Friday, August 7, 2009

What is the absurd?

What is the absurd?

When we talk about the absurd in common speech, we get pretty close to what the absurd philosophy is all about. Really, the absurd is born of a comparison.

If a man walks up to you and says he is going to lift his car above his head with his own hands, you would say that is absurd. Why? Because you recognize the futility of his effort. You see the conflict between his means and his reality. He can’t, no matter what, raise that car above his head.

The absurd, then, springs from a comparison between what people are trying to do and what the reality of their existence is. There are absurd wars and absurd politics… there are absurd marriages, absurd jobs, absurd universities, etc. Anywhere the goal (say, for the war on drugs) seems impossible given the reality (there will always be some group of people doing drugs no matter what), we say that is absurd.

The philosophical absurd view of life begins with the idea that life has no meaning (at least, not one that is possible for us to know). Therefore, the absurd sees man’s quest or longing for meaning as futile. Any attempt to create meaning then puts you in conflict with the way the world is. Or, put another way, the absurd is the gap between “the mind that desires and the world that disappoints,” in Camus wonderful phrase.

The great metaphor is still Sisyphus. He rolls his rock up a hill, only to have it roll back down the hill where he has to start over again. He never will get the rock up the hill. It will always roll back. But Sisyphus continues anyway. He accepts his fate. Sisyphus is the absurd hero.

Imagine Sisyphus as happy and there you have the absurd man.

The absurd philosophy, then, is about how to live in an absurd world – a world that has no meaning, and where all of our efforts are ultimately futile. There are some logical deductions one can make from that premise. And we’ve tried to examine a few in past posts, such as we do here.

We aim to explore more of these ideas on our blog.


  1. What is futile about an intentional act of kindness and caring towards a loved one or towards a stranger?

  2. At risk of being an incorrigible pest, here is the trouble I have with the Sisyphus analogy: rolling a rock up a hill cannot really be counted as a learning experience.

    The Sisyphus image, at least for Jack, is that of a man forced to repeat the same dreary pattern over and over again while never making any real progress. Indeed, an utter lack of progress -- a neverending futility -- is sort of the beating heart of the Sisyphus story.

    And so comparing Sisyphus' predicament to life itself seems to short change life, because life is full of wonderful learning experiences.

    In some ways Jack is like Sisyphus in that he has to cover much of the same old ground, day after day ad infinitum. Brush the teeth. Shave the face. Buy the milk, pay the taxes -- and so it goes.

    But in other ways Jack's life is not like Sisyphus at all -- especially in the realm of learning and accumulated experience.

    Consider a man like Freeman Dyson -- the brilliant scientist who has spent his entire life learning and tinkering... who is so chock full of the joy of discovery that he still takes caffeine pills, even in his old age, just to have the energy to keep finding out new and interesting things about the world. Would Dyson call his life Sisyphean? I doubt it... I imagine he would liken himself more to a happy-go-lucky five year old boy, with an infinite series of rocks in the woods to turn over.

    And so, too, with Jack (yours truly). If the plight of Sisyphus is marked by a distinct lack of progress, then Jack's path of discovery in various areas of pursuits (markets, philosophy, women, life in general etc.) is marked by a remarkable and well-nigh unstoppable flood of progress!

    I guess what I'm saying is, for the individual who views life as an opportunity for wondrous discovery, the whole experience from start to finish can start to resemble a forty-five degree angle, in which more knowledge, more experience, more "joy of finding things out" (to borrow a Feynman phrase) can be added to the pile each and every day.

    This is the sort of thing that gets Jack animated and excited just thinking about it. More discovery! More adventure! More progress in the quest for personal treasure, of the kind that can't be stolen, stored up in the heart and head!

    The idea of rolling a rock, in contrast -- if it be equated to an existence where no progress in the form of knowledge discovery can be made -- seems to Jack an impossibly heavy burden. A man who can claim happiness while having no opportunity to grow, to discover more of the world or at least of himself, strikes Jack as a man gone mad.

    And so then we come back round to the semantic debate of "meaning" again... to Jack life is chock-a-block with meaning because that meaning is wholly self-created. What's more to Jack life is chock-a-block with progress, in terms of the joys of personal discovery and knowledge accumulation, with the inevitable fact that the temple will be destroyed one day mattering not a whit (as the dead have no regrets).

    Anyhow -- you say tomato, Jack says tomahto... what a wonderful opportunity for clarification and food for thought this blog has been.

    p.s. Re anonymous' comment, "What is futile about an intentional act of kindness and caring towards a loved one or towards a stranger?"

    Nothing at all is futile about it, mate, if such an act adds lasting meaning and value to one's personal existence for the duration of time in which one's existence remains a going concern.

    Opinions may vary widely, of course, and Jack's inchoate ideas are not necessarily endorsed by others...

  3. Anonymous,

    What is futile about it? Well… everything. Remember, the absurd man is aware of the meaningless nature of his existence. This doesn’t mean he can’t or doesn’t perform acts of kindness toward strangers. He surely can. He simply does so with the knowledge that it is no more or less important than, say, mowing the grass or reading a book.

  4. Sparrow,

    We would agree that the metaphor of Sisyphus does not cover the full experience of life. As you know, there are many metaphors for life and all of them fall short in various ways when put up against the real thing. They all intend, though, to make a certain point about life in a simple way.

    So, we still like the metaphor of Sisyphus because it captures the absurd nature of existence and man’s struggles. And remember Sisyphus as happy. Otherwise, the metaphor doesn’t work as an illustration of the absurd.

    You say pushing the rock is drudgery, but that is your value judgment and sort of misses the point of the metaphor. The point is to find happiness in whatever moment, even those of drudgery, through your awareness of the greater indifference and absurdity of the universe. Sisyphus is inspiring, because even in his trying circumstances, he is happy. The true absurd man could find happiness in a cell, if he had to.

    You mention Freeman Dyson, one of our favorites scientists. While he may not think of his life as Sisyphean, it is nonetheless. No matter how much fun Dyson has, (and Sisyphus, too, is happy in his struggle) Dyson knows he cannot cheat the nature of his existence, which will end with his death. The fact that he drinks all that coffee to stay awake seems proof of that.

  5. Jack makes a good point but Sisyphus is a strong analogy because no matter how much progress we make, how much we know, how kind we are, or how much we love - we still never make progress in the only area that counts to overcome the absurd: understanding a meaning to existence.

    There is absolutely no learning taking place here, just like in Sisyphus' case. We could all know quantum physics but we wouldn't be any better off. Even if we discovered with 100% certainty that a god created us and discovered its characteristics we still couldn't overcome the absurd. We still wouldn't know why there is something (including this god) instead of nothing, thus, absurdity would still be an issue.

  6. I would say you are all talking about finding an authentic life project. For some that will be rolling a rock up a hill; for others it will be doing a good deed; and for others still, it will be taking delight in the absurd (in spite of the absurd). If life is absurd, as I think it is, then have fun with it!