The Absolute Absolute

  • Title: Contemplations, The Absolute Absolute.
  • Author: Arvindus.
  • Publisher: Arvindus.
  • Copyright: Arvindus, 2010, all rights reserved.
  • Index: 201012051.
  • Edition: html, first edition.


'Absolute' is a word that is generally used as an adjective to predicate.1 Here we may think of expressions such as 'absolute shame' or 'absolute delight'. However when preceded by the article 'the', this word is also often used as a substantive. Many metaphysical expositions have the concept of 'the absolute' as their prime subject.2

The term 'absolute', whether used as an adjective or as a substantive, has found its way into the English language from the Latin 'absolūtiō'. This word is compounded of the words 'ab' and 'solūtiō'. 'Ab' denotes among other things a movement away.3 'Solūtiō' is compounded of 'solvo' and '-tio' and carries the prime meaning of an unfastening.4 Related to the verb 'solvere', this basic term 'solvo' resounds also in English words such as 'solve', 'dissolve' and 'resolve'.5 So being compounded of the words 'ab' and 'solūtiō' the term 'absolūtiō' denotes a moving away in an unfastening. The understanding of absoluteness as a moving away in an unfastening implies that something absolute, the absolute, is bound by nothing. Not even by our grasp. And thus it happens that something absolute, the absolute, can move away from us. Absoluteness escapes us because we cannot grasp it, because we cannot bind and fasten it to our understanding.

Thus moving away by being unfastened, something absolute, the absolute, can in contemporary English language be rightly understood as something which is detached,6 perfect (in quality and degree),7 independent8 and unconditioned.9

Substantive, Adjective and Adverb

As we have seen the term 'absolute' is used as an adjective and as a substantive. When used as an adjective the word is related to a substantive and when it is used as a substantive the word is preceded by an article. Now generally it can be stated that adjectives predicate about (or attribute to) subjects and that substantives refer to subjects. The substantive 'Socrates' for instance refers to the well known individual that lived approximately between 470 and 399 B.C. in Athens. An adjective such as 'bearded' applied to 'Socrates', resulting in expressions such as 'bearded Socrates' or 'Socrates is bearded', predicates about this individual that he has a beard. And 'absolute' can be used as such a predicating adjective.

But 'absolute' as an adjective should not be mistaken with the adverb 'absolutely'. Where adjectives predicate about substantives, there do adverbs predicate about adjectives, verbs or other adverbs.10 This distinction between the adverb 'absolutely' and the adjective 'absolute' is worthwhile explicating. For an expression like 'Hegel thematizes absolutely a spirit' says something quite different than the expression 'Hegel thematizes an absolute spirit'. The first expression says that it cannot be otherwise than that Hegel thematizes a spirit. 'Absolutely' here detaches Hegel from the possibility of not thematizing a spirit. It lets the situation of Hegel thematizing a spirit stand independent of everything else. Whatever else may be the case; Hegel thematizes a spirit. This is quite different from the expression 'Hegel thematizes an absolute spirit'. Here is not the situation of Hegel thematizing a spirit being absolutized, but a spirit itself. This spirit of the second expression is not just any spirit. It is not just a holy spirit or any human spirit. No, it is an absolute spirit. Being an absolute spirit, this spirit is nothing but spirit. This spirit is detached from everything else, stands independent and is unconditioned. This spirit is so much spirit in quality and degree, that it escapes the human grasp. The spiritness of this spirit is beyond human comprehension. And it is such an absolute spirit that Hegel thematizes, according to the second expression.

So what about 'absolute' as a substantive? Following our previous examples an expression could be explicated such as 'Hegel thematizes the absolute'. 'The absolute' here does not predicate but is supposed to refer. To what is it supposed to refer? To that which is detached and independent from everything, perfect (in quality and degree) and ungraspable by the human mind. And it is this which Hegel thematizes, according to the given expression.

Reference and Inference

The concept of reference is in itself an interesting one to be contemplated, and it may also be touched upon here. 'Reference' comes from the Latin word 'referō' and is compounded of 're' and 'ferō'.11 'Re' here denotes a movement back.12 The word 'ferō' itself in rooted in the Greek 'fero'.13 This word means 'to carry' or 'to bring',14 a meaning which is maintained in its Latin offspring. This gives the compound 'referō' meanings that pertain to a carrying or bringing back. So in a reference one is brought back. Three givens are in play in such a reference. These are the referred, the referring and the referent. The referred is the one who is brought back. The referring is the one bringing the referred back. And the referent is that to which the referred is being brought back to by the referring. This notion of 'back' is not unimportant. That the referring brings the referred back to the referent means that these two, the referred and the referent, have been together already before. Only because they've been together already, and only because their ways parted after that, can the referring bring the referred back to the referent.

