A feeling carries with it more than can be expressed in words. The feeling of absurdity—like the feeling of jealousy or the feeling of generosity—frames the way we look at the world and defines our perspective. A feeling is a worldview and comes prior to words. As such, Camus acknowledges that it is difficult to describe the feeling of absurdity. Instead, he offers a series of sketches to clarify the kinds of experiences that might provoke such a feeling.
We may experience a moment of awakening in the depths of weariness with routine. The impulse to ask why we bother leads us to the feeling of absurdity. Or the feeling may strike us as we become aware of ourselves as drift wood on the river of time: nothing we can do can extract us from time's inevitable progress. Or it may strike us when we see objects in the world divested of the meaning and purpose that we give them. In a moment of absurdity, we see them as naked "things." Or it hits us when we see a person talking animatedly behind a glass so that we hear nothing and his gestures seem a ridiculous pantomime without significance. Or we sense absurdity when we see a dead body and realize that this is our inevitable, cold, senseless end.
These are examples of the feeling of absurdity on the level of experience. Camus notes that we can encounter the absurd on the level of the intellect as well. The mind is driven by a "nostalgia for unity," an ardent desire to make sense of the universe, to reduce it to a unified, comprehensible whole. Camus uses Aristotle to show on a logical level the problems with asserting a single, unified "truth." On the level of science, a theory can describe the world, but it cannot ultimately explain it. The world is made up of such diversity, and there are so many different perspectives we can take on understanding it, that it seems futile that we should ever find one absolute Truth, one correct way of looking at the world and understanding it at once in its entirety. The unifying reason that we hope to apply to the world is not in the world itself: the world is fundamentally irrational.
Camus identifies the absurd in this confrontation between our desire for clarity and our understanding of the world's irrationality. Neither the world nor the human mind is in itself absurd. Rather, absurdity finds itself in the confrontation between the two.
There have always been thinkers who have tried to confront the irrationality of experience rather than deny it, and Camus notes that the past century has produced quite a number of such thinkers. Heidegger speaks of our anguish when confronted with the absurd, but asserts that we find our greatest alertness in this anguish. Jaspers asserts that we cannot know anything that goes beyond immediate experience, and exposes the flaws of philosophical systems that claim otherwise. Chestov examines human irrationality, and is more interested in seeking out the exception than the rule. Kierkegaard essentially lives the absurd, fearlessly diving into all sorts of contradictions. Husserl is interested in the diversity of the world, and encourages full and equal awareness of all phenomena. These thinkers all share the awareness that only the limitations on human knowledge are clear: the rest is incomprehensible.
This chapter rehearses the shortcomings of rationalist philosophy, and defines the philosophies of the irrational that have sprung up in response. Rationalism, as Camus uses it, is the idea that human reason can make sense of the world it inhabits. A rationalist philosopher hopes to construct some sort of system according to which all experience can be explained: he wants to be able to say once and for all how and why things are. The sky is blue for this reason, I exist for that reason, the universe works the way it does for that reason. A rationalist wants the world to make sense, for things to be clear. Rationalism is based on the not unreasonable hope that we can give reasons for why things are the way they are.
Camus rejects rationalism, but he does not seem to provide any philosophical argument against it: he claims several times in this chapter that he is doing nothing more than rehearsing and clarifying ideas that are familiar to all. He does not try to convince us that there is a flaw with rationalism so much as he assumes that we already agree that it is flawed. True, he touches on reasons why we might find rationalism unsatisfying—our failure to unify the diversity of experience, etc.—but these reasons are hardly convincing in themselves. They are not arguments, but rather examples of where a rationalist worldview seems untenable.
James Wood suggests that Camus's essay rests on faith, though faith of a negative kind. Camus is determined to believe that there is no God and that life is meaningless more than he is determined to argue for that meaninglessness. He is not presenting a philosophical system so much as he is diagnosing a certain way of looking at the world. Camus is not trying to argue that "seeing the world as absurd is the right way of seeing the world." Rather he is first of all doubting the idea that there is a "right way" of seeing the world, and second of all suggesting that seeing the world as absurd is often inevitable. The feeling of absurdity is essentially the feeling that strikes us from time to time that, like it or not, the world does not make sense and it is not clear. He is not saying the feeling of absurdity is necessarily "correct" so much as he is saying that it exists. He is less of a philosopher and more of a physician: he is interested in what living with this feeling entails more than he is interested in whether this feeling is correct.
Camus lists a number of thinkers whom he associates with the "irrational," with the rejection of rationalism. Where Camus uses the term "irrational" we might today use the term "existential." "Existentialism" is a tricky term to use correctly, largely because very few philosophers openly associated themselves with it. Still, it shares many of the themes Camus has been discussing, particularly the idea that the world in itself simply exists, and that any meaning or essence that makes sense of the world is applied after the fact by a human mind. Jean-Paul Sartre, a contemporary and sometime friend of Camus's, was the main proponent of existentialism as a movement. Though he borrowed the name from Jaspers's existenz-philosophie and many ideas from Heidegger, neither of these German thinkers considered themselves existentialists. While Kierkegaard or Nietzsche are sometimes called "proto-existentialists," they lived and died in the 19th century, before "existentialism" as a term had currency. Even Camus would later disown himself from this movement, leaving only Sartre as a committed "existentialist."
We should note that Camus, and all the thinkers he refers to, are deeply rooted in the philosophical tradition of the European continent. This tradition is deeply influenced by Hegel and by the earlier rationalist tradition of figures such as Descartes and Leibniz. It places a heavy emphasis on the faculty of reason and our ability to sort out metaphysical truths through the exercise of pure reason.
The English language tradition of philosophy, by contrast, follows much more in the empiricist vein of Locke and Hume. This tradition de-emphasizes the abilities of pure reason, insisting instead that we turn to sense experience for knowledge.
The dilemma Camus faces in discussing the absurd could, in a sense, only exist in the tradition of continental rationalism. The idea that our mind cannot make sense of experience is a far greater emergency to a rationalist thinker than to an empiricist. This is not to dismiss Camus' position so much as it is to place it in its proper context.