Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Meaninglessness of Life: Camus vs. Nagel

In "The Absurd," Nagel argues that the sense of the absurd arises from two warring tendencies in us: on one hand, we take our lives, or at least the projects we undertake in our lives, seriously, and we cannot avoid doing so. On the other hand, we are also capable, upon reflecting, of undermining the reasons for any of our projects. Nothing we do can be justified from a point of view radically outside human interests; and yet we are capable of taking up such a perspective in reflection. Thus, absurdity is a condition we are condemned to by virtue of our reflective, yet engaged, nature. Nothing could make our lives less absurd. I want to consider whether Nagel's account here really is—as he says—superior to Camus's in diagnosing absurdity.

Here is Nagel's take on Camus:

Camus maintains in The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning. This suggests that the world might satisfy those demands if it were different. But now we can see that this is not the case. There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise. Consequently, the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.

Here, in turn, is what I take to be the most revealing bit from Camus on the topic:

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.

Nagel's argument seems to be that Camus is wrong to think that meaning in life is possible: Camus seems to suggest that life is absurd only because the world is itself not reasonable (or, better put, arational). I think Camus lends himself to such criticism. He does seem to suggest that the reason life is absurd is that we attempt to give meaning to a world that lacks it. So, for example, there is a difference between finding meaning in Hamlet and finding meaning in a random set of occurrences. The latter is what a paranoiac does. The former, on the other hand, involves—or can involve—finding something that is in fact there. There is meaning in Hamlet, and it is there because it was put there by somebody, perhaps Shakespeare. The paranoiac, on the other hand, is not actually finding meaning; he is, rather, projecting it. The random occurrences do not have meaning in themselves: they only seem to have meaning to the paranoiac because of the meaning with which he invests them. For Camus, our absurdity consists of this, that like the paranoiac we project meaning onto the world, always facing the threat that the world is in itself meaningless.

We can now see why Nagel's criticism of Camus appears to be justified: if God existed and created the world and, further, if God imbued the world with meaning, then our attempts to find meaning would not necessarily be futile. They would not necessarily be mere projections, since they could be acts of actually finding the meaning that God put there. This is the point Nagel criticizes when he notes that, for God to give meaning to our lives, God's purposes would themselves have to be understandable and meaningful to us. That is: we could find (rather than project) meaning in a God-created world only insofar as God's purposes could mean something to us. Thus the arguments we find in countless religious authors—like Anselm or Descartes—to the effect that God's purposes are not our purposes and we cannot expect to fully grasp them undermine the possibility of finding meaning. They merely assure us that there is meaning because God has put it there, but they leave us unable—at least in part—to grasp that meaning. But the assurance, without intellectual dishonesty, should not have the intended effect. For simply telling me that my life has meaning without telling me what that meaning is should not make it meaningful.

Nagel's point is two-fold. First, if there is a God, that fact could only give meaning to my life if I could understand what the meaning is. Second, even if I could understand it, I would need to furthermore see that it is meaningful. And if it is, then it must have some meaning-conferring features. And if we know what these features are, then we should be able to find meaning without God. This could be clearer—the basic idea, I take it, is that if God's existence is to justify my own, or to make it meaningful, then God's existence must be self-justifying and meaningful in itself, and it should be so in such a way that I would be unable to doubts its justification. But nothing can be self-justifying in this way, since we are capable of questioning every justification.

Now we can work out the criticism of Camus: Camus seems to suggest that life is absurd because there is no meaning in the world, and yet we inevitably attempt to find it. Since the meaning isn't there, we cannot find it; thus, all our efforts are mere projections. So if there were a God, and thus there were meaning in the world, then the attempt to find it would not be meaningless. Our lives would not be absurd, because the project of life—to find meaning in the world—would be no more absurd than the project of finding meaning in Hamlet. (It's interesting to note, in this connection, that deconstruction seems to involve making textual interpretation absurd: by rejecting the claim that the text has meaning to be found, and thus separate from whatever meaning the reader imbues it with, deconstruction makes all projects of interpretation absurd.) But Nagel rejects this possibility: if we can't find meaning in our lives, and we can't find it because there is nothing that could make them meaningful without itself requiring an external source of meaning, then God would make them no more meaningful than they are. Camus's account of the absurd, then, seems to fail: it assumes that finding meaning is possible after all.

But is this right? Camus is certainly not careful in his phrasing, I suppose mostly because he is not raising an abstract question about the possibility of meaning, but rather describing our situation as we find it, something perhaps lacking in Nagel. But there are two important bits of Camus's account I want to point to. First, in characterizing the absurd through his literary style, Camus spends a great deal of time on examples of something we thought to be meaningful turning out to be meaningless. Of course this is just his point: all projects that seem to be meaning-finding can be unmasked as meaning-projecting. But his examples are interesting: you may think you know a person, understand what they are about. And yet, one day, you realize that you didn't know them at all. You realize even that you didn't know yourself at all. Humans are rational, at least in some sense. So it should be possible to understand them, the way we can understand Hamlet. But Camus suggests that this is too hasty: we can understand something about people, some of their behavior, but always imperfectly, because at bottom nobody is fully rational, no behavior—and certainly no life filled with sequences of behavior—is fully meaningful. Perhaps the deconstructionist is right in part: Hamlet has some surface meaning, but something in the text underlies this meaning, and if we dig deep enough we will find something that resists interpretation along traditional lines. Thus we must project further meanings to make up the deficit. If nothing turns out to be fully meaningful, then it's unlikely that God could: God would perhaps ensure that the world has some meaning, but ultimately—like Anselm and Descartes—we would have to admit that a grasp of the meaning eventually evades us. We are stuck with faith, and faith is "philosophical suicide": it involves giving up on the project of finding meaning, cutting short the philosophical investigation, and thus abdicating the further imperatives of thought.

