Summary of Joel Feinberg’s, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment”

Joel Feinberg (1926 -2004) was an American political and social philosopher. He is known for his work in the fields of individual rights and the authority of the state, thereby helping to shape the American legal landscape. He taught at Brown,  Princeton, UCLA, Rockefeller University, and at the University of Arizona, where he retired in 1994.

In “Absurd Self-Fulfillment” (1992) Feinberg begins by considering Richard Taylor’s suggestion that Sisyphus could be compelled or addicted to pushing stones. (We will discuss Taylor in the next chapter.) Let us suppose the gods make this part of his nature like walking or speaking; suppose further that Sisyphus gets self-fulfillment from rock pushing as it expresses something basic to his genetic nature. Now Sisyphus’ work is typically thought absurd because it is pointless labor that comes to nothing. Philosophers have had differing responses to these issues. Pessimists regard all lives as absurd and respond with scorn, despair, cynicism, etc. Optimists think lives can be partly or wholly fulfilled and therefore good; they respond with hope, satisfaction, positive acceptance, etc. While absurdity and self-fulfillment are different, Taylor suggests that lives can be both absurd and self-fulfilling, like Sisyphus’ rock pushing. So Feinberg asks: what is the relationship between absurdity and self-fulfillment? Can they go together?

Absurdity in individual lives for Feinberg is characterized by: 1) extreme irrationality, as in obviously false beliefs; or the disharmony or incongruity between two things such as means and ends, premises and conclusions, or pretentions and reality; 2) Nagel’s account, the clash between the subjective and objective view of our lives. Nagel’s absurdity is not relevant to Sisyphus, but if added to the story it would add to the absurdity of his situation; 3) pointlessness—activities with no point or meaning; 4) futility—activities with a point but incapable of achieving their goal; and 5) triviality—activities that produce some trivial advantage but are not worth the cost of their labor. So the absurd elements in life fall into one of five categories: 1) pointless, 2) trivial, 3) futile, 4) Nagel’s absurdity, and 5) incongruous or irrational. As for the alleged absurdity of human life in general, Feinberg considers the sense of the absurd in Taylor, Camus, and Nagel.

For Taylor life is absurd (pointless, meaningless) because our repetitive activity ultimately comes to nothing. And even if we do achieve something, say build a cathedral, this does not cancel out the absurdity since in the end they all come to nothing; all our achievements ultimately vanish. But what would a non-absurd existence be like? This is important because unless we know what non-absurdity is like, we have nothing to contrast an absurd situation with. Initially Taylor suggests this would entail Sisyphus building an enduring and beautiful temple. But from a distance of a million years all lives seem pointless and all achievements are temporary—they do not overcome meaninglessness. So the building of the temple does not seem to remove absurdity. Suppose then, Taylor argues, that the gods allow Sisyphus to finish his temple and admire it? Taylor argues that then Sisyphus would be eternally bored, so again this would be absurd. Feinberg suggests that Sisyphus could enjoy his achievement and then die, thus not having to endure the boredom; or even better the gods could preserve him and his temple forever. But then Taylor could respond that Sisyphus would still be bored since he would have nothing left to do. Either nothing we do lasts or, if it does, we are bored when we have finished. In the end any conceivable life would be absurd for Taylor.

For Camus humans want a cosmic order, significance for their labor, and an intelligible life. But life has no order, destroys our work, and is alien to us. In short the things we want—a caring universe with which one is connected and in which we are immortal—are precisely the things we cannot have. What we get is death. This confrontation between the things one needs—most notably immortality—and the thing one gets—death—is the birthplace of the absurd. There is also the absurdity of the cycle of working for money to buy food so that one can work for money and round and round. You could say that these activities are intrinsically valuable, but Camus argues that we are simply driven to do all these things. And then there is the absurdity of so much animal life—they reproduce and then die. Their lives seem to have no other reason than to perpetuate their species. Are not human lives similar? What these examples show is that “life is pointless because justification for any of its parts or phases is indefinitely postponed…” [i] We do A for the sake of B, and B for the sake of C, etc. Camus’s response to absurdity is to rebel, revolt, and live the best one can, since there will always be a divide between what our nature wants—intelligibility and immortality—and the little we can get. For Camus, self-fulfillment may be construed as being “intensely and continuously conscious of my absurdity…”[ii] We fulfill ourselves by recognizing the absurdity of our situation.

