The word ‘absurd’ has always held a special place in my heart. ‘Absurd’ evokes the ridiculousness of everything around us—the serendipity of our mutual existence at this place and time, the immeasurable complexity of the cells and proteins that make up our bodies, the unfathomable size of our galaxy.
The moments I’m in touch with this absurdity have always been the moments I felt most alive. I’d find myself in awe that anything exists at all, and that the things which do exist happen to form this particular conscious experience of ‘me’ and ‘the world’. Absurdity makes me feel as expansive as the universe, as untethered as the air outside my window.
So you can imagine my excitement upon hearing in college that there was a whole philosophy centered on this word: Albert Camus’s absurdism. I was immediately enamored with this philosophy and the imagery it evoked. I wanted to learn more about Camus, to read classics like The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus.
It took me several years to realize that Camus’s impression of the word ‘absurd’ and my own couldn’t be further apart. There are many reasons for this delay in my understanding: my own sluggishness with actually getting around to reading his work; my personal attachment to the notion of absurdity I’d held; the general opaqueness with which Camus and associated philosophers tend to communicate their ideas.
When I finally did read The Stranger a few years ago, I didn’t take much away from it—perhaps some confusion and frustration at the protagonist’s total indifference to everything around him, but certainly not philosophical clarity. I carried on confused about what absurdism actually meant, while maintaining my own romanticized picture of it, until things finally clicked in this sentence from a review of The Stranger:
In essence, absurdity [in Camus’s terms] refers to humanity’s futile attempt to impose meaning and rationality on a meaningless and irrational universe.
I’m always unsure what to think about philosophical movements whose foundational assumptions strike me as incorrect. I try to be charitable and see the utility in them, to find what I may be missing in my own worldview. But so far all I can see in absurdism is a comically misguided view of the world.
My critique is simple: what exactly should lead us to believe that the universe is “intrinsically meaningless and irrational”? What makes us so confident in this assertion that it forms the starting point for an entire school of thought?
I don’t think we speak enough about how complicated it is psychologically that we spend our entire lives attempting to find and make meaning in an intrinsically meaningless existence.— Dr. Emily Anhalt (@dremilyanhalt) January 19, 2021
It’s a necessary but conflicting pursuit that we’re all in together 🌌
To me, the claim that the universe (or existence) is ‘intrinsically meaningless and irrational’ is as much of an unjustified leap as the claim that it is ‘intrinsically meaningful and rational’. Both of these are ambitious metaphysical claims that warrant inquiry and skepticism.
I can understand what might lead someone to believe that the universe is meaningless. It’s mostly cold and dark. The gears of nature turn with no regard for the whims and desires of humans. There’s constant death and suffering.
But I can also understand how someone would believe that the universe is unimaginably meaningful. Literally everything that anyone has ever considered meaningful has been inside this universe. The fabric of reality has enough structure and stability to enable the development of DNA and complex life. Not just preposterously beautiful lifeforms like trees and starfish, but lifeforms that develop an awareness of their own existence, like us. This universe contains embodied agents that create stories about reality: both fictional narratives that capture truths about the human condition, and scientific explanations that capture the structure of the world.
This universe enables the existence of friendship and love, of problem-solving and computation, of painting and music. It enables dance. I see no “intrinsic meaninglessness” here.
Nihilism: getting depressed by the freedom to draw what you like because the paper is blank— Gorm 🧩 (@metaphorician) May 13, 2021
And as much as some things seem irrational, let’s not forget that this universe enables rational thought in the first place—or at the very least, an approximation to it. The universe has to allow for some rationality (one might even say it must have “intrinsic rationality”) in order for anyone to be able to ponder and point out the existence of irrationality.
This is where I think absurdism, and existentialism and several other philosophies, mistake psychological problems for philosophical insights. Finding meaning and overcoming feelings of meaninglessness are very real problems. But they are symptoms of loneliness and depression, of disconnection from a loving network of friends and community. They are a distorted view of existence rather than a clarified view of it.
So I’m going to hold on to my own notion of the absurd—as a source of unfathomable beauty and wonder—and reject Camus’s absurdism. Camus and I do agree on one point: we can and must create our own meanings. But unlike Camus, I don’t think this endeavor a form of resistance against some deeper, truer meaninglessness. If there is some deeper truth, it’s that there is an overwhelming and infinite web of meaning all around us; our only difficulty is in choosing which small part of it to grapple with.