Ethical Theory Spring 2022

Absurdity

Overview

One feature of Ayer’s emotivism is that it nearly guarantees we will be right about our values. If all we are doing when we talk about our values is express how we feel, there is nothing to be wrong about. Well, there is something: you may lack self-knowledge, and think that you feel one way when you really don’t. But there is no external standard that your values can fail to meet. As long as you sincerely feel the things that your thoughts and words express, there is no question of whether you could be wrong.

That strikes me as making it too easy. We can ask about whether are values or feelings are right or wrong. Sometimes, we find we are wrong; we call this learning and it is no fun at all.

Nagel thinks that is just the tip of the iceberg. He thinks that not only do we sometimes discover that we have been wrong. He thinks that we want to find out whether our values can be validated. Since this is something we cannot do, he thinking, our lives are absurd. His essay seeks to explain what it means to say that life is absurd, why human life is absurd, and, finally, whether we should regard absurdity as something regrettable that we should try to escape.

A brief outline

Nagel begins with several arguments that seek to show that life is absurd (§I). He thinks they all fail. However, he believes, it is true that our lives are absurd. And, moreover, the failed arguments all point to the correct reason for describing our lives as absurd (§II).

He starts with ordinary situations of absurdity and says they involve a “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality” (Nagel 1971, 718). The normal response to finding oneself in an absurd situation is to try to change it, either by bringing one’s aspirations into line with reality or changing the situation. However that is hard to do when you think of your life as absurd.

Here is Nagel’s thesis.

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)

The idea is that we cannot live human lives without making choices and taking at least some things seriously; we think there are better and worse ways of making the choices that we have to make. But there is always a point of view outside the “particular form of our lives” from which “the seriousness appears gratuitous” (Nagel 1971, 719). The inevitable clash between these two viewpoints is what makes our lives absurd.

One way of escaping absurdity is to try to put your small life into something bigger and more meaningful: the state, revolution, science, God, and so on (§III). Nagel does not think this works. It depends on seeing the big thing as significant from our own point of view. But that point of view can be called into question from the external point of view (Nagel 1971, 721).

This brings him into disagreement with Camus, who had suggested that the world could meet our demands for meaning even though it, in fact, does not do so. Nagel doesn’t think you could get meaning from the world or, at least, you can’t without re-generating the problem that, in his opinion, is the source of absurdity.

In the fourth and fifth sections, Nagel addresses an objection. The objection, roughly, says that there is no point of view for evaluating our values that lies entirely outside of them. How would you evaluate your values except in terms of some of your values? The fourth section tackles this directly, while the fifth section proposes an analogy with skepticism about whether we know there is an external world. (You can skip the fifth part.)

Finally, in the sixth section, Nagel asks whether the absurdity of our lives is something to regret and, if possible, avoid.

He notes there are two ways of avoiding absurdity and says that neither is attractive.

  1. abandon self-consciousness: a mouse has strivings but is not absurd because it is incapable of seeing that it is just a mouse or for imagining that there is another perspective on its life

  2. abandon earthly, human life and identify as completely as possible with a universal viewpoint from which human concerns seem trivial. I gather the idea is that you cease to think about whether your desires make sense and instead act on impulse because you do not think it is important whether you do one thing or the other in this world.

If absurdity is inevitable, is it something we should regret? Camus thinks so; he thinks we should be defiant, shake our fists at the universe. It will not make life any less absurd, but it will give us our dignity.

Nagel is more comfortable with the thought that our lives are absurd. He makes two points.

  1. Absurdity comes about only because we are capable of reflecting and recognizing our limitations. It’s an admirable thing about us.

  2. If nothing matters, then neither does the absurdity of our lives. “We can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair” (Nagel 1971, 727).

Questions for Discussion

It is not obvious to me that we can really imagine a perspective on our values that does not include any of our values at all. What are we imagining this would be like and why would we care what someone with this perspective would say? Nagel addresses the point in section IV but I think it is still open for discussion.

In addition, I think it’s worth asking what the last paragraph means. If nothing matters, neither does the absurdity of our lives. How does that address the concern that led us into absurdity in the first place? Are we supposed to give up trying to justify our values?

Who is Camus?

Nagel refers to Albert Camus at several points in his essay. Who is that?

Albert Camus (1913–1960) wrote in a variety of venues: journalism, the theater, fiction, political essays, and philosophy. His relationship to philosophy was fraught. He was opposed to systematic philosophy and generally asserted his conclusions rather than arguing for them. Furthermore, while he insisted on separating himself from existentialism, his book The Myth of Sisyphus is regarded as an important contribution to the existentialist tradition.

Here is a summary of his views that are most relevant to the Nagel essay.

Camus argues that human beings cannot escape asking the question, “What is the meaning of existence?” Camus, however, denies that there is an answer to this question, and rejects every scientific, teleological, metaphysical, or human-created end that would provide an adequate answer. Thus, while accepting that human beings inevitably seek to understand life’s purpose, Camus takes the skeptical position that the natural world, the universe, and the human enterprise remains silent about any such purpose. Since existence itself has no meaning, we must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness. This paradoxical situation, then, between our impulse to ask ultimate questions and the impossibility of achieving any adequate answer, is what Camus calls the absurd. Camus’s philosophy of the absurd explores the consequences arising from this basic paradox.

Camus’s understanding of absurdity is best captured in an image, not an argument: of Sisyphus straining to push his rock up the mountain, watching it roll down, then descending after the rock to begin all over, in an endless cycle. Like Sisyphus, humans cannot help but continue to ask after the meaning of life, only to see our answers tumble back down. (Aronson 2022)

I said that Camus was related, in a complicated way, with existentialism. What is that? The existentialist tradition was a cultural movement that flourished in the 1940s and 1950s and drew on philosophy from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some of the existentialists’ common themes were the idea that freedom is at the core of human life, ideas about personal authenticity, and struggles with religious belief.

References

Aronson, Ronald. 2022. “Albert Camus.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. Palo Alto, CA: Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Nagel, Thomas. 1971. “The Absurd.” The Journal of Philosophy 68: 716–27. doi:10.2307/2024942.