For Nagel the absurd derives from the incongruity between our serious view of ourselves and our apparent triviality from the universal perspective. As Feinberg points out, following Nagel, the life of a mouse might not seem absurd to the mouse but it is absurd from our point of view. According to Nagel our lives are like that too, seeming to matter from the inside but absurd from the outside. Feinberg captures this idea with a distinction between absurd persons—who have a flawed assessment of their importance—and absurd situations—which are a property of one’s situation. However, whatever the difference in the details between the three authors for all of them life is absurd: for Taylor because achievements do not last and effort and outcome are in tension; for Camus because the universe is indifferent to our needs; and for Nagel because of the clash between our pretensions and reality.

Feinberg now introduces a new kind of absurdity—when the situation one is in differs from the situation one thinks they are in. For example, if Sisyphus thought his rock pushing was important he would be woefully mistaken about the true nature of his predicament. We are all in the situation of being much less important than we think we are. Thus we should not take ourselves too seriously. Still, Feinberg concludes that while some elements of life are absurd, the arguments that all life is absurd are not convincing. Within life some things seem absurd and some things do not.

Turning to self-fulfillment, there are at least four models of self-fulfillment in the ordinary sense: 1) satisfying one’s hopes or desires; 2) achieving one’s goals; 3) bringing closure to things; and 4) doing the natural or realizing potential. It is this last conception that philosophers have focused upon primarily—so much so that to not fulfill one’s nature indicates a wasted life whereas a fulfilling life is often defined as using one’s natural talents. Feinberg now explores how Sisyphus might be wired to fulfill his nature by rock pushing. He might have: 1) an appetite for it; 2) a peculiar talent for it; 3) an instinct for it; 4) a general drive to do it; or 5) a compulsive impulse to do it as Taylor suggests. Feinberg argues that no matter how the gods wired Sisyphus his life does not seem capable of being fulfilled, precisely because the gods fixed his life, not allowing him discretion in living his life. As Feinberg says, “If he can fulfill his nature without these discretionary activities, then he has really assumed the nature of a different species.”[iii] However, if the gods told him to do it in his own way, to exercise discretion in how to push his rocks, then he could be fulfilled, although his life would still be pointless. Thus life can be absurd and fulfilling at the same time.

Feinberg now asks whether it would matter if one found fulfillment in something that from the outside appeared trivial. Suppose one enjoys playing ping-pong and socializing with others who like to play. If that tendency follows from one’s nature, then one will probably be fulfilled by playing. Now suppose that someone does not succeed in finding playing partners or others interested in ping-pong and instead goes to philosophy discussion groups weekly, something one finds boring. Now their lives seem unfulfilled. While this may not be bad from an objective point of view—philosophy may be more important than ping-pong—for them it is really bad; they do not like philosophy, they like ping pong! Even if it is objectively absurd to like to hit ping pong balls all day, they naturally enjoy doing it; it is good for them to fulfill their nature in this way precisely because the desire is natural to them. Moreover, self-fulfillment necessitates that we have self-love. “And the truest expression of self-love is devotion toward one’s own good, which is the fulfillment of one’s’ own (who else’s) nature—absurd as that may be.”[iv] Thus, self-fulfillment matters because without it we cannot have self-love as well as the reverse.

We see then that our lives are not absurd from the inside—we have goals and purposes—but may be so from the outside. What attitude should we take toward a fulfilling life that we decide is absurd from the outside, that will come to nothing in the end? These attitudes Feinberg calls “cosmic attitudes,” ones we have toward the entire universe. Feinberg agrees with Nagel that irony is the appropriate attitude; it is “an attitude of detached awareness of incongruity…a state of mind halfway between seriousness and playfulness.”[v] Feinberg argues that one can appreciate this incongruity, like one appreciates humor, and there is a kind of bittersweet pleasure in it. Feinberg says we ought to respond not with tears, anger, or amusement, but with a “tired smile.”  Thus neither pessimism—the view that all lives are worthless—nor optimism—the view that all lives are worthwhile—is warranted. After having a good life and then considering Camus, Taylor, and Nagel, Feinberg sees the cosmic joke and is tickled. “Now he can die not with a whine or a snarl, but with an ironic smile.”[vi]

Summary – There is no objective meaning. We can find some subjective meaning by acting in accord with our nature; our lives can be both fulfilling and absurd. All we can do is passively accept this nihilistic state of affairs with an ironic smile. Feinberg goes a bit further than Nagel, nearly embracing nihilism.


[i] Joel Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 164.
[ii] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 165.
[iii] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 175.
[iv] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 178.
[v] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 179.
[vi] Feinberg, “Absurd Self-Fulfillment,” 181.

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