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My Search for Absolutes by Paul Tillich

Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. A part of the "Credo Perspectives" series, planned and edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. Published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1967. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 2: Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth

My choice of this subject was made out of a feeling of uneasiness -- uneasiness about the victory of relativism in all realms of thought and life today. When we look around us, this seems to be a total victory. There is the great spectacle of scientific relativism, observable not only in the preliminary character of every scientific statement but also in the model aspect of scientific constructs and in the fact that terms like "atoms," "molecules," "energy," and "movement" are on a boundary line between model and concept. This gives a relativistic character even to scientific thinking. If you ask which model or concept is closest to reality you may receive the answer: none is; what we have here is a "game."

There is also the positivistic and formalistic character of much contemporary philosophy, which leaves the answers to problems of human existence -- problems of "to be, or not to be" -- to tradition, to arbitrary decisions and, in reaction against this, to despotism.

There is the growth of ethical relativism in theory and in practice.

Finally, there is a great and increasing relativism in the most sacred and perhaps most problematic of all realms, that of religion. It is visible today in the encounter of religions all over the world and in the secularist criticism of religion.

However, there are people, and I am among them, who are unwilling to accept this description and to surrender to an absolute relativism, not because we are authoritarian or reactionary but for definite reasons both theoretical and pragmatic.

The logical position against any claim of relativism to absoluteness is that "absolute relativism" is a self-contradictory term, an impossible combination of words. If one avoids this impossible combination of words, relativism itself becomes relative; therefore an element of absoluteness is not only a possibility but even a necessity, otherwise no assertion at all can be made.

But absolute relativism is also impossible practically. If I am asked to surrender totally to relativism I can say, "But I live! I know what ‘true’ and ‘false’ mean, I do something I can describe as ‘better’ than something else, I venerate something which concerns me ultimately and which for me is holy." The question then is: How can one make such statements if relativism has the last word? In the different realms of man’s encounter with reality there must be some absolutes that make meaningful life possible, or it would be like the chaos before creation, described in Genesis. Therefore I believe it may be a service to life itself to find these absolutes and to show their validity and their limits.

Subject and Object

I shall begin my search for absolutes by looking for them in the most abstract and difficult but theoretically fundamental realm -- the cognitive -- the realm of knowing. What does "absolute" mean here?

Absolute (from the Latin absolvere, "to loosen.") means detached or freed from any limiting relation, from any particular relation, and even from the basis of all particular relations, the relation of subject and object. The term "absolute" has become difficult to use because many people associate it with the image of "an absolute thing" often identified with God. This, of course, is not what I mean. Therefore it is useful to explain the meaning of absolutes with the help of other terms, pairs of terms like "the unconditional and the conditioned," "the ultimate and the preliminary," "the infinite and the finite." I prefer to use the term "ultimate" in a phrase like "ultimate concern," the term "unconditional" in reference to the unconditional character of the ethical imperative, whatever its contents may be, and the term "infinite" in the religious realm. All these terms point to one thing: There is something that resists the stream of relativities.

The question is: Does the idea of truth presuppose something absolute and unconditional, and, if it does, can this absolute be found in the processes of knowing? Is everything in human knowledge relative, or is there an absolute in human knowledge? -- although I should like to emphasize that there is no such thing as absolute knowledge, an impossibility.

Knowledge is based on an original unity and involves a separation and a reunion of subject and object. In this respect knowledge is like love, as the late Greek thinkers knew. The Greek word gnosis, "knowledge," had three meanings: sexual love, the knowledge of essences, and mystical union with the divine. Both knowledge and love are forms of union of the separated who belong to each other and want to reunite. In both cases we have original unity, necessary separation, and possible reunion.

This shows the ambiguity of the subject-object structure of the human mind, something we all have and know and experience in almost every moment. A structure that makes it possible for me as subject to look at you as object and even at myself as object is necessary in order to have truth as actual reality. It is necessary for the existence of truth. On the other hand, it is problematic because in every moment in which we reach truth we have overcome in some way this split between subject and object. So the question of the absolute in knowledge is identical with the question: How is the unavoidable split between subject and object overcome in the act of knowing?

