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"What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up. etc., has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being, in as much as all immediate recognizability is pre-Socratic paganism and from the Jewish point of view is idolatry."—Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (1846) by Kierkegaard

This page Absurdism is part of the meaning of life series.Illustration: House of Nonsense (1911)
This page Absurdism is part of the meaning of life series.
Illustration: House of Nonsense (1911)

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Absurdism is the philosophical theory that the universe is irrational and meaningless. It states that trying to find meaning leads people into a conflict with the world. This conflict can be between rational man and an irrational universe, between intention and outcome, or between subjective assessment and objective worth, but the precise definition of the term is disputed. Absurdism claims that the world as a whole is absurd. It differs in this regard from the less global thesis that some particular situations, persons, or phases in life are absurd.

Various components of the absurd are discussed in the academic literature and different theorists frequently concentrate their definition and research on different components. On the practical level, the conflict underlying the absurd is characterized by the individual's struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world. The theoretical component, on the other hand, emphasizes more the epistemic inability of reason to penetrate and understand reality. Traditionally, the conflict is characterized as a collision between an internal component, belonging to human nature, and an external component, belonging to the nature of the world. However, some later theorists have suggested that both components may be internal: the capacity to see through the arbitrariness of any ultimate purpose, on the one hand, and the incapacity to stop caring about such purposes, on the other hand. Certain accounts also involve a metacognitive component by holding that an awareness of the conflict is necessary for the absurd to arise.

Some arguments in favor of absurdism focus on the human insignificance in the universe, on the role of death, or on the implausibility or irrationality of positing an ultimate purpose. Objections to absurdism often contend that life is in fact meaningful or point out certain problematic consequences or inconsistencies of absurdism. Defenders of absurdism often complain that it does not receive the attention of professional philosophers it merits in virtue of the topic's importance and its potential psychological impact on the affected individuals in the form of existential crises. Various possible responses to deal with absurdism and its impact have been suggested. The three responses discussed in the traditional absurdist literature are suicide, religious belief in a higher purpose, and rebellion against the absurd. Of these, rebellion is usually presented as the recommended response since, unlike the other two responses, it does not escape the absurd and instead recognizes it for what it is. Later theorists have suggested additional responses, like using irony to take life less seriously or remaining ignorant of the responsible conflict. Some absurdists argue that whether and how one responds is insignificant. This is based on the idea that if nothing really matters then the human response toward this fact does not matter either.

The term "absurdism" is most closely associated with the philosophy of Albert Camus. However, important precursors and discussions of the absurd are also found in the works of Søren Kierkegaard. Absurdism is intimately related to various other concepts and theories. Its basic outlook is inspired by existentialist philosophy. However, existentialism includes additional theoretical commitments and often takes a more optimistic attitude toward the possibility of finding or creating meaning in one's life. Absurdism and nihilism share the belief that life is meaningless. But absurdists do not treat this as an isolated fact and are instead interested in the conflict between the human desire for meaning and the world's lack thereof. Being confronted with this conflict may trigger an existential crisis, in which unpleasant experiences like anxiety or depression may push the affected to find a response for dealing with the conflict. Recognizing the absence of objective meaning, however, does not preclude the conscious thinker from finding subjective meaning in arbitrary places.


Søren Kierkegaard

A century before Camus, the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote extensively about the absurdity of the world. In his journals, Kierkegaard writes about the absurd:

What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.--Journals, 1849

Here is another example of the Absurd from his writings:

"What, then, is the absurd? The absurd is that the eternal truth has come into existence in time, that God has come into existence, has been born, has grown up. etc., has come into existence exactly as an individual human being, indistinguishable from any other human being, in as much as all immediate recognizability is pre-Socratic paganism and from the Jewish point of view is idolatry."—Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, 1846, Hong 1992, p. 210

How can this absurdity be held or believed? Kierkegaard says:

"I gladly undertake, by way of brief repetition, to emphasize what other pseudonyms have emphasized. The absurd is not the absurd or absurdities without any distinction (wherefore Johannes de Silentio: "How many of our age understand what the absurd is?"). The absurd is a category, and the most developed thought is required to define the Christian absurd accurately and with conceptual correctness. The absurd is a category, the negative criterion, of the divine or of the relationship to the divine. When the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd — faith transforms it, but in every weak moment it is again more or less absurd to him. The passion of faith is the only thing which masters the absurd — if not, then faith is not faith in the strictest sense, but a kind of knowledge. The absurd terminates negatively before the sphere of faith, which is a sphere by itself. To a third person the believer relates himself by virtue of the absurd; so must a third person judge, for a third person does not have the passion of faith. Johannes de Silentio has never claimed to be a believer; just the opposite, he has explained that he is not a believer — in order to illuminate faith negatively."—Journals of Søren Kierkegaard X6B 79

Kierkegaard provides an example in Fear and Trembling (1843), which was published under the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio. In the story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham is told by God to kill his son Isaac. Just as Abraham is about to kill Isaac, an angel stops Abraham from doing so. Kierkegaard believes that through virtue of the absurd, Abraham, defying all reason and ethical duties ("you cannot act"), got back his son and reaffirmed his faith ("where I have to act").

