Human life is meaningless, absurd; so said Albert Camus (1913-1960), the philosopher novelist who made the notion of the absurd the centrepiece of his philosophy. It’s hard to fault Camus for thinking this way considering the tumultuous times in which he lived, and yet, there is something about the absurd that resonates with people from all eras and all walks of life. When we stop to think about this life we are living (and particularly the death we will all ‘be dying’ at some point), it becomes clear that the absurd isn’t just referring to an unfortunate string of events that may or may not befall a particular individual; rather, it goes straight to the heart of human existence. It isn’t that this or that life or circumstance is absurd; it’s that life itself is absurd. In this article, we’ll investigate exactly what this means, and see if, or to what extent, it is possible to go beyond the absurd.
Camus’ short, and very accessible, essay The Myth of Sisyphus is the definitive word on the absurd. It starts with the recognition that life is fundamentally and irredeemably meaningless. However, meaninglessness on its own isn’t enough to get us to absurdity. A meaningless, irrational world is one of the terms in the absurd, but the other is the human being, whose deepest desire is to understand the world (Camus calls this desire nostalgia), to see in it meaning, order, and reason. We need the world to make sense, to be meaningful, and not only will we invent order and meaning in their absence, but (perhaps because deep down we know we have built this edifice of meaning out of the wisps of our own fancy) we’ll wage war to justify our invented system in the face of a different set of beliefs, the very existence of which, threatens the validity of ours.
Absurdity, then, arises out of the confrontation between a meaningless, irrational world and the human desire to understand that world, for it to be meaningful. Being stuck in a world that lacks adequate explanation and meaning like this leaves the individual person feeling as if they are alienated in some fundamental way, a stranger in the only world they have ever known.
Refuting the Absurd
Since the absurd concerns the clash of two terms, for life to not be absurd we would either have to eliminate, or alter, one, or both, of those terms. The only way to achieve the former would involve the elimination of both terms; i.e. suicide (the central question for Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus), however, although suicide does get rid of the absurd, it can’t properly qualify as a resolution of the problem because it leaves us with nothing; neither the absurd nor the non-absurd.
Can we change one of the terms then? Let’s take the world first. Camus claims the world (and life) is irrevocably meaningless and irrational. In our day to day lives, it can be easy to imagine this isn’t so, but you don’t need to go far to find myriad examples of completely senseless death, disease, and injury that give the lie to this. What meaning is there in the world for the family of a person killed by a reckless drunk driver, or someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, or the owner of a house which has just been obliterated by a tornado while the next-door neighbour’s house stands untouched? It’s fairly irrefutable, I think, that meaning at the macro-level doesn’t obtain, but what about at the micro-level? Well, clearly there is nothing approaching meaning in the fundamental particles and forces of nature, but might there at least be order? Unfortunately, even the vision of a rigorous, rule-governed, clockwork universe has been dramatically swept aside by developments in quantum physics which tells us that reality is fundamentally governed by probability. Let’s give this one last try. What can we say against the (post)modernist who says, “Meaning? Why, I create my own meaning.” Well, in the first place, this clearly hasn’t changed the world itself, which is still just as random and meaningless as it has always been, and secondly, on what grounds are you, a being who has been thrown into a life you didn’t choose, entitled to create or confer meaning? That you exist at all is an inescapably random and meaningless fact in itself. Any ‘meaning’ a being purports to found cannot be worth more than its own existence. (Note: I’m not even going to bother with the supernatural recourse to meaning, simply because this attempted resolution poses problems much more difficult to resolve than that of the absurd!)
What of the second term then? The absurd also includes a human being that requires order and meaning. Can we not dissolve this half of the equation by just accepting the meaninglessness of the world? If we don’t resist the disorder and randomness of the world, there is no longer a clash, right? Camus, I think, would reject this suggestion on the grounds that the desire for order and meaning is an essential part of what it is to be human. You might glibly claim that you’re okay with disorder and randomness being the rule, with death and time rendering your life and your projects ultimately meaningless, with a world that is fundamentally irrational, but at worst, this would be a flat-out denial, and at best, a capitulation in the face of the absurd. Either way, the absurd has hardly been refuted.
If neither of the terms can be ‘conjured away,’ as Camus puts it, what are we to do about this problem? There is only one possibility left open to us according to Camus: revolt. We must revolt against the absurd, challenge the irrational world anew at every moment, die unreconciled with our battle cry still on our lips. It is, of course, a struggle we can never hope to win (indeed, hope is a sure sign we have forgotten the struggle), but victory is not our aim. Our salvation, to the extent that we can call it this, lies in the act of rebellion itself.
