Nipponica , Vol. 21, No. 3/4. (1966), pp. 354-391.