Another instance of absurdist themes in Kierkegaard's work appears in The Sickness Unto Death, which Kierkegaard signed with pseudonym Anti-Climacus. Exploring the forms of despair, Kierkegaard examines the type of despair known as defiance. In the opening quotation reproduced at the beginning of the article, Kierkegaard describes how such a man would endure such a defiance and identifies the three major traits of the Absurd Man, later discussed by Albert Camus: a rejection of escaping existence (suicide), a rejection of help from a higher power and acceptance of his absurd (and despairing) condition.

According to Kierkegaard in his autobiography The Point of View of My Work as an Author, most of his pseudonymous writings are not necessarily reflective of his own opinions. Nevertheless, his work anticipated many absurdist themes and provided its theoretical background.

Albert Camus

Although the notion of the 'absurd' is pervasive in all of his literature, Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus is his chief work regarding the subject. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus considers absurdity as a confrontation, an opposition, a conflict, or a "divorce" between two ideals. Specifically, he defines the human condition as absurd, as the confrontation between man's desire for significance/meaning/clarity and the silent, cold universe (or for theists: God). He continues that there are specific human experiences that evoke notions of absurdity. Such a realization or encounter with the absurd leaves the individual with a choice: suicide, a leap of faith, or acceptance.

For Camus, suicide is a 'confession' that life is simply not worth living. It is a choice that implicitly declares that life is 'too much'. Suicide offers the most basic 'way out' of absurdity, the immediate termination of the self and self's place in the universe. The absurd encounter can also arouse an illogical "leap of faith," a term also used by Kierkegaard, where one understands that there is more than the rational life (aesthetic or ethical). To take a "leap a faith", one must act with the "strength of the absurd" (as Kierkegaard put it), where a suspension of the ethical may need to exist. This is not the dogmatic "faith" that we have come to know, Kierkegaard would call that an "infinite resignation" and a false, cheap "faith". This faith has no expectations but is a flexible power propelled by the absurd. Camus considers the leap of faith as intellectual laziness, a refuge in chosen falsehoods. It is the epitome of deceiving the self. It is a retreat from truth and the freedom of man. Lastly, man can choose to embrace his own absurd condition. According to Camus, man's freedom, and the opportunity to give life meaning, lies in the acknowledgment and acceptance of absurdity. If the absurd experience is truly the realization that the universe is fundamentally devoid of absolutes, then we as individuals are truly free. “To live without appeal,” as he puts it, is a philosophical move that begins to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. The freedom of man is, thus, established in man's natural ability and opportunity to create his own meaning and purpose, to decide himself. The individual becomes the most precious unit of the existence, as he represents a set of unique ideals that can be characterized as an entire universe by itself.

The meaning of life

According to Absurdism, humans historically attempt to find meaning in their lives. For some, traditionally, this search follows one of two paths: either concluding that life is meaningless and that what we have is the here-and-now; or filling the void with a purpose set forth by a higher power, often a belief in God or adherence to a religion. However, even with a spiritual power as the answer to meaning, another question is posed: What is the purpose of God? Kierkegaard believed that there is no human-comprehensible purpose of God, making faith in God absurd.

For some, suicide is a solution when confronted with the futility of living a life devoid of all purpose, because ending, suicide is only a means to quicken the resolution of one's ultimate fate. For Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, suicide is not a worthwhile solution because if life is veritably absurd, then it is even more absurd to counteract it; instead, we should engage in living and reconcile the fact that we live in a world without purpose.

For Camus, the beauty that people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life but still provides something for which to strive. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.

Camus introduced the idea of "acceptance without resignation" and asked if man can "live without appeal", defining a "conscious revolt" against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning, or judicial afterlife, man becomes absolutely free. It is through this freedom that man can act either as a mystic (through appeal to some supernatural force) or an absurd hero (through a revolt against such hope). Henceforth, the absurd hero's refusal to hope becomes his singular ability to live in the present with passion.

Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.


Logotherapy, often called the "third Viennese school of psychotherapy," could be classified as an objection to absurdism. Logotherapy retains many existential conclusions, such as humanity's inherent responsibility for meaning. However, adherents to this school of thought would argue that there is, in fact, a purpose in man's ability to find meaning in an uncertain world. This is a rejection of Camus' belief that man-made meanings should never replace an acceptance of absurdity.

See also

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