There are three situations in which subject and object are united. The first is the material unity of subject and object in every sense impression. For instance, let us say that I am seeing a certain color -- red. This experience cannot be denied even if it is a dream or a hallucination. Its cause is open to doubt, but the experience itself, an experience of redness as such, is immediate and certain. What I see is not my object any longer. It is in me and I am in it. The split is overcome and the complete reality is a mutual being in each other. This is the first example of something absolute in cognition. It is an immediate knowledge that has the character of absoluteness.

A second example in which the separation of subject and object is overcome is not material but formal. It is the logical and semantic structure of the mind, present always in every sense impression as well as in descriptions and explanations of the contents of a sense impression, and presupposed in every methodologically disciplined language. This logical and semantic structure is the other absolute in our experience, but again, to avoid confusion, let us observe that it is not a logical or semantic theory which is absolute. There are many such theories. What is absolute is the underlying structure that makes any theory about it possible. Whoever gives a new theory of logic or semantics uses logic or semantics in order to do this. He presupposes that about which he wants to give a theory. It is the structure of the mind that enables any theory, even one about the structure of the mind, to do what it attempts to do. This same absolute is presupposed in every argument for relativism. He who speaks for relativism presupposes the validity of logic in argument; therefore the consistent relativist cannot argue but can only shake his head.

Sense impressions and logical structure point to an even more fundamental absolute -- the certainty even a relativistic philosopher has of himself as a relativistic philosopher. This is the old argument against radical skepticism formulated by Augustine, Descartes, and many others. Within our context itself the teacher of relativism has no doubt of himself as teacher of relativism. Here he is caught against his will by something absolute that embraces both the absoluteness of sense impressions and the absoluteness of logical form.

All this shows that the very concept of knowledge presupposes an absolute structure within the flux of relative knowledge. The human mind could not maintain its centeredness, its self-awareness, without something that remains absolute in the stream of changing relativities. Every act of knowledge confirms this powerful safeguard against getting lost in that stream.

One of the most revealing absolutes in the process of thinking is the power to ask questions. I suggest that you sit down some day and do nothing but sit and think -- not even read anything -- just think, perhaps for as long as a whole hour, of what it means that there are beings called "men," who are able to ask questions. In this simple phenomenon a whole world is implied and a demonstration is given of the interdependence of subject and object in every cognitive approach. The asking subject in every question already has something of the object about which he asks, otherwise he could not ask. But he remains separated from the object of his thought and strives for union with it, which means for truth. Having and not having is the nature of questions, and everyone who asks confirms this interdependent subject-object structure of the mind as an absolute for men as men.

The Absoluteness of Essences

Until now we have found absolutes in experience. Are there absolutes in the reality that is experienced? There are.

Three groups of components are always met with in every encountered reality: essences, ontological structures, and being-itself. If you imagine an encounter with "redness," for instance, you can say that in this experience there are two quite different components. In it we encounter being (things that are red), and we encounter qualities of beings (their redness).

Beings -- for instance human beings (or desks or walls or trees) -- are immersed in the stream of relativities. They come and go. They change, remain hidden, appear and disappear again. They are. But their being is becoming, and their becoming is a process of mutual encounters. We encounter people, including ourselves. We encounter other living beings and things. All of these encounter us and each other. Everything encounters everything else, directly, as a part of its environment, indirectly, as a part of the world. In these encounters being is manifest as becoming.

There is a fascination in this view of being as becoming for many of our contemporaries -- philosophers, poets, all kinds of thinking human beings. It is this fascination which contributes most to the victory of relativism in our times. If we look at ourselves, however, and analyze the fascination, we discover that it is possible only because we are not just within the movement of being as becoming but above it. We can look at it, we know of it, we like it or are afraid of it, and this power of knowing is an absolute which makes it possible for us both to recognize and to be fascinated by the relative.

