Westphal & Cherry: “Is Life Absurd?”

Sisyphus, the symbol of the absurdity of existence, painting by Franz Stuck (1920)

Jonathan Westphal is currently a visiting professor of philosophy at Hampshire College. He received his B.A. from Harvard College, M.A. from the University of Sussex, and PhD from the University of London. Christopher Cherry is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent in Canterbury England. Their 1990 article, “Is Life Absurd?” offers a critique of Nagel’s claim that life is absurd.

The authors claim first that Nagel offers no reason why we should take the external perspective from which the value of every human concern is cast into doubt. More importantly, some values are immune to Nagel’s critique. Westphal and Cherry give the example of someone absorbed in music. Such an individual cannot entertain the idea that music is worthless, and their attention to music destroys the external point of view. If you are moved by Bach, you cannot at the same time claim the music is pointless. In fact, the only way to truly describe this musical experience is by its subjective emotional value. If we find Bach’s Brandenburg concertos soothing, this internal evaluation cannot be captured or negated by the external perspective.

However, this analysis does not apply only to music. If we consider lives lived with humanity and integrity, what is there about the external perspective that damages them or renders them meaningless? After all, many lives are lived without pretense and without any claim that music, art, or literature is objectively valuable. Thus the external perspective has nothing ostentatious or pretentious to negate. Think of the passionate butterfly collector collecting butterflies, or the patient astronomer chronically stars. In these cases is there no hint of pretension or of the eternal perspective. Such persons are just emotionally engaged.

Nagel’s solution to all this is irony, which the authors suggest may appeal to a New York intellectual but not too many others. Why not rather simply ignore the eternal perspective, or dine, have fun, and play backgammon, as Hume’s suggested? Or why not just engage in interesting play or work? Life does not call for a grand response such as defiance or scorn or irony. Instead why not just be absorbed subjectively in music or tennis? Such absorption is far away from the eternal perspective.

Summary – There is no incongruity between our aspirations and pretensions, and reality from the eternal perspective. If we engage ourselves in things in front of us we can ignore the eternal perspective.

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