Of Absurdity: What it is

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This is the first in an intended series of essays based around the IB Philosophy exams. It is essentially a summary of absurdism, an understanding of which could prove useful in the paper 2 exam, specifically the “What is a human Being?” section.

Absurdism is a school of existential thought which, as the name suggests, is concerned with the apparent absurdity of existence. Conceived of and developed by philosophers like Sören Kierkegaard and Albert Camus, absurdism deals specifically with a concept known as “the Absurd”. In philosophy, Absurdity is that which arises from man’s incessant struggle to find meaning in what appears to be a fundamentally meaningless universe. Absurdists argue that there is no higher meaning to be found in life, and that this struggle, therefore, can only ever lead to the generation of existential angst. Indeed, absurdists posit that the Absurd is one of the primary causes of such angst, and that dealing with it is an essential step that must be taken by any individual wishing to free him or herself from its clutches. Much like surrealism, the movement has inspired an analogous movement within the arts.

I would like to begin with the man who is generally seen as having started the movement; Danish philosopher Sören Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is known today for his extensive work within the area of existentialism, and he was the first philosopher to make a concrete attempt at defining and dealing with Absurdity. As he was a devout christian, it is only natural that his particular brand of absurdism has become known as theistic absurdism. His approach to dealing with the Absurd was quite straight forward; after defining it and identifying it as a source of existential angst, he proceeded to offer plausible solutions to the problem, along with an analysis of each. The first of these solutions was suicide. A simple, apparently elegant way to deal with the issue, at least on the surface, but one that Kierkegaard rejected. Suicide, he felt, was a kind of surrender. Rather than a solution to the problem, he saw it as an example of Absurdity pushing a man to extreme and self-destructive action. In other words, he saw it as the virtual opposite of a solution.

But Kierkegaard put forth another possible response, namely that of a “leap of faith”. For Kierkegaard, the only way to give true meaning to one’s life and thus escape Absurdity was to believe in God. This was the final answer for Kierkegaard. All one had to do was to nurture one’s faith, and the problem would be undone. But, as valid as this solution may have seemed in Kierkegaard’s time (the 19th century), it does not seem quite so palatable today. A more modern, secular answer is needed.

This is where 20th century philosopher and writer Albert Camus comes in. Camus, continuing the work of Kierkegaard years after his death, felt that the “leap of faith” was only a marginally better solution than suicide. Indeed, he saw it as a sort of “philosophical suicide”. A surrender of the mind rather than the body, if you wish. After rejecting this response, he set out to devise a third option that did not rely on religious belief. He eventually arrived at the idea of acceptance. By accepting the Absurd, Camus claimed, people could eventually come to free themselves from anxiety and learn to live more fully in the moment. To Camus, this was the only viable solution; Absurdity had to be accepted as a fact of life, at least for the time being, and changes to one’s approach to life had to be made accordingly.

This may sound somewhat bleak, but in reality it is a wholly realistic and at heart quite wonderful response to the problem of the Absurd. Life’s uncertainties, amongst them the potential insignificance of our existence, cannot be escaped. While I do not think religious belief to be such a terrible way of dealing with the issue, I do believe that a critically minded person should at all times maintain an awareness of the fact that belief is belief and as such is wholly separate from fact. Acceptance, then, must be undertaken in order for a person to genuinely overcome the problem of Absurdity, although this can be done in combination with Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”. This acceptance allows us to have a fuller, deeper understanding of our existence, and makes us more aware of the intrinsic value that can be found in every precious second of our lives. It is a mode of thought that, while trying at times, can enrich a person’s life.

This is only a cursory overview of philosophical absurdism, and I urge anyone who feels interested in the subject to do some further research. I have found the Wikipedia article to be highly informative, and can recommend it as further reading. Other than this, you might be interested in finding a copy of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” (if you’re very seriously interested, you might want to look at some translations of Kierkegaard’s works, but what little I have read of his stuff seems highly esoteric and exceedingly “heavy”).

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3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Feeling Philosophical « The Laughing Housewife

  2. Just started learning about it a few weeks ago. I love it. Very fascinating ideas and implications for existence. Great post.

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