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Nagel and The Absurd

“Most people feel on occasion that life is absurd, and some feel it vividly and continually. Yet the reasons usually offered in defense of this conviction are patently inadequate: they could not really explain why life is absurd. Why then do they provide a natural expression for the sense that it is?” — Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel has a very novel and profound take on what Camus and others have called the absurd. In philosophical circles, the absurd is usually a reference to the failed attempt by humans to find a cosmic meaning to life. Life becomes absurd when we come to the realization that our lives have no supra-human significance. According to Nagel, many people often falsely diagnose the origin of our sense of life’s absurdity. The absurd does not result from the fact that we are very small creatures in a vast and potentially endless universe. Neither does it result from the fact that our lives, on a cosmological or geological timescale, are utterly short. If we were larger or the universe smaller, how would that make life any less absurd? Or, if the duration of our lives was longer, in what way would that help decrease the absurdity of our lives? An immortal would arguably have the most absurd life of all.

For Nagel, the absurd—along with most traditional philosophical problems—results from the fact that we are creatures that have the ability to transcend ourselves in thought. While bound to a particular subjective perspective, we also have the ability to view the world and ourselves from an outsider’s perspective. That is to say, we are subjects capable of objective thought.

More specifically, according to Nagel, the absurd results from the fact that we take ourselves, our activities, and our endeavors very seriously while at the same time having the ability to look at ourselves, our activities, and our endeavors  from an impersonal, objective, abstract perspective: a perspective in which our personal lives and all that is contained within them appear embarrassingly arbitrary, utterly contingent, and open to doubt.

Nagel thinks that we take ourselves seriously whether we lead serious lives or not. Whether we’re concerned with fame, pleasure, virtues, triumph, beauty, justice, knowledge, salvation, or mere survival, we take ourselves and others seriously. “We cannot live human lives without energy and attention, nor without making choices which show that we take some things more seriously than others…Human life is full of effort, plans, calculation, success and failure.” Yet we continually have a sort of double vision—the subjective and the objective view—both of which are inescapable. “We always have available a point of view outside the particular form of our lives, from which the seriousness appears gratuitous. These two inescapable viewpoints collide in us, and that is what makes life absurd. It is absurd because we ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.”

Think of all the little activities we do and worry about. Think of how we sweat over our appearance, our sex lives, our social utility, our relationships with friends and family, our vocational and educational goals, and so on. As Nagel states, “Leading a human life is a full-time occupation, to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.” It is from this seriousness that absurdity results. Nagel is not making the rather modest and obvious claim that there is a sense in which some of our cultural practices are silly, comical, contingent, and arbitrary. Rather, he is making the more radical claim that purports to say that there is a sense–or a perspective we can look from–in which all of our practices, actions, and endeavors appear silly, comical, contingent, and arbitrary.

Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand…We step back to find that the whole system of justification and criticism, which controls our choices and supports our claims to rationality, rests on responses and habits that we never question, that we should not know how to defend without circularity, and to which we shall continue to adhere even after they are called in to question…We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded.

Nagel goes on to make an enlightening comparison between the problem of the absurd and the problem of epistemological skepticism. Skepticism can quite easily—through a very simple reasoning process—lead us to question and doubt our most fundamental beliefs. Yet at the end of the day, such strong arguments are not able to sway us away from those beliefs. We may abandon them for a moment, a minute, an hour, but nature eventually takes over and our beliefs return to us unchanged. I was delighted to find that Nagel quotes Hume (one of my all-time favorite philsophical quotes) when he famously concluded:

“Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds [the clouds of skepticism], nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I wou’d return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strain’d, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.”

