Saturday, 11 March 2017

Thomas Nagel on the Absurd

It is often said that life is absurd. However, it is not always clear what exactly we mean by that. What, if anything, makes it absurd, and why do we think, as we seem to do, that life’s being absurd is something we should rightly worry about? Perhaps life is absurd and that is actually a good thing. This is what Thomas Nagel argues in a paper on the topic, published in 1971.[1]

Nagel begins his investigation by ruling out the usual suspects. What makes life absurd is not the fact that what matters to us now will most likely not matter anymore at some time in the future (say, in a million years), because we have no good reason to think that the things that matter to us now would matter more or would only really matter if they also mattered in the future. Also, if what happens now does not matter in the future, then surely what happens in the future does not matter now. Consequently, it does not matter now whether what matters now will also matter in the future.

Neither is what makes life absurd the fact that we will die, or the fact that we are very small and insignificant when compared to the enormous size of the universe. If our life is absurd (i.e. meaningless) now, then it would also be absurd if we lived considerably longer or forever, or if we were actually big enough to fill the universe. Nor is life absurd because it will be cut off at some point and in that sense does not lead anywhere. What we do in life does in fact lead to many things in life. Why should it have to lead to something that is no longer part of our life? The chain of justifications (‘I do this in order to achieve that’) needs to come to an end somewhere, and there is no reason why it should not come to an end within our given life span.

From this it does, of course, not follow that life is not absurd. What follows is merely that if life is absurd, it must be something else that makes it so. Nagel suggests that we normally call a situation absurd if there is a “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality” (31). You are being knighted and your pants fall down, that kind of thing. Accordingly, life as a whole would be absurd (for each one of us) if there were an inevitable clash between our pretensions as human beings and reality (or what we know about it). Now there is indeed such a clash, namely between our inability to take our life other than seriously and our inability, as thinking beings, not to understand the ultimate arbitrariness of everything we do. Among the animals, only humans have the ability to look at their own lives from, as it were, the outside, as mere spectators, or sub specie aeternitatis. If we adopt this “view from nowhere” (as Nagel shall later call it), then we realize that everything that is important to us is only important because we happen to be the kind of creature that we are. If we were different, then different things would matter to us. Nothing matters in itself. It is all contingent, and in that sense arbitrary. When we look at our lives from that perspective it seems rather ludicrous how seriously we take it all. And yet, seriously we do take it. We have to carry on with our lives and to continue to treat things as important that from an impartial spectator’s point of view are anything but. (I know it does not really matter whether I get that promotion or not, but knowing this does not change the fact that it still matters to me.) This inevitable conflict of perspectives is where absurdity lies: that we can be deeply involved in our lives and, at the same time and without undermining or diminishing our involvement in any way, realize that if we had been “put together” (35) differently we could just as well be involved in something else, or in nothing at all. In this respect, our sense of the absurd resembles epistemological scepticism: despite understanding perfectly well that I have no grounds to be certain about anything (for instance the existence of an external world or other minds), I cannot help continuing to act as if I was certain. Or rather, I am certain, although I know that, rationally speaking, I shouldn’t. Similarly, I take my life seriously, although I know that I have no rational grounds to do so.

However, something changes when we cultivate (rather than suppress) the external view on our lives: our seriousness is not gone (which would in fact be disastrous), but it is now “laced with irony”. (37) Should we regret this? For Nagel, the absurdity of (our) life is actually a good thing and not something we should bemoan or try to escape from. It is most definitely no reason to despair. Remember, it is only because we can look at our lives from the outside that life can appear absurd to us. We don’t really discover it to be absurd. If Nagel is right, then our lives are not absurd prior to our realizing this. The absurdity consists in the conflicting viewpoints. That is why the life of an animal is never absurd, precisely because it cannot be absurd for it. For an animal, say a mouse, life is never absurd because he lacks that crucial impartial perspective. He lacks the “self-consciousness and self-transcendence that would enable him to see that he is only a mouse.” (38) Yet is he better off because his life is not absurd? No. The animal’s life is not absurd, says Nagel, but it is not meaningful either. In fact, at the end of his paper Nagel comes very close to suggesting that it is actually the very fact that we have a sense of the absurdity of our lives that makes our lives meaningful. “I would argue”, he writes, “that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.” Our sense of the absurd is in fact “a way of perceiving our true situation” and a result of our “capacity to transcend ourselves in thought” (39). So nothing to worry about. (And anyway, Nagel rather glibly concludes, if nothing matters, then it does not, or should not, matter that nothing matters either.)


