Regular visitors of my blog will know my affinity for Albert Camus. In my opinion Camus had an unparalleled grasp of the human condition. Few have been capable of matching his lucidity, quality of thought, and fidelity to reason – though his views have from time to time been challenged.
In 1971, Thomas Nagel wrote a paper titled ‘The Absurd.’ Though generally sympathetic to the concept, Nagel was nonetheless critical of Camus’ formulation, and proposed a modified view that I would like to explore in this essay.
What the Absurd is not
Nagel starts by setting up and tearing down what he believes are the most common arguments in support of life’s absurdity. These are not the kinds of assertions made by Camus, but are instead what we might consider typical ‘layperson’ arguments.
For example, one might claim that life is absurd because ‘what we do now will not matter in a million years.’ Nagel says that this is a poor argument because even if things were going to matter in some distant future (one that no longer includes us), it would not prevent our current concerns from being absurd. Nagel also suggests that this argument depends on something mattering, period, and amounts to ‘begging the question against its mattering,’ since the fulfillment of meaning is postponed to a future that cannot be known (we cannot know for certain whether it will indeed matter or not). Camus was himself very critical of postponing meaning to the future, which he saw as a divinization of history (e.g. Marxist philosophy).
Another trivial argument is to say that absurdity has to do with space or time – that we are “tiny specks in the infinite vastness of the universe” and that we are ‘mere instants’ on a geological time scale, to say nothing of a cosmic one. Nagel of course points out that if we were to either live forever, or if we somehow made up a greater part of the universe, our lives would be no less absurd or meaningless.
Nagel also criticizes the argument that life must be absurd because we all die, which causes all chains of justification to be ‘left dangling in mid-air,’ and thus unfulfilled; it would seem that our actions in the end may not have mattered. Nagel claims that this on its own is not enough to fortify the concept of the absurd, and to argue his point, offers examples of chains of justification that clearly do end within life (e.g. ‘taking an asprin for a headache’).
Although I sympathize with Nagel’s conclusion – that these arguments do not constitute the absurd – I am not entirely convinced by his reasoning. Note that most of his arguments are based on an inversion of what he believes are the positive arguments for life’s absurdity; but the absurd, as conceptualized by others (including Camus), is not so much a positive logical claim, but rather a discovery – it is the ‘remainder’ – that emerges after taking on the task of seriously challenging the meaning systems we take for granted.
“When I analyzed the feeling of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt. I was trying to make a ‘tabula rasa,’ on the basis of which it would then be possible to construct something (Camus, MS; p. 356).”
Nagel is also not clear about what he means when he talks of ‘something mattering.’ Taking an asprin clearly ‘matters’ for the sake of removing one’s headache, but are we not talking about a different kind of ‘mattering’ when discussing humankind’s larger existential dilemma? But let us not be overly concerned with such questions; what is most interesting to me is what Nagel defines as the absurd, and consequently, where he sees fault with Camus’ formulation.
The above arguments notwithstanding, Nagel believes that discussions of the absurd do express “something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct (Nagel, 1971; p. 718).”
Nagel seems to draw from casual and everyday encounters, to suggest that the absurd is a ‘conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality.’ He gives examples that include someone giving a complicated speech in support of a motion that has already passed, and the more comical example of someone being knighted and having their pants fall down.
Very early on, the reader cannot help but get the sense that Nagel’s take on the absurd is less serious than the one outlined by Camus – an observation that will be confirmed by Nagle’s own conclusion, which we will get to in due time. Nevertheless, what Nagel presents as a definition of the absurd, seems remarkably similar to that proposed by Camus. He argues that life is absurd by virtue of a 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 (p. 718).”
We have the ability to step back and survey ourselves and the lives we are living, “with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand (p. 720).” We can temporarily remove ourselves from the tasks of daily life and doubt their point, purpose, value, and so on. What is absurd, for Nagel, is not the fact that an external view can be taken of us, but that we ourselves are capable of taking it, “without ceasing to be the person whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded (Nagel, 1971; p. 720).”
So for Nagel, the absurd is fundamentally based on this ability to step back and engage in doubt; indeed, he stops just short of equating it with epistemological skepticism. It is a comparatively ‘lighter’ version of the absurd – though Nagel also has a healthy appreciation of the difficulties we face in stepping back from our own realities:
“Once we have taken the backward step to an abstract view of our whole system of beliefs, evidence, and justification, and seen that it works only, despite its pretensions, by taking the world largely for granted, we are not in a position to contrast all these appearances with an alternative reality. We cannot shed our ordinary responses, and if we could it would leave us with no means of conceiving a reality of any kind (Nagel, 1971; p. 723).”