In other words, our natural faculties do not allow us to permanently buy into skepticism. The moment we stop thinking about skeptical issues and the reasons for why we should adopt skepticism is the moment we become unconvinced by them and is the moment our ordinary beliefs come flooding back. But while such beliefs come back unchanged, we have a new awareness now that allows us to look at them differently. We now hold our beliefs with irony: we hold our beliefs with the awareness that such beliefs are contingently held. We have no unshakeable justificatory foundation on which such beliefs rest. We now accept the fact that our beliefs could all be entirely false, that we could never prove that they aren’t, and that most, perhaps all, of our beliefs are sustained by non-rational elements that are beyond scrutiny. And yet we believe. That is epistemological irony.

The same is true in the case of the seriousness in which we take our lives. After having viewed our lives from the external lens in which all our endeavors appear silly, contingent, and meaningless, we are forced back into our own shoes, back into our own lives, and once again the seriousness returns. The moment we return to our ordinary lives is the moment we stop buying into the way our lives appear from the external view. But again, we return to our lives with a new awareness. As with our beliefs, we now live life with irony. For the external view never leaves us. While we get wrapped up in the busyness of our lives and forget or ignore the external view for a time, it creeps up upon us unexpectedly: not just in moments of solitude but in moments of social chaos. We find ourselves sitting and looking at all the people moving here and there, partaking in human life, taking their lives with utmost seriousness. And there comes a moment where we can do nothing but view such endeavors as silly, as ridiculous, as absurd.

For Nagel, the response to the absurd need not be one of despair, as some suggest. And we need not, as Camus suggests, live our lives in defiance against a universe that doesn’t care for us. “Such dramatics,” Nagel proclaims, “even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis [i.e. from the cosmic or objective perspective] there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

Or as I like to say, we can approach our lives with laughter.

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  1. Ben
    06/21/2009 at 11:51 am

    There are many who don't like to include Camus in existentialism, and instead label him as absurdism He does seem to have a contrasting opinion to the others in the school of thought. The others do not see themselves as defiantly as Camus does. It's like he noticed the same gap, but he stayed there and tried to deal with it from afar, whereas the others lept right in and therefore understood it better. It's when you really engage and participate in the absurd that you can view the irony that Nagel is talking about. And he's right about where the absurd comes from too. The self relating to itself, as Kierkegaard likes to say with much more words and confusion. ;)I believe irony is one of the most important things in our lives. :)Good post.

  2. 06/21/2009 at 8:09 pm

    I agree with Ben. Camus didn't call himself an existentialist, perhaps for good reason. The cosmic meaningless of life really touched Camus' soul; it's almost as if he found it extremely hard to live with the reality of the absurd, as if life in and of itself is utterly pointless. This is probably why Camus thought the biggest philosophical problem was answering the question, "Why not commit suicide?" I don't see the other existentialists as morbid as Camus. Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Sartre all seemed to develop a life-affirming philosophy in the wake of the absurd, particularly Nietzsche. Granted Nietzsche did overly dramatize the death of God and the ensuing consequences, he still thought life was a perpetual experience to love and enjoy and didn't get caught in existential despair like Camus.I like Nagel's point on the derivation of the absurd. I never thought of it as deriving from two, somewhat opposed, perspectives. However, I'm not sure why the objective perspective has to automatically view life as cosmical meaningless. What's the reason for that? It would seem the reason results from one's convictions about a deity and its characteristics. I would say the majority of people don't see their lives as objectively meaningless. I was thinking about skepticism earlier today. Skepticism, to me, seems to turn itself on itself: one begins to be skeptical of one's skepticism. At the end of the day, like you say, we simply believe despite our inability to really "prove" why we hold such beliefs and the likelihood that such beliefs rest on non-rational elements beyond rationality's hammer. This proves to be an interesting dilemma. It somewhat defeats the purpose of arguing in terms of "rationality" and justification, particularly with regards to religious beliefs. Why even bother debating if subjective justification cannot be touched? What's to say one perspective/belief is better than another? Great post. I really enjoyed it!

  3. 06/21/2009 at 10:44 pm

    I must confess….it was I who left that comment. Couldn't you tell?Sorry bout that. 🙂

  4. 06/22/2009 at 9:42 am

    Well, I didn't really think about it. Why would you be using Ben's account? lol.