The Error in the Absurd
Camus warns that neither of the terms in his absurd equation can be ‘conjured away,’ and he is probably right in this. Attempting to overcome the absurd after having bought into Camus’ framework is not the way to tackle this. Instead, we should take a closer look at that framework itself. Camus places the human being looking for meaning on one side of the equation and an irrational, meaningless world on the other, setting the stage for a clash in the middle. But is this picture accurate? Can we coherently think about a human being and the world relating to each other antagonistically like this, as if they were separate, distinct entities? I suggest we can’t.
What is a world in itself, independent of any subject? One way to get at the answer to this question is to pose another: If every sentient being on the planet disappeared tonight, what would be left? Books, tables, chairs, empty buildings, cars, etc.? It is certainly tempting to think so, but is actually a mistake. It’s a mistake because when we imagine this situation, we take the world as it exists now, subtract the sentient beings, and see what is left; namely, books, tables, and chairs. Fine, but in answering like this we have failed to notice that these books, tables, and chairs only appear as being left behind from a certain perspective; that is, yours, a sentient being imagining what would be left behind! But if all sentient beings disappear (including you as the one doing the imagining), then not only does the perspective of all sentient beings also disappear, perspective itself disappears. The question then becomes, ‘What does the world look like in the absence of perspective?’ Pretty quickly, we can see that this question doesn’t make sense. The expression ‘look like’ is only coherent in light of a particular perspective. A world, then, for that word to make any sense at all, requires a perspective. For our purposes, that means a world requires a human being and is a completely vacuous concept if abstracted from this relationship.
What is a human being, independent of a world? Again, it is tempting to try to answer this by simply imagining the current situation (world + human being), subtracting one of the terms (world), and being left with the other (human being). However, in exactly the same way we saw above, this is an overly simplistic reduction. A human being is fundamentally, essentially in a world. One could write an entire book about this (whoops, Heidegger already has), but we can probably get away with one solid example. In Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the case of Mike May, a man who was blind from the age of three as the result of a chemical explosion. Some forty-three years later he had an operation to reverse the damage, and the moment the bandages were removed, instead of seeing the faces of his loved ones, all he saw was an incomprehensible mix of edges, colours, and lights. The problem wasn’t to do with his eyes, which were taking in the sensory data perfectly; it was simply that his brain had never learned how to see. We don’t notice this because sight is something we take for granted, but we can only take it for granted after we have already acquired it. And it is an acquisition; i.e. something we have to learn through experience, through genuine interaction with a genuine world. It is not a capacity we are born with. Clearly, this applies not just to vision, and not even just to our ordinary sensory faculties, but also to our cognitive ones. How could a human being learn to think if he or she had never perceived anything to think about? How could such a being desire, prefer, imagine, hope, expect, remember? It couldn’t. A human being without a world is no more coherent than a world without a human being.
So, instead of ‘conjuring away’ either of Camus’ terms, we have questioned the premise on which they were predicated, clarifying them both in the process. What we have found is that far from there being a clash between two independent terms, a meaningless world on one side, and a spectator consciousness on the other, there is only a whole; human-being-in-the-world. Since the absurd only arises in the clash, and we have dissolved that here, we have effectively overcome the absurd. Man and woman aren’t strangers in the world. Quite the contrary, we are completely at home in the world. Everywhere we look, we see ourselves reflected back at us, not because we are a part of a world separate from us, but because our existence and the existence of the world are inextricably interconnected.
The Resurgence of the Absurd
This is all well and good you might be thinking, but the feeling of the absurd still lingers. Perhaps I have shown that there is no ontological grounding for the absurd, perhaps at the core of my being I am at home in the world, but a couple of levels up, maybe the level at which I consciously live, the world is still obstinately meaningless in the face of my desire for meaning. Is there a refuge for the absurd in the everyday?
Overcoming the Absurd
At this point, we turn to French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) whose piercing insights and clarity will shed some light on this final issue. In his 1907 book Creative Evolution,Bergson draws a distinction between the intellect and intuition. The intellect is the logical, analytical faculty we all possess. It reflects on phenomena, carves totalities into separate objects, dissects objects into component parts, and applies the Kantian categories of the understanding to the world in order to understand it. This is incredibly useful, by which I mean practical, but doesn’t necessarily tell us much about reality because, as we’ve just seen with human-being-in-the-world, reality can’t be understood by looking at pieces abstracted from the whole, nor is it static, quantifiable, or even completed. The intellect allows us to manipulate, control, and tame the world… but not properly understand it.
