The Absolute and Relative, by Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

The words “absolute” and “relative” are generally misused. At this time and in the present state of our culture, to affirm absolutes and assert that not everything is relative goes against the grain of popular prejudice. The popular prejudice is, for the most part, unenlightened. The difference between what is absolute and what is relative needs to be clarified. A moment’s consideration of the word “relative” should help anyone to see that what is relative is called so because it stands in relation to certain conditions or circumstances.

The absolute is that which does not stand in relation to any conditions or circumstances. It prevails at any time or place and under any circumstances. Thus, for example, the truth that atoms are divisible or fissionable is absolute, but the judgment we may make that that statement is true or false is relative to the time and place at which it is made.

For most of past centuries the greatest physical scientists would have said that if atoms exist, they are indivisible. Relative to the time and place at which that judgment was made, and to the knowledge available at that time, the judgment had relative truth, but it is still absolutely true, at all times and places, that atoms are divisible or fissionable.

The related distinction between the objective and the subjective might be considered here. Objective is that which is the same for you and me and for every other human being. Subjective is that which differs from one person to another. The objective is absolute: the subjective is relative to individual human beings.

Finally, these two distinctions (between the absolute and the relative, and between the objective and the subjective) bring to mind a third distinction — between matters of truth and matters of taste, That which belongs in the sphere of taste rather than truth includes everything that is relative to the circumstances of different times and places. Matters of taste those which differ from culture to culture and from one ethnic group to another, such as modes of salutation and preferences in cuisine, in dance, and customs. But if anything is absolutely true when it is entertained without any human judgment, such as the divisibility or fissionability of atoms, that truth is transcultural.

At present, mathematics, the physical sciences, and technology are transcultural. Whether we think that history, the social sciences, and philosophy, will become transcultural in the future depends on how we view them either as bodies of knowledge or as matters of unfounded opinion.

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