  5. 06/22/2009 at 9:45 am

    Because he was signed in on my computer and I didn't remember to log out and log in as me. 🙂

  6. 06/22/2009 at 12:16 pm

    Oh, okay. I forgive thee 🙂

  7. 06/22/2009 at 1:50 pm

    I suspected as much. Ben would never reference Kierkegaard. And I'm fairly certain that he would never say "good post." 😉

  8. 06/23/2009 at 2:07 am

    Whoa, my response had some mad large font. Let's try this.It's
    weird because I love Nagel's response to the absurd and I adopt that position
    myself much of the time. Yet, I still find myself sympathizing with Camus'
    response as well. It probably depends on my mood. My philosophical views always
    do. 😉

    However, I'm not sure why the objective perspective has to automatically
    view life as cosmical meaningless. What's the reason for that? It would seem
    the reason results from one's convictions about a deity and its
    characteristics. I would say the majority of people don't see their lives as
    objectively meaningless.

    There are two questions I see you asking. Nagel indirectly responds to one
    while the second one he directly addresses. The first question is: do most
    people actually feel the absurd? That is, do people actually, on occasion at
    least, view themselves from the external perspective? This is a matter of fact
    question that I don't really know the answer to. Nagel thinks that most people
    do (although to differing degrees) because that is the nature of self-consciousness.
    In any event, he thinks that we all potentially do. "[The problem of the
    absurd] would be different if we could not step back and reflect on the
    process, but were merely led from impulse to impulse without
    self-consciousness. But human beings do not act solely on impulse. They are
    prudent, they reflect, they weight consequences, they ask whether what they are
    doing is worth while." If people don’t face this problem, that is only
    because they stop asking questions: they find meaning within a certain set of
    practices and don’t question those practices themselves.

    The second question I see you asking is: don't people find cosmic meaning
    within what Nagel calls "broader ultimate concerns?" Don't people
    find cosmic meaning by partaking in activities bigger then themselves such as
    partaking in religion, the state, political and social revolutions, the
    progress of human history, science, etc? Nagel directly addresses this
    objection and I would have included it in my post if it was not already getting
    too long. Let me summarize what he says using his own words:

    “But
    a role in some larger enterprise [religion, etc] cannot confer significance
    unless that enterprise is itself significant. And its significance must come
    back to what we can understand, or it will not even appear to give us what we
    are seeking…Any larger purpose can be put in doubt in the same way that the
    aims of an individual life can be, and for the same reasons…If we can step back
    from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back
    also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a
    society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into
    question in the same way. What seems to us to confer meaning, justification,
    significance, does so in virtue of the fact that we need to more reasons after
    a certain point”

    He
    goes on to state:

    “Camus
    maintains in The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd arises because the
    world fails to meet our demands for meaning. This suggests that the world might
    satisfy those demands if it were different. But now we can see that this is not
    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.”

    Essentially
    he is saying that the absurd is logically necessary given our particular human
    makeup. Camus’ notion of the absurd relies on believing that atheism is true.
    Nagel’s notion of the absurd is not contingent on any such theological view.
    For him, the absurd results from the very fact that we are the sort of
    creatures who can always transcend ourselves, our goals, our purposes whether
    they be individually oriented or a part of something larger. As he says, the
    absurd arises from a collision from within and not a collision between
    ourselves and the way the world is or could be. God may exist. He may have
    created us with a certain purpose in mind. Yet, we can always question that
    purpose. We can always step back further and further and further. Even if
    created, we will always remain in the dark concerning the significance of our
    lives. As I already quoted, “What seems to us to confer meaning, justification,
    significance, does so in virtue of the fact that we need no more reasons after
    a certain point.” In other words, there comes a point where we stop questioning
    and become content with certain answers (in order to avoid that infinite
    regress). For instance, there comes a point when we accept that the purpose of
    life is to “glorify God, and to
    enjoy him forever.” That’s how people attempt to
    avoid the absurd. But there’s no reason why the stepping-back process would
    ever have to stop. We can always question, for instance, what the purpose of
    God is or, perhaps, how glorifying God (whatever that may mean?) would actually
    give us meaningful lives.