There are several absolutes in the stream of these relative encounters. The first is the absolute that makes language possible. The second is the absolute that makes understanding possible. And the third is the absolute that makes truth possible.

Man has language that denotes. This is one side of language. The other side is communication, which can be achieved in sounds by animals as well as by men; but denotative language presupposes a power possessed only by man among the beings we know. This power is the power of abstraction, the power to create universals in terms of language.

Think again about the experience of seeing a color, an experience in which subject and object are not separated. One is in the situation of seeing this red object, but there is something more here. This is only one side of what one perceives. The other side is red perceived as red wherever it appears. What one sees when one sees the red object close to is also redness -- that is, in the particular red object the universal "redness" appears. To recognize this is to have the power of abstraction. The word "abstraction" is not highly honored today; therefore some people prefer a word like "ideation," but I prefer to give back to "abstraction" the honor it should have.

One perceives mentally the essence "red" in every red object (our word "essence" being what Plato called eidos, or Idea.) "Redness" is universally present in every red object, and we experience the word "red" as created with this perception, a perception of the essence "redness." "Redness" as an essence is not a thing beside other things. It is the transtemporal potentiality of all red things in the universe. It is absolute in the sense of independent of any particular moment in which "redness" appears and even of a situation in which cosmic events could produce its complete disappearance. Changes in the universe may make the appearance of "redness" impossible someday, but once upon a time it appeared, and the essence "redness" is beyond these possible changes. (Think of the appearance of men on the earth. It was impossible for a long time, for perhaps billions of years, but eventually what we know as "man" became actual. However, man never could have appeared if the essence "man" had not belonged to the potentialities of being.) It is the power of abstraction that makes us able to recognize "redness" in all red objects, to choose to buy something red instead of something green, and vice versa; that is, abstraction liberates us from bondage to the particular by giving us the power to create universals.

We find another type of essences in species and genera. In every pine tree we experience, first, this particular tree in our back yard, second, the species ‘‘pine" which enables us to produce a word ‘‘pine" and to plant a pine tree instead of an oak tree, and third, the genus "tree" which gives us this word and enables us to grow a tree instead of a shrub (and we could go on to speak of a plant and of an organic being and decide against having a sculpture in our garden).

Abstraction gives us the power of language, language gives us freedom of choice, and freedom of choice gives us the possibility of infinite technical production. It is interesting that in the symbolic story of the Paradise, as told in Genesis, language (the naming of animals and plants) is combined with technical activity (the cultivation of the garden). All this would be impossible without the absolutes we call "essences," through which language can come into existence.

Now I want to ask a question with far-reaching implications. Are there essences for individual human beings? Certainly there is a universal essence ‘‘man,’’ usually referred to as "human nature," which makes it possible for us to have this word "man" and to recognize men as men. But is there beyond this an essence for Socrates, and for Augustine, and for you, and for me, something independent of our temporal becoming?

There is a tradition in philosophy that denies such an essence -- the Aristotelian -- and another that affirms it -- the Neo-Platonic-Augustinian. I can give a pragmatic argument in support of the affirmative view, because it happens that there is a special category of people who acknowledge an essence for the individual, something absolute in him. They don’t always do this philosophically, but they do it through their works. They are the artists who create essential images of individuals in paint or stone, in drama or novel, in poetry or biography. They try to show the absolute, essential man, who shines through the temporal manifestations of a human being.

Individual essences of men are also expressed in personal names, and personal names themselves are astonishing things. In religious myths one sees how the meaning of names was recognized. In Biblical language, God calls us by name, or our names are written in the book of life. On the opposite side, demons have names and it is the work of the Savior to recognize them and thus deprive the demons of their power. There are fairy tales in which someone tries to keep a name secret, because disclosing it would reveal something essential, transtemporal. These are all expressions of "individual essence," or of the individual’s essence as absolute over against his changing temporal existence. And of course this has bearing on the symbolism of eternity and eternal life. It sets a definite limit to the dominance of the category of becoming.

