Thomas Nagel (1937- ) is a prominent American philosopher, author of numerous articles and books, and currently University Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University where he has taught since 1980.
In “The Absurd,” (1971) Nagel asks why people sometimes feel that life is absurd. For example, they often say that life is absurd because nothing we do now will matter in the distant future. But Nagel points out that the corollary of this is that nothing in the distant future matters now: “In particular, it does not matter now that in a million years nothing we do now will matter.”[i]
Furthermore, even if what we do now does matter in a distant future, how does that prevent our present actions from being absurd? In other words, if our present actions are absurd then their mattering in the distant future can hardly give them meaning. For the mattering in the distant future to be important things must matter now. And if I claim definitely that what I do now will not matter in a million years then either: a) I claim to know something about the future that I don’t know; or b) have simply assumed what I’m trying to prove—that what I do will not matter in the future. Thus the real question is whether things matter now—since no appeals to the distant future seem to help us answer that question.
Consider next the argument that our lives are absurd because we live in a tiny speck of a vast cosmos, or in a small sliver of time. Nagel argues that neither of these concerns makes life absurd. This is obvious because even if we were immortal or large enough to fill the universe, this would not change the fact that our lives might be absurd. Another argument appeals to the fact that everything ends in death, and from this infers that there is no final purpose for our actions. Nagel replies that many things we do in life find their justification in the present—when I am hungry I eat!
Moreover, if the chain of justification must always lead to another justification, we would be caught in an infinite regress. And since justification must end somewhere if it is to be justified at all, it might as well end in life. Nagel concludes that the arguments just outlined fail, adding: “Yet I believe they attempt to express something that is difficult to state but fundamentally correct.”[ii]
For Nagel, the discrepancy between the importance we place on our lives from a subjective point of view, and how gratuitous they appear objectively, is the essence of the absurdity of our lives. “… the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary, or open to doubt.”[iii] Yet, short of escaping life altogether, there is no way to reconcile the absurdity resulting from our pretensions and the nature of reality. This analysis rests on two points: 1) the extent to which we must take our lives seriously; and 2) the extent to which, from a certain point of view, our lives appear insignificant. The first point rests on the evidence of the planning, calculation, and concerns with which we invest in our lives.
Think of how an ordinary individual sweats over his appearance, his health, his sex life, his emotional honesty, his social utility, his self-knowledge, the quality of his ties with family, colleagues, and friends, how well he does his job, whether he understands the world and what is going on in it. Leading a human life is full-time occupation to which everyone devotes decades of intense concern.[iv]
The second point rests on the reflections we all have about whether life is worth it. Usually, after a period of reflection, we just stop thinking about it and proceed with our lives.
To avoid this absurdity we try to supply meaning to our lives through our role “in something larger than ourselves… in service to society, the state, the revolution, the progress of history, the advance of science, or religion and the glory of God.”[v] But this larger thing must itself be significant if our lives are to have meaning by participating in it; in other words, we can ask the same question about the meaning of this larger purpose as we can of our lives—what does it mean? So when does this quest for justification end?
Nagel says it ends when we want it to. We can end the search in the experiences of our lives or in being part of a divine plan, but wherever we end the search, we end it arbitrarily. Once we have begun to wonder about the point of it all, we can then ask of any proposed answer—what is the point of that? “Once the fundamental doubt has begun, it cannot be laid to rest.”[vi] There is no imaginable world that could settle our doubts about its meaning.
Nagel further argues that reflection about our lives doesn’t reveal that they are insignificant compared to what is really important, but that they are only significant by reference to themselves. So when we step back and reflect on our lives, we contrast the pretensions we have about the meaning of them with the larger perspective in which no standards of meaning can be discovered.
Nagel contrasts his position on the absurd with epistemological skepticism. Skepticism transcends the limitations of thoughts by recognizing the limitations of thought. But after we have stepped back from our beliefs and their supposed justifications, we don’t then contrast the way reality appears with an alternative reality. Skepticism implies that we do not know what reality is. Similarly, when we step back from life, we do not find what is really significant. We just continue to live taking life for granted in the same way we take appearances for granted.
But something has changed. Although in the one case we continue to believe the external world exists, and in the other case we continue to pursue our lives with seriousness, we are now filled with irony and resignation. “Unable to abandon the natural responses on which they depend, we take them back, like a spouse who has run off with someone else and then decided to return; but we regard them differently…”[vii] Still, we continue to put effort into our lives despite what reason tells us about the irony of taking them seriously.
Our ability to step back from our lives and view them from a cosmic perspective makes them seem all the more absurd. So what are our options? 1) We could refuse to take this transcendental step back, but that would be to acknowledge that there was such a perspective, the vision of which would always be with us. So we can’t do this consciously. 2) We could abandon the subjective viewpoint and identify with the objective viewpoint entirely, but this requires taking oneself so seriously as an individual that we may undermine the attempt to avoid the subjective. 3) We could respond to our animalistic natures only and achieve a life that would not be meaningful, but at least less absurd than the lives of those who were conscious of the transcendental stance. But surely this approach would have psychological costs. “And that is the main condition of absurdity—the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an imminent, limited enterprise like a human life.”[viii]
But we need not feel that the absurdity of our lives presents us with a problem to be solved, or that we ought to respond with Camus’ defiance. Instead, Nagel regards our recognition of absurdity as “a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics.”[ix] It is possible only because thought transcends itself. And by recognizing our true situation we no longer have reason to resent or escape our fate. He thus counsels that we regard our lives as ironic. It is simply ironic that we take our lives so seriously when nothing is serious at all; this is the incongruity between what we expect and reality. Still, in the end, it does not matter that nothing matters from the objective view, so we should simply chuckle at the absurdity of our lives.
Summary – Life has no objective meaning and there is no reason to think we can give it any meaning at all. Still, we continue to live and should respond, not with defiance or despair, but with an ironic smile. Life is not as important and meaningful as we may have once suspected, but this is not a cause for sadness.
[i] Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008,)143.
[ii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 144.
[iii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 145.
[iv] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 146.
[v] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vi] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 147.
[vii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 150.
[viii] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 151.
[ix] Nagel, “The Absurd,” 152.