  9. 06/23/2009 at 7:50 am

    If people don’t face this problem, that is only
    because they stop asking questions: they find meaning within a certain set of
    practices and don’t question those practices themselves.Exactly. I don't think a lot of people face this problem because they adopt a set of practices and cease to question them. Moreover, while they may view their lives and choices from an external (it's hard for me to use "external" here because the view isn't really apart from the individual's perspective) perspective, depending on what they believe, that external perspective doesn't necessarily see what the individual is doing as arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. It's almost as if this convinction is a function of one's theological views. I don't see how this wouldn't be the case.If one believes in God, then he most likely has a purpose for you. You may question this purpose, but you are always content with knowing that God is in control. He has a meaning from you. You may question said meaning and numerous other things from an external perspective, but the perspective still assumes that you have ultimate meaning. Doubting one's point is prevented by one's faith. If one doesn't believe in God, then one sees life as ultimately meaningless. What you expected as reality is no longer the case. From this point on, I think Nagel's perspective is valid. Because while we can look at ourselves from an external perspective and question what we are doing with our lives, the collision of these two perspectives doesn't necessarily bring about the absurd if one believes in God, for the external perspective for the believer still assumes that God has an ultimate meaning for one's life. I agree with what Nagel is saying. But I guess I don't see why Nagel's external perspective automatically assumes that life is meaningless.By the way, what works are you getting these quotes from? I need to read some Nagel.

  10. 06/23/2009 at 12:47 pm

    All the quotes were taken from his article entitled, surprisingly, "The Absurd." At the moment I'm reading his booked "Mortal Questions" which consists of a series of his most famous articles, including that one.

  11. 06/23/2009 at 6:08 pm

    Sweet. I'll probably get that book!

  12. 06/24/2009 at 12:27 am

    It's pretty phenomenal. It has his article on death, the absurd, his famous essay on moral luck, an essay on sexual perversion, and much more, including what is probably his famous philosophical piece, "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?"

  13. 06/24/2009 at 12:41 am

    I agree with what Nagel is saying. But I guess I don't see why Nagel's external perspective automatically assumes that life is meaningless.It doesn't assume that life is meaningless. He just means that we can always question the practices and goals of any person or any organization or higher power. We can always step back from anything and question its purpose. Just because religious people don't step back and question their religion or God just means that they are content with not pushing the questioning process further. According to Nagel, the absurd is still present whether people realize it or not, whether they are theists or not. It is still present in the sense that they are always capable of adopting the external view, always capable of stepping back, always capable of questioning. If they don't, then yeah, perhaps they don't feel the absurd to the extent that some others do.

  14. 06/24/2009 at 6:52 am

    I see. So, the Absurd has nothing to do with meaning and the ultimate significance of one's life? It's simply the presence of one's ability to look from an outside perspective and questioning what he or she is doing? Yeah, I'm definitely getting that book. "What Is It Like To Be A Bat?" – What an odd title for an essay.

  15. 06/24/2009 at 2:19 pm

    The absurd does have to do with the meaning and significance of our lives and arises from the fact that we can take that outside perspective of ourselves. We take the outside perspective, put the meaning and significance of everything we do in question, and yet continue on living our lives with the utmost seriousness. That's where he thinks the absurd arises from. And he thinks it applies to those who dedicate themselves to something beyond themselves as well as those who don't. He thinks the absurd is fundamentally a phenomenon that arises from within…a collision between two parts of ourselves and thus can be felt by anyone capable of taking that outside, transcendental view of themselves (which would include most adult humans). And yeah, it was a groundbreaking article in the philosophy of mind.

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