The Absoluteness of Structures of Being

There is a second group of absolutes in man’s cognitive encounters with reality -- the structures of being, which make the world of becoming possible as a world. "World" means a unity in infinite manifoldness, a universe, a cosmos. (Kosmos is a Greek word meaning both "world" and "harmony," or centered unity.)

As the power of abstraction leads to the discovery of the essences in our encounter with reality, and from them to universals and their expression in human language, so the power of questioning the encounter with reality leads to discovery of the universal structures of being, in which the whole of relativities moves. The search for these structures is an everlasting task.

Certain groups of them have been called "categories" -- for example, causality and substance, quality and quantity.

Others have been called "forms of perception" -- for example, time and space.

There are those called "polarities" (a solvent word ) -- for example, individualization and participation, dynamics and form, freedom and destiny.

And there are those that could be called "states of being," such as essence and existence, finite and infinite.

Others were called, in the Middle Ages, "transcendentalia": the good and the true and being-itself.

These are infinite problems of philosophy, and we cannot go into them here; we can only relate them to our central problem. Absolutes within the relativities of encountered reality, they all appear continually, in the thought of skeptics as well as absolutists, in the thought of relativists as well as absolutists, of pluralists as well as monists. They appear in the most ordinary talk of daily life as well as in literature and philosophy, and they appear even in the most antimetaphysical philosophy. We live in the structures they give us. They provide us with the ontological safety without which neither thinking nor acting would be possible.

Imagine what would happen if, without anyone turning these pages, they turned themselves! Our whole world would break down in this moment, because the category of causality had disappeared; and the shock of this would be as great to the skeptic as to the dogmatist.

We could take another example -- the category of substance. A complete loss of our identity would follow its disappearance. We can see an imagined occurrence of this in Kafka’s novella of the metamorphosis of a man into a cockroach. The horrifying character of this story shows how deeply we are bound to the category of substance, which guarantees our identity.

These basic structures make possible our excursions of thought into the unsafe flux and relativity of encountered things. They give us the structure of thought as well as the structure of reality.

But now I must allow the relativist a word. He rightly points to the fact that although time is a condition of our finite existence, the character of time is differently understood from Aristotle to Einstein, and although causality is implied in every explanation, the interpretations of causality and the distinction of different types of causality are always changing. He knows that even if every peasant woman who has never heard the word "substance" uses this category when she distinguishes herself as an individual from her husband, struggles are still going on between philosophers and theologians, in the West and in the East, about the meaning of the category of substance. And this is what the relativist has to say.

In answer to his criticism of these absolutes, I admit that our group of categories and our knowledge-grasp of the character of categories are relative. However, I still have to say that in the struggle about the meaning of categories they are always effective, whatever they mean and whatever philosophers say that they mean. Without their directing presence no struggle about their meaning would be possible. Their fundamental structural presence is therefore independent of any attempt to describe them and to understand their meaning.

If the relativist’s argument against absolutes in the cognitive encounter with reality turns to the polarities and invalidates them by denying one pole, thus undercutting the other pole also, it is not difficult to show again how solidly even this relativist is rooted in the structures whose basic character he denies.

Take, for example, an important pair of polarities -- freedom and destiny. The relativist may call them nonsense, or say that they are unnecessary for the cognitive process, or he may reject them as metaphysical imaginings.

Suppose that he does this. Now life suddenly puts him in the next moment before a decision, perhaps a theoretical decision, perhaps a practical one. After serious deliberation he decides. He does not feel that he was forced into it by external threats or by internal compulsions, nor does he feel that he decided arbitrarily. He was free, neither dependent on destiny alone nor on freedom alone, in his decision. It came out of the uniting center of his whole being, within which and centered by it was the whole of his life experiences, the whole of the movements within his body up to the moment of his decision, his destiny that he is this individual and no other.

