Senior Literature Review Fall 2018

Nagel on the Absurd


I made a handout describing four points that I think should be included in a précis. For today’s class, I presented Thomas Nagel’s article “The Absurd” in order to illustrate how I would do it.

The four points

Here are the four points that I think a précis should cover.

  1. What is it about? Nagel’s article is about why several unsuccessful arguments for the conclusion that life is absurd are nonetheless pointing at the correct answer.

  2. What is the author’s central point? It is that the absurdity of life derives from the gap between the effort we put into answering questions like “is this really worth doing?” and our ability to take a step back from our values. When we take the step back, he claims, we realize that our values do not rest on anything other than one another. This suggests that we cannot settle whether any of our pursuits are really valuable.

  3. What is its greatest strength? I think he gives a convincing answer to his question and that he has a compelling account of what the absurdity of life consists in.

  4. What is its greatest weakness? If I had to challenge this argument, I think I would press on whether the step back matters as much as I think he says it does. The step back involves looking at my values from the perspective of someone who does not share any of my values. But why should I care about what such a person would think? It’s not me, after all.

Our discussion

We talked about just how important Nagel thinks absurdity is. As Coleman pointed out, it sure seems as though he thinks it’s important when he’s setting the problem up. At the same time, as a number of us noted, when you get to the end it’s not obvious that he still believes that. Or, to be more precise, it’s not obvious that he thinks the sense of “absurdity” that he has isolated is tremendously important. Paskalina favored that view. She thought his position was that absurdity is just the product of something we naturally do, namely, reflecting and taking the step back.

It seems to me that someone could even argue that a sense of the absurdity of life is desirable. Knowing that your values don’t come from God, either literally or figuratively, can help you to be a more tolerant, flexible, and inquisitive person. I think there is a worry that taking the step back may leave you thinking that there is no point to life. But if it just dislodges our naive parochial thinking, it might leave us better off.

James clarified the argument by pointing out that the step back involves doubt. This led to a discussion of epistemological skepticism. Descartes’ Dream Argument is meant to establish a kind of doubt. But it’s a funny kind of doubt. It’s not that you have reason for thinking that you might really be asleep and dreaming. If you did, that would give you reason for doubting that you are sitting in the room talking about philosophy. Rather, Descartes’s doubt is based on the fact that you can’t rule out the possibility that you are dreaming. While this is certainly an important puzzle for our understanding of knowledge, it’s not obvious how significant this is for most purposes. If absurdity were like skepticism, as Nagel suggests, it might not matter all that much.

Oscar wasn’t crazy about the parallel with epistemological skepticism. James and Coleman agreed. They both thought that it’s easier to accept the kind of skepticism about values that Nagel is talking about than it is to accept skepticism about beliefs in the external world.


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


There was a handout for this class: 03.precis.handout.pdf