Now in this contemplation the term 'refer' appeared when 'absolute' was considered in its use as a substantive. Where adjectives generally predicate about (or attribute to) subjects there do substantives refer to subjects.15 Here the substantive is the referring and the subject the referent. And the referred here is of course the reader or the listener of the substantive. The reader or listener takes notice of the substantive, and just by this taking notice is he brought back to the referent, which is the subject itself. That the reader or listener is taken back means that he has been with the subject before. They already met. If the reader or listener had not met the subject before, it would perhaps be possible for the reader or listener to be introduced to the subject, but not to be referred to it. This line of thinking seems to contain the thought that if a substantive indeed refers, it is not possible to use simple substantives to introduce a subject to a reader or listener. This thought seems to make sense, for unknown names give us little grip on a subject.

So a substantive brings a reader or listener to a subject with which he is already familiar. However when 'absolute' is taken as a substantive we come to a contradictory thought. For in our etymological considerations of 'absolute' we were led to the thought of absoluteness as something which escapes us because we cannot grasp it, because we cannot bind and fasten it to our understanding. But reference is possible only because we already understand the subject to which we are referred by the substantive. We know the subject of reference already. So how can 'absolute' as a substantive refer to an understood absolute while this absolute escapes our understanding?

What is known which at the same time is not known? Does this not go for an inferent? An inferent is known through inference. 'In' is rooted in the proto-Indo-European 'en'.16 It denotes a movement towards something or a being placed within a certain space.17 So with the meaning of the Greek 'fero' still fresh in mind can an inference be taken as a bringing towards something. This is understandable when we look at the contemporary use of the term 'inference'. Used mainly by logicians and mathematicians, inference is used to come to a hitherto unknown conclusion on the basis of known data. So the movement towards a certain given in inference, is the movement towards what is unknown. And the starting point here is the known. Inference is a bringing from the known to the unknown. But inference does not need to stay confined to logic or mathematics. Language (which by the way is considered to be very closely related to logic) may also infer. And it might just very well be that some substantives do not so much refer, but that they rather infer. For a substantive such as 'the absolute' seems to do just that. It brings from the known to the unknown. Here, using the same construction as with reference, the inferred is brought to the inferent by the inferring. The inferring is the substantive 'the absolute', the inferent is the absolute, and the inferred is the reader or listener. A substantive such as 'the absolute' does not refer, but infer. It brings the reader or listener from what he understands to what he doesn't understand. What the reader or listener understands is what he has met before and to which he therefore can be referred. These referents are many, and so are the linguistic expressions that refer. And it is within these expressions then that a substantive like '(the) absolute' occurs. Woven within the net of understanding the reader or listener may understand the interwovenness of the absolute with what is understood, but an understanding of the absolute itself will escape him. Thus the use of a substantive such as 'the absolute' seems to lead to an endless chase. Inferring, this substantive will bring the reader or listener to the absolute, but at the same time the absolute will always escape the grasp of the reader or listener. Being moved towards the absolute, the absolute always moves away, thus the metaphor of an endless chase. And for this reason it is stated here that, although most substantives may refer, some substantives, such as 'the absolute', do not refer, but infer. 'The absolute' is an inferring substantive.

Absoluteness and Relativity

'The absolute' infers the absolute. The absolute as such is detached, perfect, independent and unconditioned. However 'the absolute' as a term is not. For this term is attached to, dependent on, and conditioned by the whole of language in which it is interwoven, and in the first place it is conditioned by its opposite term. This opposite term of 'absolute' concerns of course 'relative'.

Now an etymological consideration of 'relative' will bring some interesting givens to the surface. The English 'relativity' has the same roots as does 'relation'.18 This is not hard to imagine. Something which is related to something else, is relative. Had it not been related to anything else then it would have been undetached, independent and thus absolute. Now the common ground of 'relativity' and 'relation' concerns the Latin 'relātiō', a word which is compounded of 're' and 'lātiō'. 'Lātiō' is again compounded of 'latus' and 'tio',19 and 'lātus' is in Latin used as a perfect participle of 'fero'.20 (Therefore 'relātiō' is also considered to be compounded of 'refero' and 'tio').21

Now this word 'fero', rooted in Greek, we already thematized as meaning 'to carry' or 'to bring'. As such it was present in the English 'refer'. So the situation here is such that 'relativity' (as well as 'relation') are nouns which common root is a perfect participle of the root of 'reference'. Carrying their root meanings into the English language we may then come to consider relativity as a fully completed reference. In a reference one is being brought back, resulting in a relativity. In a relativity one has been brought back. Anything relative has been referred. And anything being referred leads to it being relative.