Nagel, like Camus, senses the fragility of human reason:
“If we tried to rely entirely on reason and pressed it hard, our lives and beliefs would collapse – a form of madness that may actually occur if the inertial force of taking the world and life for granted is somehow lost. If we lose our grip on that, reason will not give it back to us (Nagel, 1971; p. 724).”
Nagel’s Criticism of Camus’ Absurd
Despite their similarities, Nagel’s definition of the absurd diverges in some important ways from the position developed by Camus. Nagel takes Camus to say that “the absurd arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning (Nagel, p. 721).” He then criticizes this position for implicitly suggesting that if the world were somehow different (e.g. if there were a God), it might indeed be capable of satisfying those demands. But, Nagel continues, this cannot be the case:
“There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise. Consequently the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves (Nagel, 1971; p. 722).”
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus states that “The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world (Camus, MS; p. 32).” Quoting out of context and without a broader understanding of his overall exposition, Camus does seem vulnerable to Nagel’s criticism. But let us explore what Camus actually meant by this.
For Camus, as for Nagel, the absurd arises when the self-aware and fully conscious human being tries to come to grips with their existential situation. Life is not absurd for other animals, because other animals do not carry our burden of conscious reflection: “If there is an absurd, it is in man’s universe (Camus, MS; p. 38).” It would appear that at some point in our evolutionary trajectory, we ran into a metaphysical dead-end: “The laws of nature may be operative up to ta certain limit, beyond which they turn against themselves and give birth to the absurd (MS; p. 39).” [These issues were explored in my two part essay on Defining the Human Animal].
If we accept that the fully conscious person is in part what gives rise to the absurd dilemma, we see that she also discovers the conscious self in confrontation with her very own body. The body is something of the outside world, though apparently an object belonging to her. This is what Becker was getting at in discussing the problem of death:
“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and have to live with (Becker, 1973; p. 26).”
Other animals are not absurd within the world they inhabit because they do not perceive themselves in a way that allows them to reflect on their place within it. In contrast, the self-conscious man awakens within his surroundings to find himself out-of-joint:
“There can be no absurd outside the human mind. Thus, like everything else, the absurd ends with death. But there can be no absurd outside this world either. And it is by this elementary criterion that I judge the notion of the absurd as essential and consider that it can stand as the first of my truths (Camus, MS; p. 35).”
For Camus, the arrival of consciousness and self-awareness makes it possible to ask ourselves some very difficult questions: Why do I exist? What is this life for? How am I to live? Why must I die? These incipient cerebral capacities increasingly expose, concomitantly and often unconsciously, a painful and nostalgic longing for meaning, coherence, and unity. Unable to find answers within him, the fully conscious man projects (often unconsciously) his own needs, wishes, and desires onto the world. His search is nevertheless in vain, and he quickly realizes he is received by all that the world is capable of offering – a dreadful silence.
To be clear, when Camus proposes that there is a confrontation between human needs and the silence of ‘the world,’ in the latter case he is referring to the world as perceived through the eyes of humans – the needs we project onto the world juxtaposed with our perception of it – its ‘unreasonableness.’
“I said that the world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of the irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human-heart (Camus, MS; p. 26).”
Nagel says that the collision giving rise to the absurd is to be found entirely within us. But if we take this assertion seriously, it would suggest that a fully conscious man, existing without a world to juxtaposition his-self; without anything outside of his own awareness to serve as contrast; without any way of discovering that he has a relation to anything else – would somehow still find himself struggling with this absurd dilemma. It is unclear to me how this could be possible, since the very consciousness we are discussing must presuppose innumerable confrontations with physical and symbolic objects external to ourselves (i.e. ‘the world’).
Camus suggests that it would be impossible for the absurd to exist in man and man alone: “I can therefore say that the Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together (MS; p. 34).” If we allow that the self-conscious person is a necessary condition giving rise to the absurd, it is surely not sufficient, which is what Camus means when he asserts that “The absurd depends as much on man as on the world (MS; p. 26).”
Stated differently, Camus is not saying, as Nagel seems to think, that the world is absurd because there is no a priori meaning to be found in it. If such a thing were possible, it would be incomprehensible to the fully conscious human being. This is because man does not belong within the ontological monism that categorizes the rest of the world; his deictic coordinates are both materialistic and symbolic; his self is embodied – haunting the inner corridors of this heart pumping, breath-gasping, corporeal body.