He cannot escape these considerations. He denies the polarity of freedom and destiny, but when he had to make a decision -- perhaps just about some theory of freedom -- he was moving between the two poles.

If, in order to escape having to admit this, he denies one of the poles -- for instance, the pole of freedom -- he has ceased to be a relativist and has become a dogmatic adherent of determinism. But then his decision for determinism is itself determined, is merely a matter of his destiny, has no truth value and should claim none, for he had no alternative.

Such a discussion shows the polarities as absolutes in the relativities of the cognitive encounter with reality.

Summing up, we can say: Each of our statements about the absolutes in knowledge is relative, and this is true of my own statements here and now. But the absolutes themselves are not relative. One cannot escape them. Even if I had argued against them, I’d have had to use them to do so.

The Absoluteness of Being-Itself

We have discussed the absoluteness of the essences that make language possible and the absoluteness of the structures of being that make understanding possible. Now we have come to the absolute that underlies all the other absolutes as well as the stream of relativities, the absolute that makes the idea of truth possible. This absolute is being-itself.

You can deny every statement, but you cannot deny that being is. And if you ask what this "is" means, you arrive at the statement that it is the negation of possible non-being. "Is" means is not not." One cannot imagine non-being; one can only experience its threat. Therefore philosophy can say metaphysically, and with good logic support, that being is the power of resisting non-being. This is the most fundamental of all absolutes. You can deny anything particular whatsoever, but not being, because even your negative judgments themselves are acts of being and are only possible through being. Being is the basic absolute.

Let us listen again to the relativist. He says that this statement is as true as it is empty. The term "being" may be the basic one in all thought because thought is directed toward what is, but "being-itself" is just an abstraction covering everything that is. This means that one has in it only a completely empty absolute; and this, perhaps, a relativist is willing to concede. But the question is: Is "being-itself" an empty absolute?

There are two concepts of being. One is the result of the most radical abstraction and means not being this, not being that, not being anything particular, simply being. This indeed is an empty absolute.

The other concept of being is the result of two profound experiences, one of them negative, the other positive. The negative experience is the shock of non-being that can be experienced in theoretical imagination those who are philosophers by nature. If one is not a philosopher, one can have it as a simple human being, in the practical experience of having to die.

But there is not only the shock of non-being. There is also a positive experience. It is the experience of eros -- "love" in Greek -- the love of being as such, a mystical relation to being-itself. This is what Augustine called "amor amoris" ("love of love") and Spinoza called "amor intellectualis" ("intellectual love"). One could also call it a feeling for the holiness of being as being, whatever it may be. This "being" transcends everything particular without becoming empty, for it embraces everything particular. "Being" in this sense is power of being, and it is an infinitely full, inexhaustible but indefinite absolute. It is the basis of truth, because it is the transcendence of subject and object. It is the basis of the good, because it contains every being in its essential nature and (as we shall see) the norms of every ethical command. And it is identical with the Holy, the ground of everything that has being.

Again, all this does not deny the relativism in cognitive encounters with reality. But it shows that relativism is only possible on the basis of a structure of absolutes. These absolutes are not statements with absolute claims to truth, but they are expressions of the fact that there is a structure or a logos in encountered reality. Reality is structured, no matter how much it is always changing and no matter how the description of this structure may change.

Perhaps my description seems merely theoretical, and you are wondering what the moral and religious implications can be. However, you don’t need to wait for a discussion of these implications. There are some among us for whom theoretical problems are existential, are matters of "to be, or not to be," because theoria means "looking at" things and being united with them in this way. My statements are primarily addressed to these. I myself belong to them. For us, the question of the cognitive encounter with reality, the question of the absolute and the relative in this encounter, is an existential concern -- a concern that involves our whole existence. I should like it to be so for many, because ultimately knowing is an act of love.

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