Now the term 'the absolute' does not refer but infer, as we have seen. This we see reflected in our etymological consideration of 'relativity'. For would 'the absolute' refer, than this would mean that it would result in the absolute being relative. But the absolute is not relative. It is absolute. This does not mean however that the term 'the absolute' is not relative. As said at the beginning of this paragraph is 'the absolute' as a term attached to, dependent on, and conditioned by its opposite term and by the whole of language in which it is interwoven.

Above it was asserted that 'the absolute' as a linguistic expression is relative but that the absolute itself is absolute. Now the question may arise whether the absolute itself does not have an opposite in the relative, by which it should be considered to be rather relative than absolute. To give a summery answer to this question it can be said that only referents can be considered to be relative. So only as far as 'the absolute' is considered to refer can the absolute be considered to be relative. The absolute as a referent is relative, however the absolute as an inferent is not. Now it should be remarked here that a referring agent can only refer to things. 'Thing' can etymologically be traced back to the Germanic 'thengaz', denoting a time or an occasion.22 So it can be said that a thing is a given that occurs (at a certain time). An occasion is an occurrence of things. And only because givens have occurred at a certain occasion is it so that one can be brought back to these occurrences in a reference. So as far as the absolute is considered to be some kind of thing can it be referred to and can it be relative. But; the absolute is no thing. It is tempting and perhaps even an automatism to think of the absolute as a sort of thing, especially when the substantive 'the absolute' is taken in consideration. After all we are used to think of substantives as referrings. So this substantive may easily provoke the thought of the absolute as a thing. Of course is in this thought the absolute not considered as just any thing among other things, but is it considered as a most high and ultimate thing. And this thought of the absolute as being an ultimate thing then contains the seed to think of it as opposing the relative, which again is thought as a thing. The absolute and the relative are then seen as two opposite things. The absolute as no-thing however is no thing and thus does it not have any opposite thing placed against itself. It is because the absolute is no thing that 'the absolute' infers and not refers, and that it is therefore not relative.

The Relative Absolute and the Absolute Absolute

The above considerations seem to imply that opposition can only exist between things. In a way this is so and in a way this is not so. A thing is generally known as a certain, particular thing. It is generally known as some thing and not as any thing (and of course also certainly not as no thing). Its certainty and particularity does the thing receive, so to speak, from its qualities. Bereft of its specific qualities a thing could just be anything. Now it are these qualities that distinguish a certain thing from other things, thus giving it particularity. The picture should become clear now. Only particular things can be referred to, and certainly can only particular things be opposed to each other. If there was no particularity of and distinction between things, then these could not be opposed to each other. Only particular things with certain qualities can be relative. So when the above considerations seem to imply that opposition can only exist between things, then this is true only for so far as things have qualities. Opposition can only exist between things not because they are any thing, but because they are some thing.

Now the absolute when thought of as a thing is not thought of as any thing, so it was above remarked. For it is thought of as a most high and ultimate thing. When the absolute is thought of as a thing, it is thought of as some thing. And this while the absolute is in reality no thing. That the absolute is thought of as a most high and ultimate thing could be expressed by saying that it is thought of as an absolute thing. The absolute in general is thought of as an absolute thing. But the thought of the absolute as a thing still keeps it relative, this despite its attribution of being absolute. So it can be said that the absolute, thought of as a thing, is a relative absolute. This consideration may be molded into the term 'the relative absolute'. This term then refers to the absolute thing, which has its opposite in the relative as a thing. But since the absolute can also be contemplated as being no thing (as it should) another term may also be molded. An appropriate term befitting the presented scheme shall be 'the absolute absolute'. This term does not refer to an absolute as a thing, but infers to the absolute as no thing.

The advantage that the use of the terms 'relative absolute' and ' absolute absolute' have above the simple term 'absolute' is that they make explicit how the absolute is considered in the regarded linguistic expression. In the use of the first term the absolute is considered as opposed to the relative, as a referent and as a thing. And in the use of the second term the absolute is considered as having no opposite, as an inferent and as no thing. The simple use of 'the absolute' as a term leaves it implicit whether it is used in the first or in the latter consideration. May thus the above explications of the absolute absolute lead us to conception of the absolute as such.

  • John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005.
  • G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford University Press, London, 1961.
  • Vladimir Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology, Brill, Leiden / Boston, 2003.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.