Enter intuition. Now, this has nothing to do with closing your eyes and attempting to ‘sense,’ or ‘get in touch with,’ reality, whatever those things might mean, nor is it a supra-sensory faculty we can tap into if we take the right mixture of psychotropic drugs, or meditate under a tree for forty-nine days and nights. Intuition is just another kind of knowledge, but one that eschews the intellect’s modus operandi (i.e. parsing things into discrete, static, completed objects that can be precisely and unambiguously quantified). How does it work then? By accepting ambiguity, incompleteness, and uncertainty. Bergson calls it a feeling “forming around the intellectual concept properly so-called[;] an indistinct fringe that fades off into darkness.” What can only be grasped by the intuition? In other words, what cannot be meaningfully understood as completed, discrete chunks and then pieced back together into a whole that is certain and precise? Reality, life, totalities (as opposed to parts), and exactly what we are talking about in this article; human beings and the world. Finally, what is this “feeling” based on? A hunch? A vision experienced while you were ‘tuning in’ to the ‘energy’ of the universe? Hardly. Nothing more prosaic and unexciting than plain, old-fashioned experience. When you look at that list I just cited (reality, life, etc.), you will notice that none of those things are actually things; they’re events, and events have to be lived; i.e. experienced, in order to be known. Moreover, when they are lived, and while they are being lived, they are known completely, thoroughly, intimately even, but when we try to articulate this knowledge in terms the intellect is comfortable with (terms which are certain, quantifiable, precise, etc.) we suddenly become tongue-tied. The reason for this is that all of these things are, by their very nature, ambiguous, incomplete, qualitative, and uncertain; all things the intellect, by its very nature, can’t tolerate.
Think about the world; i.e. all of the objects around you right now. Most, if not all, of them are so familiar to you that you use them without even thinking about what you’re doing. The mouse under your hand right now (if you are reading this on a computer) is less a thing, barely even an instrument; rather, it is an extension of your hand, so close to you (functionally, not physically) that you don’t even notice it. The things that make up your life, your world, are all like this. And yet, if I push you for clarity, for quantifiable precision – what is that mouse made of? Is it infinitely divisible? Have its component parts existed forever, or were they ‘created’ at some point in time? – suddenly, you will be second-guessing yourself, and stumbling into paradoxes. Why? The dismantling, analytic intellect is just not the right tool to understand the world.
How does all of this help with the persistent feeling of the absurd? Remember that the absurd arose from the clash between world and human being; the one meaningless and random, the other demanding meaning and order. Now we can see that this human desire that the world be ordered, certain, and meaningful is actually the result of the intellect trying to make the world conform to its useful, but limiting, categories. More importantly though, what this reveals is that the human demand for order and meaning, which we earlier thought of as the essential, fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, is actually only one of two ways open to us to understand the world. If we can look to grasp the world through intuition instead of the intellect, understanding it through experience, becoming comfortable with the incompleteness, ambiguity, and uncertainty that undergird the disorder and meaninglessness of the world, then we can properly move beyond the absurd.
Of course, we must remember that the intellect is not something we can ever completely overcome. It is a natural, necessary mode of human thinking. Certainly the way our brains have evolved, and possibly the way the universe itself has evolved (and maybe they both had to evolve this way), have both conspired to make the rigorous, analytical, (Bergson would add ‘spatial’) thinking that characterises the intellect unavoidable. As human beings living in the world the way we do, it is absolutely true that we cannot help thinking with the intellect. The important insight in this last section though was that, while the intellectual approach to the world is a fundamental, essential part of what it means to be human, it isn’t the only one.
Reflecting on the Absurd
So, after all of this, where do we stand on the absurd? Well, we’ve seen that ontologically, the premise on which the absurd is grounded; namely, that there is a clash between the human being and the world, is false. Human life and the world are inextricably intertwined, so much so that the one is incoherent without the other. Far from being strangers in a hostile world, we are completely, intimately at home in it. Nevertheless, the feeling that life was absurd remained with us. We traced this feeling back to the intellect, which we agreed with Camus is a fundamental part of human existence. We diverged from the French philosopher though when we resurrected Bergson’s insight concerning intuition. Avoiding the less rigorous, more speculative (more fanciful) supernatural/mystical excesses this word tends to evoke, we concluded that intuition was just another way of thinking; but a way that takes experience for its central datum, eschewing the intellectual demand for certainty, precision, and conceptual meaning, and embracing ambiguity and incompleteness, the very features that characterise things like life and the world. This overlap showed us that intuition is the proper tool to understand the world and life. Seen ‘through the eyes’ of intuition, then, the world is no longer meaningless and resistant to explanation. So, is life absurd? No. Does life feel absurd? Yes, when you think about it, but no, when you live it.
 Clearly, this is stating nothing more than exactly what Heidegger already uncovered in his masterpiece Being and Time.
 H. Bergson, Creative Evolution, English trans, by A Mitchell, New York: Henry Hold and Company, 1924 , p. 46.