Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thomas Nagel on the Absurd

“The standard arguments for absurdity appear to fail as arguments. Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state, but fundamentally correct.”
- Thomas Nagel, "The Absurd"

What makes our lives absurd?

To paraphrase philosopher Thomas Nagel, it is to be full of doubts we can never answer but also full of purposes we cannot abandon. It’s the awareness of this clash that makes our lives absurd.

As Nagel writes, “the main condition of absurdity” is the “the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanant, limited enterprise like a human life.”

But… is the absurd a problem to overcome?

We’ve long argued on this blog that it isn’t. We accept it. We embrace it. It is what it is.

Nagel, too, argues that the absurd is not a problem that demands a solution. It is not something that warrants distress or defiance. “I would argue,” Nagel writes, “that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insight – the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.”

He goes on to say:

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation (even though the situation is not absurd until the perception arises), then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? Like the capacity for epistemological skepticism, it results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a master for agony unless we make it so. Nor need it evoke a defiant contempt of fate that allows us to feel brave or proud. Such dramatics, even if carried on in private, betray a failure to appreciate the cosmic unimportance of the situation. If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe anything matters, then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

Nagel’s essay is a must-read. Print it out. Read it slowly. Give it some thought. It builds a strong foundation for the absurd.

You can find the essay here:


A reader of the blog sent us Nagel's essay and link, for which we are grateful. (Don't hesitate to send us stuff!)


  1. This is a truly fantastic, insightful essay and tackles some core issues that anybody into absurdism should be thinking about (and any reflective, self-observant human for that matter!). I find myself very frustrated at constantly having the absurd thrust upon my mind, and all my built up built in thoughts and habits lacking any ultimate reason or sense. This has helped add to my perception and hope others can take from it. Very delicately thought out indeed.
    If anybody knows of any sources of similar trains of thought i'd love to know, as i feel almost stuck in the absurd 24/7! Thanks a lot Mr Camus you wretched being! (i love him really!)

    PS i'd love to hear a good existentialist's thoughts on Baruch Spinoza. Whilst not exactly into absurdism, i feel there is a lot in his thoughts on free will that could be interestingly linked to this topic.

  2. I too am a fan of Spinoza. I will be visiting Amsterdam shortly and maybe visiting his house

  3. Wonderful essay. Really cuts to the heart of it.

    Wondering what you guys think about Nagel's view on Camus' answer to the absurd? Never thought of Camus as a little drama queen..

    And (echoing Mahood) any other material like this is highly appreciated.. one can only go for so long before the need for sanity becomes acute.

    Thank you.