In short, the human being awakens within her conscious mind to find herself estranged from ‘the world’ she inhabits; there can be no satisfactory a priori meaning that the objective world can offer us, since we are in part removed from it. Read carefully the following passage by Camus:
“If I were a tree among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning or rather this problem would not arise, for I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation (MS; p. 50).”
The key phrase here is where he says that for the absurd to disappear, one should have to BE this world, rather than find oneself hopelessly opposed to it. Nagel would have us believe that if there were a God capable of providing the world with meaning, Camus would then be forced to concede that the absurd dilemma would be nullified. But Nagel grossly mischaracterizes Camus’ position. I was pleased to also find this point noted on another website, by an anonymous blogger:
“Camus is not saying that there must be a God for life to have meaning: Camus is saying that we must BE God for life to have meaning. It is the impermanence of our lives crossed with the flawed “godliness” of our minds (NOT the biological body, but the consciousness) that creates the Absurd. That is why Camus can start the Myth of Sisyphus with a firm base of “God is Dead,” IE: the question of God is not relevant to this argument (‘Scott,’ website: The Ends of Thought)”
Throughout his major works, Camus clearly insists that if there were a God, His meaning would be incomprehensible and unsatisfactory to the fully conscious and rational human being. Camus makes this point quite clear in his frequent discussion of Dostoevsky’s character Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov, and in the Rebel when discussing Satan and Prometheus as metaphysical rebels who cannot help but reject the divine values given to them.
In light of the above, I think it fair to say that Nagel’s take on Camus is mistaken and ostensibly based on a superficial reading of his work. In fact, Nagel’s own exposition of the absurd may turn out to be the inadequate thesis – this will be made clearer in what follows.
On Confronting the Absurd: Nagel versus Camus
Divergent ways of conceptualizing the absurd will naturally evoke different suggestions about how we might go about confronting it. As already discussed, Nagel claims that the absurd emerges solely within the conscious mind of the person, and he all but equates it with epistemological skepticism. But, as already argued, Nagel seemingly fails to recognize the metaphysical needs that man projects into the world – what Camus regards as an essential part of the equation giving rise to the absurd.
“The absurd, then, as conceived by Camus is fundamentally an epistemological claim addressing an ontological need (Foley, 2008; p. 8).”
Nagel seems to neglect any discussion about the ontological human need that is jeopardized by his epistemological skepticism; for instance, the extent to which the human animal unconsciously hungers for meaning, deliverance from death, and to be relieved of the burden of freedom. By downplaying what is ultimately at stake, Nagel is able to present a formulation that compared to Camus feels more like ‘absurd-lite.’
Nagel is sympathetic to the concept of the absurd. Yet his comparatively superficial formulation allows him to accuse Camus of being overly dramatic – not only in his definition, but also in how we confront the absurd. For Nagel, the absurd appears to comprise little more than doubt, whereas for Camus, the absurd involves both a logical arrival and an unsettling emotional experience. The phenomenological experience of the absurd has been likened to Sartre’s nausea.
“This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity (MS; p. 13).”
The distressing feeling is only able to arise by recognizing the ontological need (neglected in Nagel’s formulation). So while Nagel accuses Camus as being overly ‘dramatic,’ we might accuse him of being overly sterile, hyper-cognized, and denying certain crucial parts of the human condition. We will return to this point shortly.
Recall that for Camus, it is not so much the discovery of the absurd, but what we do with it that is of most significance. He observed two paths that we are tempted to take to escape our absurd dilemma: one by fleeing into irrationality (suicide of the intellect), and the other by physical suicide.
“At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt (Camus, MS; p. 17).
For Camus, “the real effort is to stay there, rather in so far as that is possible… (MS; p. 17).” Camus urges that we must somehow learn to live with the terms of our condition while holding onto lucidity and reason as much as our weighted hearts and minds will allow. How we might begin to confront our existential condition is something that Camus hinted at in The Myth of Sisyphus, and later became the sole focus of the Rebel, which advocated the necessity of metaphysical revolt against our absurd dilemma.
Based on his reading, Nagel takes Camus to be recommending a solution that merely entails defiance and scorn:
“We can salvage our dignity, he appears to believe, by shaking a fist at the world which is deaf to our pleas, and continuing to live in spite of it. This will not make our lives un-absurd, but it will lend them a certain nobility. This seems to me romantic and slightly self-pitying. Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance (1971; p. 726).”
