Aburdity and the absurd. To think too long on the subject is perhaps itself absurd yet that is precisely what I have been doing recently. After several conversations and a recent Philosophical Society of GVSU meeting I have come to the realisation that there is a dangerous and pervasive misunderstanding regarding the absurd. And that in itself is, shall we say, absurd.
There seems to be a fundamental, yet easily made, mistake when it comes to thinking of the absurd and the implications of absurdity. Your average undergraduate or perhaps intelligent high-school student often has something of the following experience. Their life up till that point is by and large cogent, for the moment it is rational. They haven’t yet taken a logic or introductory class in philosophy so their minds haven’t taken a leap. That is, they take many aspects of their life seriously and certain aspects are down-right non-negotiable. They have set goals and values, even if they do not know discursively what they are. Then one day all hell breaks loose: something absurd happens and they pause and think about it. This is, perhaps, the turning point in any philosopher’s career as a philosopher (the moment that begins a long journey). If the person is lucky they grow a philosophical locale in their cerebral cortex and attempt from then on out to live with as consistent as possible beliefs. If they are unlucky they despair. Perhaps our unfortunate subject is in the process of giving the homecoming address and their pants fall down (should have gone with the belt after all). What absurdity! This is a serious event, momentous even, and this happens. One just cannot make sense of it. Conclusion: there is no meaning in the universe, the event is not meaningful, and if that is true then life itself is without meaning.
Exactly how this conclusion is drawn is unclear, yet a pervasive number of young (and not so young) adults seem to be doing just that. Perhaps it comes from a sense that the situation itself is just, simply, absurd (certainly that is the case, no one wants to see you without your pants on). Yet, what distinguishes that situation or experience from others? If one thinks hard enough we see that every situation or experience is in some way absurd. Does it then follow that there is no meaning there? And if so, does it follow that my life is therefore meaningless (unless, of course, I decide to give meaning to it; in which case it is not genuine meaning but rather contrived). On the latter statement concerning meaningfulness one could argue that, if all meaning is in fact contrived it would be a mischaricature to say that it is somehow not genuine. What more could we ask for? There isn’t something above and beyond it so why worry? I’ll admit that this line of reasoning is extremely tempting at times and, given the current currents of thought for many, utterly convincing. (The nominalists have done their work well!) Nevertheless! the contrivance of meaning only holds, in this instance, if absurdity does indeed imply meaninglessness. If it does not then we can lay it aside as so much wishful (?) thinking, or simply the outcome of a long history of nominalistically influenced philosophy (eg. Hume).
So, what should we actually say? What is actually absurd? It would seem that people are mistaking epistemic implications for ontological implications: things in themselves are not absurd but rather our sense of them can be. When we say that something is absurd, strictly speaking, we mean that we have a sense of it being absurd. The absurdity is in our minds, it is artificial; absurdity is not a fact or tangible criterion to be found “in nature”. Rather, given that we as human beings can take the world sub specie aeternitatis (under the pretense of eternity), that is, through a gaze outside ourselves, we are able in virtue of being what we are to sense absurdity. We can question anything, even that which is serious, momentous, important, without which we might have a mental breakdown, etc. Even the most religiously grounded monastic can doubt the existence of God. St. Teresa of Avila records the dark night of the soul, as well as St. John of the Cross. Christ feels the weight of the world on the cross and cries out “why hast thou forsaken me?”. Absurdity lays at even the root and foundation of the Christian religion; Christianity is soaked to the core with the absurd! Yet, this is not troublesome.
Why? Why is absurdity not troublesome? Not only that, but even more remarkably we find that absurdity is a good aspect of our lives; absurdity is a sine qua non, without it we would be missing a vital aspect of what it means to be who and what we are. We are, fundamentally, beings capable of feeling the absurd. To be a rational animal is to be that which senses absurdity. There is no other way around it. Without absurdity we, quite literally, would not exist. How so? Not because absurdity is a part of the natural order, something quantifiable or visible or tangible or measurable or ontologically attached to the external world. Absurdity is the fundamental marker of the human mind. It is one of the best reasons not to be a mental reductionist. It does not fit into the physical world! Yet we experience it; it is in the mind.
What does this have to say about the worry of meaninglessness? Simply this: we can avoid the error of attributing an ontological status to absurdity given the epistemic grounds of it. That is, absurdity is sensed to be the case and not granted as the case. When we say that “x is absurd” we are making an epistemic claim on the world (namely, on our perception of the world as we experience it in our mental content) not an ontological claim. SO, is there a worry that life itself is meaningless given that, practically speaking, everything is absurd? Not in the slightest! The claim to absurdity does not “reach” to the external world nor to one’s “life”, whatever that may be (darn those ambiguous terms!). Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what a person’s life would consist in if there weren’t any consideration of the absurd. Given that absurdity is sensed in the mind we can understand that situations, experiences, things in themselves are not themselves absurd but rather are sensed to be so. In that case objects, events, the universe, etc are not absurd. Hence, they are not meaningless in the way that it was worried they were. But, if they are not meaningless then the reasons to suppose that my (or anyone’s) life is meaningless (remember that we thought that given the meaninglessness of the universe) have been neutered. There is no vital force left in the argument (and, consequently, the temptation to suppose that if there is any meaning at all it is contrived is also, mercifully, removed).
The moral of the story is: be glad that things seem absurd, don’t have an existential crisis over it, don’t feel that life has suddenly become genuinely meaningless because of it, and don’t think that we are the ones that contrive meaning. If it were not for absurdity there could be no human existence (and that, I take, as a meaningful statement).