Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

Absolutism in philosophy argues for the existence of unassailable, absolute truths and is the opposite of relativism. Politically, absolutism refers to the exercise of power, unrestricted by any checks or balances.

explanatory context

Materialist critique

From a materialist point of view, absolutism (the thesis that there are absolute truths) is impossible (in the real world *).


Absolutism involves an assertion that there are truths. This may be asserted in three broad ways:

a dictat without recourse to empirical reality (e.g. ‘god is good’).

an assertion of reality based on (empirical) experience: this is the way things (as I/we experience them) are.

an assertion that is a logical outcome of a stated theoretical position (which may or may not have empirical referents).


On the first; such a position is disqualified from materialist knowledge as it precludes any necessity for any engagement with the real world.


On the second; such elements of material knowledge can only be ‘relative’, the mediation of experience is culturally and historically specific.


On the third; theoretical structures clearly effect the ‘logic’ of empirical validation (the theory-laden nature of observation) on the one hand, and the deductive ‘logic’ of an ‘abstract’ analysis is clearly a function of either the theoretical framework, or the assertion of the truth value of premises, or both, on the other. In both cases the cultural specificity of the theory makes the analysis relative.


It would thus appear that material knowledge is necessarily relative knowledge. Indeed, if the opposite of absolute is relative, then this is the case. But, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with this. The problem is the absurdity of absolutism. Absolutism is not knowledge but idealist belief. It is transcendental assertion (reifying dictat, specific empirical data or theory). It is product not process. It is a legitimating product. It is uncritical. (It is not the basis, therefore of knowledge). It does not engage the real world but imposes structures on it (or even ignores it). Absolutism is, therefore, an idealist fallacy. (This is not an absolutist notion or an idealist assertion!)


Materialist knowledge is not to be seen as a product, but rather engaged as a process. It makes no sense to talk of materialist knowledge as relative, for the ‘opposite’ does not exist materially. What is relative knowledge relative to, other than the conditions of its arising? It is, of course, culturally and historically specific (instrumental judgement of veracity (does it work?) is equally culturally and historically specific).


In short, materialist knowledge is knowledge, not belief. That is, it is about, and develops as a process of engagement with, the real world. It is not the uncritical imposition of pre-given theses on the world. The opposite of absolutism is not relativism, it is knowledge.


* definition of realism in this case: realism in general involves a view that there is a concrete world of objects (including other humans) external to the individual human mind about which humans can come to know through the senses and the processes of the brain.

analytical review

Encyclopædia Britannica (2009) states:

absolutism, the political doctrine and practice of unlimited, centralized authority and absolute sovereignty, as vested especially in a monarch or dictator. The essence of an absolutist system is that the ruling power is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency, be it judicial, legislative, religious, economic, or electoral. King Louis XIV (1643–1715) of France furnished the most familiar assertion of absolutism when he said, “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Absolutism has existed in various forms in all parts of the world, including in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.

Anonymous (2004) states:

Moral absolutism—the belief or theory that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged—suggests that morals are not determined by societal or situational influences. According to moral absolutism, morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, or some other fundamental source. Moral absolutism is sometimes contrasted with moral relativism and typified—although thereby also oversimplified—by such phrases as "Right is right and wrong is wrong."
Moral absolutism regards actions as inherently or inarguably moral or immoral. Moral absolutists might, for example, judge slavery or childhood female genital mutilation to be absolutely and inarguably immoral regardless of the beliefs and goals of a culture that engages in these practices.

In a minority of cases, moral absolutism is taken to the more constrained position that actions are moral or immoral regardless of the circumstances in which they occur. Lying, for instance, would always be immoral, even if done to promote some other good (e.g., saving a life). This rare view of moral absolutism might be contrasted with moral consequentialism—the view that the morality of an action depends on the context or consequences of that action.

Modern human rights theory is a form of moral absolutism, usually based on the nature of humanity and the essence of human nature. One such theory was constructed by John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice.

Many religions have morally absolutist positions, regarding the system of morality as having been set by the deity or deities. They therefore regard such a moral system as absolute, (usually) perfect, and unchangeable. The philosophy of Objectivism also takes a morally absolutist stance, as it regards the laws of morality to be, like the laws of physics, inherent in the universe itself.

associated issues


related areas

See also






Anonymous, 2004, 'Moral absolutism' originally but no longer available at, accessed 30 January 2013.

Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009, 'Absolutism' available at, last updated 30 January 2009, accessed 11 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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