I am wondering whether Nagel’s analysis of our sense that life is absurd does not rely rather too heavily on a redefinition of the absurd. Nagel’s absurd does not seem to be the absurd that people tend to be concerned about. When he begins his analysis he occasionally uses the term ‘meaningless’ synonymously with ‘absurd’, but when he reaches his conclusion, the absurd has mutated into something else that can no longer be equated with meaninglessness. No wonder then that Nagel does not find the absurd particularly bothersome. All it does is invite us to adopt a slightly ironical, moderately detached attitude towards life. We still take life seriously, but perhaps not that seriously anymore. We have distanced ourselves slightly from our individual persona, have gained a little freedom from ourselves and can now meet the world with a little more equanimity. That is all very useful and liberating, I’m sure. However, it does not really address the existential concerns that people sometimes have, about whether, when all is said and done, life is really worth all the trouble. Why bother if in the end it will all be for nothing? The worry that nothing might really matter is an existential worry, or, in Kierkegaard’s sense, an ethical worry. In contrast, Nagel’s absurd is purely aesthetic, more pleasurable than horrifying. It is indeed the product of the view from nowhere, the absurd of a pure spectator. Never mind that I am that spectator and what I am looking at is my own life, which I cannot help taking seriously. It is still from the spectator’s perspective that it appears absurd to me. It is the place where I can laugh about my struggles, where death is simply the end of a story that has been told before and will be told again, many, many times. But the absurd that bothers and alienates us, which might even drive us into despair, is something that is perceived not from the viewpoint of the spectator, but from the viewpoint of the one who actually lives that life. And who lives it here and now and only this once. Nagel’s absurd is harmless, even edifying, because it is perceived from the outside. It invites us to see the comical side of things. Yet there is also an absurd that is perceived from the inside, and that is a very different thing, something that does not liberate us from our natural obsession with ourselves, our inborn parochialism, but that instead rips a hole into our world and threatens to rob us of our sanity. Here be lions and dragons, here be cold and dark and emptiness. It is a different, far less congenial kind of absurd, one that is more akin to the absurd of Lovecraft and Ligotti than to that of Nagel.

One more thing: the notion of the absurd is very much associated with the French philosopher Albert Camus. Nagel mentions him, but only briefly and rather disparagingly at the end of his paper, only to accuse him of being a bit too “romantic and slightly self-pitying” (39). Instead of happily embracing the ironic detachment that the absurd can and should give rise to, Camus asked us to respond to the absurd with defiance, by “shaking a fist at the world”. This, however, is at best only partly true and a bit of a caricature. The absurd, for Camus, also rests on a discrepancy, but not between an internal and an external view, but between human hopes and desires on the one hand, and the unresponsiveness and indifference of the universe on the other. But what Camus thinks of as the appropriate response to this discrepancy amounts to more than just shaking one’s fist at the world. It is, rather, a determination not to accept the indifference with which the universe looks back at us, and to resist this indifference by not adding to it. We defy the absurd by insisting that it matters what we do, by making them matter, by caring about what happens and what is being done to other people, and by acting accordingly. We thus create, little by little, a different universe, one that does care, at least in part, because we do. In short, Camus’ absurd prompts us to care more, whereas Nagel’s absurd prompts us to care less.  

[1] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd”. Originally published in the Journal of Philosophy 68/20 (1971): 716-727. Reprinted in Life, Death and Meaning. Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions, ed. David Benatar, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 2004, 29-40 (which is the version I have been using).


  1. I agree with your last paragraph, that Nagel caricature's Camus position. In the end I don't think they're positions are so far apart. Sisyphus knows that nothing matters, but that that doesn't matter anyway. In fact Camus recommends Sisyphus face his life with irony, when he meditates an his way back down the hill. But in his project he gives meaning at least to the here and now.

  2. Thanks, Steven. Yes, he does indeed. In case you are interested, I recently wrote a book chapter on Camus, the first draft of which can be found here:

  3. i'm working on my Philo essay, you helped me a ton!