Reality’s absurdity to Existentialists

By Christopher Wink | Apr 15, 2007 | Existentialism

There are likely few more important issues for philosophy than the question of existence, a subject that has been covered in innumerable ways by every successful intellectual. Perhaps one of the more popular means for understanding this world is to see it through the veil of the absurd.

Legendary Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) had something to say on that concept. An avid critic of the structure of religion in Denmark, Kierkegaard wrote often of organized religious dogma, crediting its absurdity and contradiction with keeping its followers distanced from God. A century later Parisian philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) voiced his own thoughts on individual experiences which, he wrote, was absurd because of disconnect from each other.

Countless thinkers have noted absurdity throughout reality, but moreover, the entire notion of life is absurd. To establish existence, emergence must occur. For most of us, our existence began with our birth, our emergence from our parents. Something must precede every beginning, so from where did existence itself emerge? This is the game philosophers play and because there can be no answer, it is, to be sure, absurd. Any form of reality then, must also be absurd.

The philosopher who is likely most connected to the subject is Algerian-born, French writer Albert Camus (1913-1960), a close friend of Sartre. We all desire meaning from an existence that does little to offer it, Camus suggested. As clearly demonstrated in the Myth of Sisyphus – originally published in 1942, though not translated into English until the mid-1950s – Camus heralded a very new concept into existential thought.

While in no way did Camus originate absurdism, his use of it reached a pinnacle in the Myth. It was there that Camus set his foundation of life’s dualisms – his paradox of the absurd – acquiring the title of “philosopher of the absurd,” a label of which he openly disapproved. The pleasures of existence are fleeting, Camus demonstrated in his works, and, instead, the central quality of humanity is death. Rather than for morbidity, he aimed to help his readers find a greater appreciation for happiness, understanding its temporal home in our forgettable time in this world.

It is in this way that Camus most clearly demonstrated the absurdity of reality. We all credit our lives with meaning, but only a fool denies the impending certainty of his death, rendering an overwhelming amount of our time and accomplishment fairly meaningless. While Camus noted we can accept depression by remembering joy is near, rectifying the disparate concepts of our importance and simultaneous insignificance is problematic. This paradox has lead some to the notion of nihilism, to abandon action for fear of purposelessness, something Camus patently rejected. The beginning of existence, our living seemingly meaningless lives: this is absurdity.

Reality’s absurdity is its essence and should be the greatest motivation for accepting it. Life is a gift and while answers may seem distant at best, questions must always be pursued, the paradox recognized and incorporated into our world view.

Prepared for a class on Existentialism taught at Temple University by Lewis Gordon.