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Absurdism is a philosophy stating that the efforts of humanity to find meaning in the universe ultimately fail (and hence are absurd), because no such meaning exists, at least in relation to the individual. "The Absurd", therefore, is commonly used in absurdist philosophical discourse to refer to the incongruity between the human search for meaning and the universe's lack of meaning. In this context absurd does not mean "logically impossible," but rather "humanly impossible."[1]

Absurdism is very closely related to existentialism and nihilism and has its origins in the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis humans faced with the Absurd by developing existential philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when the French Algerian philosopher and writer Albert Camus rejected certain aspects from that philosophical line of thought[2] and published his manuscript The Myth of Sisyphus. The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.

Brief description

"... in spite of or in defiance of the whole of existence he wills to be himself with it, to take it along, almost defying his torment. For to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world; rather than seek help he would prefer to be himself – with all the tortures of hell, if so it must be."

In absurdist philosophy, the Absurd arises out of the fundamental disharmony between the individual's search for meaning and the apparent meaninglessness of the universe. As beings looking for meaning in a meaningless world, humans have three ways of resolving the dilemma. Kierkegaard and Camus describe the solutions in their works, The Sickness Unto Death (1849) and The Myth of Sisyphus (1942):

  • Suicide (or, "escaping existence"): a solution in which a person simply ends one's own life. Both Kierkegaard and Camus dismiss the viability of this option.
  • Religious belief in a transcendent realm or being: a solution in which one believes in the existence of a reality that is beyond the Absurd, and, as such, has meaning. Kierkegaard stated that a belief in anything beyond the Absurd requires a non-rational but perhaps necessary religious acceptance in such an intangible and empirically unprovable thing (now commonly referred to as a "leap of faith"). However, Camus regarded this solution as "philosophical suicide".
  • Acceptance of the Absurd: a solution in which one accepts and even embraces the Absurd and continues to live in spite of it. Camus endorsed this solution, while Kierkegaard regarded this solution as "demoniac madness": "He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!"[4]

Relationship with existentialism and nihilism

(Simplified) Relationship between existentialism, absurdism and nihilism
Atheistic existentialism Theistic existentialism Absurdism Nihilism
1. There is such a thing as meaning or value Yes Yes Yes No
2. There is inherent meaning in the universe (either intrinsic or from God) No Maybe, but humans must have faith to believe there is Maybe, but humans can never know it No
3. Individuals can create meaning in life themselves Yes, it is essential that they do Yes, but that meaning must incorporate God Yes, but it is not essential No, because there is no such meaning to create
4. The pursuit of intrinsic or extrinsic meaning in the universe is possible No, and the pursuit itself is meaningless Yes, and the pursuit itself may have meaning No, but the pursuit itself may have meaning No, and the pursuit itself is meaningless
5. The pursuit of constructed meaning is possible Yes, thus the goal of existentialism Yes, thus the goal of existentialism Maybe No
6. There is a solution to the individual's desire to seek meaning Yes, the creation of one's own meaning Yes, the creation of one's own meaning before God Yes, the acknowledgement and embracing of absurdity No

Søren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard designed the relationship framework based (in part) on how a person reacts to despair. Absurdist philosophy fits into the 'despair of defiance' rubric.[5]

A century before Camus, the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote extensively on the absurdity of the world. In his journals, Kierkegaard writes about the absurd:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.[6]

Kierkegaard, Søren, Journals, 1849

An example that Kierkegaard uses is found in one of his famous works, Fear and Trembling. In the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham was told by God to kill his son Isaac. Just as Abraham was about to kill Isaac, an angel stopped Abraham from doing so. Kierkegaard believes that through virtue of the absurd, Abraham, defying all reason and ethical duties ("you cannot act"), got back his son and reaffirmed his faith ("where I have to act").[7] However, it should be noted that in this particular case, the work was signed with the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio.

Another instance of absurdist themes in Kierkegaard's work is found in The Sickness Unto Death, which is signed by the pseudonym Anti-Climacus. In his examination of the forms of despair, Kierkegaard examines the type of despair known as defiance.[8] In the opening quote reproduced at the beginning of the article, Kierkegaard describes how such a man would endure such a defiance and identifies the three major traits of the Absurd Man, later discussed by Albert Camus: a rejection of escaping existence (suicide), a rejection of help from a higher power and acceptance of his absurd (and despairing) condition.

According to Kierkegaard in his autobiography The Point of View of My Work as an Author, most of his pseudonymous writings are not necessarily reflective of his own opinions. Nevertheless, his work anticipated many absurdist themes and provided its theoretical background.