Second, we must keep in mind Camus's rejection of hope. On the one hand, he speaks of hope in everyday contexts: in thinking that my life will get better and will thus becoming meaningful, I am making a mistake. If my life isn't meaningful now, nothing else will make it so. Hope is similarly problematic in the wider context: hope for another world, for a God that gives us meaning, isn't going to help. If our lives don't already have meaning, nothing further will give it to them. And if they already have meaning, then hope is superfluous.

These two points bring Camus closer to Nagel. But I want to suggest that Camus's argument does Nagel one better. Nagel, after all, argues that meaninglessness depends on our being able to take an objective, external standpoint—not, perhaps, a fully objective standpoint, but at least one far enough removed from our interests that we can see that those interests are not themselves justified. And he defends his claim that we can take such a standpoint. This, I think, few have denied. The standard objection to Nagel is that he thinks this fact is significant. That is: I can take a standpoint radically removed from not only my interests but any interests I can imagine. And from there it will indeed seem not only that my interests are silly, but that there are no non-silly interests—there are, in other words, no interests I could potentially have that would make my life more meaningful. But what exactly is the legitimacy of this standpoint? Why, taking such a non-human standpoint, should we think that what it discloses tells us something about meaning in a human life? If there is objective value for humans, then pursuing that value seems to be meaningful for humans. That is, it isn't just that it seems to humans that pursuing it is meaningful, but that it should—to anyone who can make sense of what humans are and what is objectively valuable to them—seem meaningful. The standpoint Nagel alludes to doesn't show that there cannot be meaning in human life; it only shows that, whatever meaning there may be, we can always call it into question by taking a standpoint wildly inappropriate to the field of inquiry. Or, to rephrase: the question shouldn't be about whether human lives can be meaningful from any possible perspective; the question should be whether human lives can be meaningful such that even a perspective that does not take what matters to us as mattering should still recognize that it matters to us, and thus makes our lives meaningful.

In other words, we can always view our lives sub specie aeternitatis as Nagel points out, but it is an error to conclude from that perspective that meaning is impossible. Camus's account, however, does not require our taking a super-human perspective as our authority. It is from the human perspective that the absurd arises. It arises when, in our everyday lives, we recognize our meaning-finding as mere meaning-projecting, so that even when we examine our genuine meaning-finding, we discover that it rests—at bottom—on projection. This is why Camus does not spend his time, like Nagel, constructing an argument against finding meaning. He demonstrates, instead, the way meaning-finding projects fail in everyday life, undermining our sense of belonging to the world. So there is a trade-off. Nagel may be right that Camus has not constructed a clear argument showing that the absurd is inevitable. But Camus has described, without recourse to a super-human standpoint, the way our very attempts to seek meaning undermine themselves, so that any attempt at grasping meaning through hope will appear only as a way of eluding the absurd.


  1. I do not think Nagel is saying anything Camus didn't already say. Camus is not saying that there must be a God for life to have meaning: Camus is saying that we must BE God for life to have meaning. It is the impermanence of our lives crossed with the flawed "godliness" of our minds (NOT the biological body, but the consciousness) that creates the Absurd. That is why Camus can start the Myth of Sisyphus with a firm base of "God is Dead," IE: the question of God is not relevant to this argument.

    1. Wrong. Camus openly took on a supernatural framework, similar to Tolstoy himself. Whereby he argued that God is necessary for there to be cosmic purpose and transcendental meaning, but the fact that God DOES NOT exist means that there is no such meaning. This is what gives rise to the absurd, whereby it is human nature to seek such purpose and meaning yet we cannot have it . Subsequently, this is why we should "revolt" against such meaninglessness and we can ONLY revolt in a world where there is no such cosmic purpose. Meaning that if there WAS A GOD then we would not have to revolt for our lives would already have meaning. Therefore, Camus IS IN FACT saying that there must be a God for life to have meaning, it just so happens that there isn't one and this is precisely what brings about "the absurdity of the human condition".

  2. WRONG.
    Did Camu insist in absurdity of the World? No, he didn't he assured as and showed that absurd is something that could be found just in comapring of uncomparables. World by itself coul and have meaning, Human by himself could and have meaning, but when these two concepsts interract, Absurd is appeared.

    1. Hi Unknown. Yelling "WRONG" is always fun, but at whom are you yelling? Certainly not at me, since I said exactly this. Or almost exactly this. Camus does claim that the world is irrational. He also denies (his own earlier claim) that the world is absurd. So, does he hold that the world could have meaning? I don't think that's obvious from this combination of claims.

  3. I am certainly aware of what Nagal trying to impinge on, but honestly his criticism is already something Camus has done to his text in detail. I am not saying that Camus is flawless or infallible but i just think Nagal's argument is sort of blurred and not touching the cornerstone argument that Camus has made, for Camus the revolted man or the absurd hero is the one that defy the meaning and works his best despite the the infinite silence to his attempts to find a meaning, and although Camus argument is done in a world that lack a divine intervention or a ebing as God, yet his last syllable when he says "one must imagine Sysiphus to be happy" that is revolt not just against the world'd silence but also a cheeky answer to God when he is punishing Sysyphus to roll that boulder up then trying from scratch ad infinitum when it goes down