The Myth of Sisyphus
An Absurd Reasoning: Philosophical Suicide
Absurdity derives from the comparison or juxtaposition of two incompatible ideas. For instance, we would say "that's absurd" if someone suggested that a perfectly honest and virtuous man secretly lusts for his sister. We would be juxtaposing the two incompatible ideas of the virtuous man on the one hand and the man with the incestuous lust on the other hand. The concept of the absurd as Camus has been discussing it also consists of such juxtaposition. We are faced on one hand with man, who wants to find reason and unity in the universe, and on the other hand with the universe, that provides him with nothing but mute and meaningless phenomena. As such, the absurd does not exist either in man or in the universe, but in the confrontation between the two. We are only faced with the absurd when we take both our need for answers and the world's silence together.
In order to determine what follows from our absurd relationship with the universe we must not reject the absurd. If we try to reconcile the conflict between our need for answers and the world's silence we will be evading the absurd rather than confronting it. Camus characterizes our confrontation with the absurd with an absence of hope, continual rejection, and conscious dissatisfaction. Living with this conflict is neither pleasant nor easy, but trying to overcome the conflict does not answer so much as it negates the problem of the absurd. Camus is interested in whether we can live with the feeling of absurdity, not whether we can overcome it.
Camus remarks that existential philosophers generally try to evade this confrontation with the absurd. Jaspers claims to find transcendence, by means of a totally illogical leap, just at the point where reason breaks down. Chestov asserts that the absurd is God, suggesting that we need God only to help us deal with the impossible and incomprehensible. Kierkegaard is famous for making the "leap of faith" into God, where he identifies the irrational with faith and with God. Husserl is a more complicated case, as his phenomenology, which deals only with direct experience, seems to embrace the absurd, but he then tries to associate some sort of transcendental essences with the simple phenomena that he discusses.
Camus is clear that he does not intend to discuss the thought of these philosophers as a whole, but simply their encounter with the absurd. Each one of them tries somehow to resolve the conflict between human reason and an irrational universe in one way or another. Jaspers, Chestov, and Kierkegaard, all in their own way, deny human reason and fully embrace an irrational universe, associating that with God. Husserl tries to deny the irrationality of the universe by finding reason in the phenomena of direct experience. As Camus has already noted, the absurd can only exist in the conflict between human reason and an irrational universe, and all four thinkers try to diffuse this conflict by negating one of the terms of the conflict.
Existential philosophers try to find some sort of transcendence in the absurd itself. Camus insists that the logic of the absurd demands that there be no reconciliation or transcendence. These philosophers try to wriggle away from the logic posed to them by the absurd, and, as such, they commit "philosophical suicide."
Camus is not a philosopher and he is not interested in engaging the aforementioned thinkers in an intellectual debate. As in the previous chapter, where he rejected rationalism, Camus is not trying to refute these thinkers. He does not give us arguments as to why their thinking is askew, but simply gives us reasons as to why he finds their thinking unsatisfying.
Camus reduces the problem that interests him to two basic facts: first, that man expects and hopes to find some sort of meaning in the world, and second, that whatever meaning the world may have is concealed from man. It is important to note that Camus does not deny that God exists or that there is some inherent meaning or purpose behind everything. He simply claims that he has no way of knowing whether or not there is a God or meaning or purpose. His aim in The Myth of Sisyphus is to determine whether or not it is possible to live simply with what he knows. That is, can he live with those two basic facts, or does he need either to hope for something more (a God or meaning or purpose) or to commit suicide?
The absurd is the relationship that links these two basic facts. It is absurd that I should expect the universe to have a meaning when the universe itself is so resolutely silent. Because the absurd is the relationship that links the only two basic facts we can know for certain, Camus asserts that the absurd is our fundamental relationship with the world. The absurd is a fundamental truth and Camus takes it as his duty to follow out its logic.
The absurd is also essentially a conflict. We demand meaning but the universe gives us none. The dissatisfaction we feel with our lot in life is fundamental to the absurd, and any attempt to resolve this dissatisfaction is an attempt to escape from absurdity.
Camus's complaint against the four thinkers discussed in this chapter is that, each in his own way attempts to escape from absurdity. To do this, each thinker must reject one of the two basic facts that Camus has taken as his starting point. Jaspers, Chestov, and Kierkegaard reject the need for reason and purpose in the world. They embrace the idea that the world is irrational, and find God in this idea. Husserl rejects the idea that we cannot find meaning in the world, claiming to find essences behind its mute phenomena.
Camus is not a philosopher, and he is not accusing these thinkers of reasoning wrongly. He is simply accusing them of not finding content in what they can know. All four go beyond the basic, undeniable facts of experience to assert that there is something more, something transcendent, something that resolves the dissatisfaction caused by their confrontation with the absurd. They are not mistaken in doing so, but they are avoiding the question that seems to Camus to be fundamental: do we need to assert that there is something more in order to live? Camus's problem is a hypothetical one: if there is nothing more than rational humans in an irrational universe, can we live with the absurdity of that situation?
The route Camus takes here is committed to shunning philosophy. He purports to be interested only in whether a certain proposition is livable, not whether it is true. If he were to try to assert his own metaphysical position, if he were to try to claim that such-and-such is the case, he would then be burdened with the responsibility of proving the superiority of his metaphysical position over those of other philosophers.
All this is relevant because Camus comes dangerously close to metaphysics when he asserts that the absurd is our fundamental relationship with the world and that our need for reasons and the silence of the universe are the two basic facts of human existence. Camus might defend himself by saying that these assertions do not come from any positive knowledge about the nature of the world, but are rather all that is left over when he denies himself any positive knowledge. The absurd is our fundamental relationship with the world because it does not rely on claims to know anything about the world beyond what is given to us.
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