In this following context, what does the phrase ''in the noblest sense of the word'' mean? Is it mere emphasis phrase? or should I take ''literally'' as its synonym?

It is the inward condition of a person and his deeds that count, not a mere name. The true disciple of the Buddha is far removed from all dogmatism. He is a free thinker in the noblest sense of the word. He falls neither into positive nor negative dogmas, for he knows:

Source: Page. 6 ''Fundamentals of Buddhism'' by Nyanatiloka Mahåthera

  • There is a mistake here but it doesn't really affect the meaning: free thinker is not a word, it is a phrase. noblest sense of a word means: the one that commands the most respect, for example. Abstraction does not include literalism...
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 15:14
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    The writer just wants to make sure he's not misunderstood. Free thinker is often used as a kind of "euphemism" for maverick, nonconformist, bohemian, anarchist,... (leaning towards insurrectionist, revolutionary, malcontent, mutineer,...). Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 16:13

2 Answers 2


The author is emphasizing that he or she means "free thinker" as a high compliment. The phrase points out a particular sense (or intended meaning) of the word so "literally" would not be a complete synonym in this case.

(At least that's my take. I'm not a native speaker and I might be wrong.)

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    Yes, you might add that "free thinker" is sometimes used to mean atheist, and sometimes you'll see people described as "free thinkers" in a pejorative sense. The author is telling us that this isn't the intention here
    – James K
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 16:31

I would assert that the author is using the phrase to clarify that he intends the expression, "a free thinker," to be understood is meant as a positive, or a compliment. So yes: indirectly it IS intended to be read in its literal sense.

There have been times throughout history where phrases like "free thinker," or "independent-minded," or "strong-willed" have carried additional subtext (meaning that is understood though not expressly stated), especially when used to describe women, slaves, foreigners, etc. (people that the speaker would have considered as "less" than themselves, either by virtue of their being the so-called "weaker sex", "savages", or "property").

By qualifying the statement with "in the noblest sense," the author is imparting said nobility either to the subject, or to his own feelings on the topic. In either case, he is making his position clear that he intends the words to be read as written, and is stressing that none of those secondary meanings are intended.

Side note: this is an excellent question. Not many people would have caught the nuance there, and of the few who did, most would have dismissed it. It shows you're really trying to grasp every part of the author's meaning. Well done.

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