Camus’ position is quite complex – far more so than Nagel was able to understand or perhaps willing to acknowledge. Nagel again makes a caricature of Camus’ stance, which does at some point mention scorn as a feeling that may awaken a motivating force, but nowhere does he suggest that the feeling of contempt ought to be maintained, or that it is in itself enough. This misreading of Camus has been nicely pointed out by another blogger:
“’Rebellion’ doesn’t literally mean shaking one’s fist and screaming at the world. Look at Camus’ finest example of a rebel: Dr. Rieux [The Plague]. The good doctor is, by all accounts, calm, patient, and reserved. But he is truly a rebel because he does not accept the order of things; he fights plague tirelessly and unceasingly. But he is not ‘romantic’ or ‘slightly self-pitying’ as Nagel says. He’s no bold hero. He’s just a man who does what needs to be done (Jeremy, Website: Out of the Darkness)”
Nagel is able to say that the absurd “warrants neither that much distress nor that much defiance” because he has a watered-down way of conceptualizing it, and because he advocates a position that partly seeks to escape its full force. Nagel claims that the absurd is “like skepticism in epistemology” and involves little more than “the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought (1971; p. 727).” Thus, Nagel concludes that “if a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation … then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? (1971; p. 727).”
However, Nagel’s failure in finding a motivating cause for existential distress is only made possible by his defining the absurd in such a way that he denies the metaphysical needs of the subjective human being. I would venture a guess that his failure to conceptualize those human needs is the result of it never being fully awakened within himself, because of his own method of dealing with it.
So what does Nagel then advocate? He ultimately says that if “there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair (1971; p. 727).” So for Nagel, the absurd is hardly a destabilizing force, and what little problems are left can be adequately confronted, he asserts, with irony.
However what is irony but a form of detachment, negation, and denial? It is essentially saying what one does not mean. In this case, it might be considered a form of self-deception. This point has also been raised by Jeremy at Out of the Darkness:
“Irony tries to diminish (and, perhaps, thereby eliminate) the fundamental demand for meaning. Irony reduces the demand for meaning into a simple human desire, which can be modified or suppressed, at least to some degree. But the will to meaning (to use Frankl’s term) is not a desire; it is a need. We need meaning almost like we need food and water. We can’t simply laugh off meaninglessness and say, “really, I don’t need objective meaning anyway.” That doesn’t solve the problem of the absurd as Nagel says it does. That escapes the problem. To be ironic is to not be honest with oneself”
Only by partly denying the problem is Nagel able to conclude that the absurd “need not be a matter or agony unless we make it so (p. 727).” In light of the above, we could more correctly take Nagel to be saying that the absurd “need not be a matter of agony so long as we partly shield it from view while dulling our senses to its consequences.” Irony does not help us – it partially evades the problem. What is ironic is Nagel’s suggestion that we can avoid despair through the use of irony. If Camus were capable of responding to Nagel, he would undoubtedly point out that Nagel’s approach to the absurd is advocating a form of philosophical suicide – a numbing of conscious awareness to avoid fully recognizing what might be psychologically unbearable.
I really do like Nagel. In my opinion he is one among too few heavyweight contemporary thinkers, willing to defend a sane version of consciousness. In the 1970’s, when computational and materialist theories of mind were (and still are) all the rage, Nagel had the courage/gall to throw a wrench in everyone’s party by asking the pointed question: “What is it like to be a bat?” Since then, the problem of subjective qualia has made the job of any would-be reductionist infuriatingly difficult.
More recently, in Mind and Cosmos (2012; currently on my reading list), Nagel has again dared to challenge mainstream approaches that try to account for human consciousness in purely materialistic or Darwinian terms. Unsurprisingly, the popular science writers of today have largely ridiculed him for it. I have yet to assess his thesis myself, but from what I do know of Nagel, I can confidently assert that we need more philosophers like him – he is beyond doubt a brilliant mind. Which makes his take on the absurd all the more instructive; for it demonstrates how easily even great minds, indeed ‘princes of the mind,’ in Camus’ words, will seek refuge from the waterless deserts of the absurd.
Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Camus, A. (1948). The Plague. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Camus, A. (1955). The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, [R].
Camus, A. (1955). The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Alred A. Knopf [MS].
Camus, A. (1968). Lyrical and Critical Essays. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Foley, J., 2008, Albert Camus: From the Absurd to Revolt. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Nagel, T. (1971). The Absurd. Journal of Philosophy, 68, pp. 716-727.