Life, meaning of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

3. Absurdity

If God does not exist, many argue, then human life is absurd. The human condition, these philosophers claim, would then contain a fundamental and unchangeable disharmony. Albert Camus focused on the clash between our demand that the world be reasonable, orderly and caring and the reality of its being silent, blank and indifferent. Thomas Nagel emphasizes the discrepancy between the objective insignificance of our lives and projects and the seriousness and energy we devote to them. How are we to respond?

Because coming to recognize the indifference of the universe can be a shattering experience, the thought of suicide arises naturally. If all your goals are founded on the assumption that your existence or your actions matter to some entity or process larger and less in need of validation than yourself, the discovery that there is no such entity leaves you stripped of all direction. If, moreover, you think that any direction you take will necessarily reintroduce the assumption you now know to be false, then it may appear that the only option that avoids contradiction is suicide. Camus (1955), however, believed that there is a noncontradictory way of life available. He described ‘absurd man’ as living ‘without appeal’, in defiance of the world’s indifference to him. Such a person embraces life as fully as possible but without ever forgetting or denying the absence of any rational foundation for it.

Nagel offers a milder response (1971): the recognition of our insignificance is a function of our distinctively human ability to adopt an external view upon ourselves; as such there is no reason to try to deny it or escape from it. At the same time, if our lives are cosmically insignificant, so is the matter of how we respond to this fact. In the light of this argument, Nagel suggests, defiance seems too overblown and dramatic, and irony is more appropriate.

Richard Taylor (1970) draws a different moral from the silence of the universe: the recognition that life is, as it were, objectively meaningless, should convince us to turn our search for meaning inward. The kind of meaning in life that it makes sense to care about is meaning to us. Life has meaning if we are able to engage in activities that we find meaningful. Otherwise, not.

These philosophers all share the view that if there is nothing larger and more intrinsically valuable than ourselves to whom we may see ourselves as positively attached, then life is meaningless in at least one important sense. In this they agree with those who rest a positive view of life’s meaning on the existence of a benevolent God. Because they also believe that the condition for meaning is not met and that we none the less must live as if life had meaning, they conclude that human life is absurd. As pointed out by Joel Feinberg (1992), however, there is a difference between a situation’s being absurd and a person’s being so. By taking a proper attitude towards our predicament, whether that be defiance or irony or some third alternative, we can at least save ourselves from being ridiculous.

It is not clear, however, that we are rationally required to make even this relatively unpessimistic concession to the view that human life is absurd. As we have seen, this view rests on the idea that there is an inescapable clash between what we demand or inevitably presume about our place in the universe and the reality of our situation. But the tendency to want or insist on our cosmic importance may be less deep and inevitable than these philosophers think. Taking life by the horns, pursuing one’s projects with energy and devotion, need not rest on delusions of grandeur. It is at least not obvious that when an Olympic athlete strains to the limit in an effort to break a world record, or that when a mother forgoes sleep and comfort to nurse her child back to health, she must believe that her achievement will be of cosmic significance.

Citing this article:
Wolf, Susan. Absurdity. Life, meaning of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L044-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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