Senior Literature Review Fall 2017

Octave’s First Presentation


Octave presented the article that launched his project: Thomas Nagel’s “The Absurd.”

Nagel’s thesis rests on an observation about absurdity on a small scale, namely, that it arises when there is a gap between what someone is trying to do and reality. He generalizes this to life as a whole as follows.

The sense that life as a whole is absurd arises when we perceive, perhaps dimly, an inflated pretension or aspiration which is inseparable from the continuation of human life and which makes its absurdity inescapable, short of an escape from life itself. (Nagel 1971, 718)

And so this is his thesis about the absurdity of life.

If there is a philosophical sense of absurdity … it must arise from the perception of something universal — some respect in which pretension and reality inevitably clash for us all. This condition is supplied, I shall argue, by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt. (Nagel 1971, 718)

Life is absurd because of something we see when we take a step back from all the things we value and see that our values are all open to doubt. We talked quite a lot about what this backward step involves, what we see when we take it, and why the backward step exposes the gap between our aspirations and reality.

One thing that the backwards step does not involve is finding a standard against which we measure all of our values and find them wanting. By hypothesis, such a standard would be something that is not included in the things we value. If there were such a thing, why would we care about it?

Instead of saying that the step back involves finding a standard outside of our values, the step back is supposed to show that there is nothing supporting any of our values except our other values. That, in turn, is supposed to show that there is a gap between what we aspire to and reality.

Nagel draws an analogy with skepticism about the external world to illustrate the point. Descartes, for example, finds that his only reasons for trusting his senses rely on his senses. He knows he is not dreaming about sitting in the chair because he can look around the room and feel the heat of the fire. But, of course, he might be dreaming about those things too. So he is led to skepticism about the senses so long as he cannot find any other basis for believing in them. There is a gap, for Descartes, between what he aspires to, namely knowing about things by seeing and feeling them, and reality, which shows that the senses, by themselves, are not a basis of knowledge. (He claims to have found such a basis in reason so he is not a skeptic in the end.)

Descartes is driven to his position by his understanding of what knowledge is. Do the sorts of things that Nagel is talking about drive us in a similar way? That is, are we compelled to find something outside of our circle of values and aspirations to explain why they are worth pursuing?

In some cases, it is hard to know even what that would be. I take an aspirin because my head hurts. If you asked me why and would not accept “because my head hurts” as an answer, I don’t know what else to say. I certainly don’t feel the need to offer any deeper explanation for myself. As Will noted, Nagel himself makes this point (see Nagel 1971, 717).

Nagel’s idea seems more compelling for other things. We can genuinely ask “is this career worth pursuing?,” for example. One kind of answer is “well, I could accomplish a lot of things that I want by pursuing this career.” That’s a pretty good answer! But are those things worth pursuing? At some point, you are going to have to stop with an answer like “that’s just what I think” or “it’s what I really want.” That, Nagel thinks, is where the gap between the seriousness with which you pursue your values and aspirations and reality emerges. Just as Descartes was unsatisfied with finding that he could only explain why he knew things from the senses by referring to other senses, Nagel thinks we would be unsatisfied with explaining the point of our values and aspirations by referring to our other values and aspirations.

I think it’s a good question whether there has to be a gap there or whether you could (or should) be satisfied with having discovered the things that you really want. That’s Octave’s project: figuring out whether there is a satisfactory way of avoiding the problem of absurdity that Nagel describes.


Nagel, Thomas. 1971. “The Absurd.” The Journal of Philosophy 68: 716–27. doi:10.2307/2024942.