Albert Camus

Although the notion of the 'absurd' is pervasive in all of the literature of Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus is his chief work on the subject. In it, Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict or a "divorce" between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd, as the confrontation between man's desire for significance, meaning and clarity on the one hand – and the silent, cold universe on the other. He continues that there are specific human experiences evoking notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith or recognition. He concludes that recognition is the only defensible option.[9]

For Camus, suicide is a "confession" that life is not worth living; it is a choice implicitly declaring that life is "too much". Suicide offers the most basic "way out" of absurdity: the immediate termination of the self and its place in the universe.

The absurd encounter can also arouse a "leap of faith", a term derived from one of Kierkegaard's early pseudonyms, Johannes de Silentio (although the term was not used by Kierkegaard himself[10]), where one believes that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a "leap of faith", one must act with the "virtue of the absurd" (as Johannes de Silentio put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This faith has no expectations, but is a flexible power initiated by a recognition of the absurd. However, Camus states that because the leap of faith escapes rationality and defers to abstraction over personal experience, the leap of faith is not absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as "philosophical suicide", rejecting both this and physical suicide.[10][11]

Lastly, a person can choose to embrace his or her own absurd condition. According to Camus, one's freedom – and the opportunity to give life meaning – lies in the recognition of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. "To live without appeal",[12] as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of humans is thus established in a human's natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose; to decide (or think) for him- or herself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of existence, as he or she represents a set of unique ideals which can be characterized as an entire universe in its own right. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing his or her own meaning from the search alone.

Camus states in The Myth of Sisyphus: "Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death, and I refuse suicide".[13]

The meaning of life

According to absurdism, humans historically attempt to find meaning in their lives. Traditionally, this search follows one of two paths: either concluding that life is meaningless, and that what we have is the here-and-now, or by filling the void with a purpose set forth by a higher power - often a belief in God or adherence to a religion. However, even with a spiritual power as the answer to meaning, another question is posed: What is the purpose of God? Kierkegaard believed that there is no human-comprehensible purpose of God, making faith in God absurd. Camus on the other hand states that to believe in God is to "deny one of the terms of the contradiction" between man and universe (and therefore not absurd), but returns to "philosophical suicide". Although Camus (as well as Kierkegaard) suggests that while absurdity does not lead to belief in God, neither does it lead to the denial of God. Camus notes, "I did not say 'excludes God', which would still amount to asserting".[14]

For some, suicide is a solution when confronted with the futility of living a life devoid of all purpose, as it is only a means to quicken the resolution of one's ultimate fate. For Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is not a worthwhile solution, because if life is veritably absurd, it is therefore even more absurd to counteract it; instead, we should engage in living, and reconcile the fact that we live in a world without purpose.

For Camus, the beauty which people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life, but can still provide something for which to strive. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.

Camus introduced the idea of "acceptance without resignation" as a way of dealing with the recognition of absurdity, asking whether or not man can "live without appeal", defining a "conscious revolt" against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free. It is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic (through appeal to some supernatural force) or an absurd hero (through a revolt against such hope). Henceforth, the absurd hero's refusal to hope becomes his singular ability to live in the present with passion.

See also

References

  1. Silentio, Johannes de, Fear and Trembling, Penguin Classics, p. 17
  2. Solomon, Robert C. (2001). From Rationalism to Existentialism: The Existentialists and Their Nineteenth Century Backgrounds. Rowman and Littlefield. pp. 245. ISBN 074251241X. 
  3. Kierkegaard, Søren (1941). The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. 
  4. Kierkegaard, Søren (1941). The Sickness Unto Death. Princeton University Press. , Part I, Ch. 3.
  5. Kierkegaard, Søren. The Sickness Unto Death. Kierkegaard wrote about all four viewpoints in his works at one time or another, but the majority of his work leaned towards what would later become absurdist and theistic existentialist views.
  6. Dru, Alexander. The Journals of Søren Kierkegaard, Oxford University Press, 1938.
  7. Silentio, Johannes de. Fear and Trembling, Denmark, 1843
  8. Sickness Unto Death, Ch.3, part B, sec. 2
  9. Camus, Albert (1991). Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Vintage Books. ISBN 0679733736. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 "The Kierkegaardian Leap" in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.
  11. Ibid. p.41
  12. Ibid. p.55
  13. Ibid. p.64
  14. Myth of Sisyphus, p. 40, note 7

Further reading

External links

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