I have been re-reading Thomas Nagel's seminal paper, "The Absurd," which originally appeared in The Journal of Philosophy, October 1971, and is collected in Nagel's Mortal Questions (Cambridge UP, 1979, 11-23.) Damn, but it is good. Nagel is one of our best philosophers. He's the real thing.
Nagel's central contention is that human existence is essentially absurd. Thus the absurdity of our predicament is not in any way accidental or contingent or due to some remediable (by God or man) disproportion or 'disconnect' between the demands of the human heart and mind for meaning and intelligibility, on the one hand, and the world's 'indifference' to our concerns, on the other. In this regard Nagel's position is far more radical than Camus' as the latter presents it in The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus, something is dreadfully wrong: the world ought to meet our demands for meaning and intelligibility but it doesn't. For Camus, absurdity is rooted in the discrepancy between demand and satisfaction, a demand that in some way ought to be satisfied and therefore in some sense could be satisfied. (The 'ought' in question is non-agential; here is some discussion of such oughts.)
Camus protests that things are not the way they are supposed to be, but they are, alas, the way they are, and so all we can do is shake our fists at the universe in defiance. Nagel's posture is less heroic and more ironic.
For Nagel there is no non-agential ought to have been otherwise or could have been otherwise with respect to the meaning of human existence: our lives are necessarily absurd because there is in us a conflict that is unavoidable, a conflict between our limited, perspectival, situated, individual points of view and the transcendental point of view from which we observe ourselves and everything else sub specie aeternitatis. The general and philosophical sense of absurdity arises when these two points of view come into conflict. Nagel speaks of "the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpretual possibility of regarding everything about which which we are serious as arbitrary or open to doubt." (13)
Immersed as I am in in my quotidian toilings and moilings, I take my life and its projects with utmost seriousness. For example, the other day I went back into my archives to correct a minor mistake I had made in a post from years ago. But while I was very concerned to make this correction and make it right, I was also aware of the 'absurdity' of being worried about such a bagatelle. Who cares? As transcendental spectator even I don't much care. It is easy to detach oneself in thought from one's projects and purposes and very life and see them as arbitrary, contingent, and without objective meaning or purpose or significance. What matters greatly from our situated perspectives can seem to matter not at all when we ascend to the transcendental perspective. But of course I am not just a transcendental spectator of "all time and existence" (Plato, Republic) but also this here measly chunk of animated aging flesh with a very personal history and fate and a reputation to maintain.
It is most marvellously true that I am a conscious and self-conscious being, projective of plans and purposes, sensitive to reasons as opposed to causes, and alive to the full range of the normative; but I am also an embodied conscious and self-conscious being with all that that entails: I can be crushed, blown apart, invaded by microorganisms, . . . . Human existence cannot be reduced to the existence of specimens of a highly evolved zoological species, but I am a specimen of such a species. Thus when we ask about the meaning of life we are really asking about the meaning of embodied consciousness. I believe this is a very important point. For it implies that the question cannot be addressed in a a wholly objectifying manner.
As I read him, Nagel is telling us that the root of absurdity is in us as embodied consciousnesses, not in the world or in any disproportion between us and the world. It is an ineradicable root. Both POVs are available to us -- and we must avail ourselves of both if we are to live fully human lives -- but they are necessarily in conflict. Or so it seems. If I am to live my life with zest and passion and commitment, then I cannot live the detached life of the transcendental ego who merely observes while his physical vehicle negotiates the twists and turns of this gnarly world. (This is a deep and complicated theme requiring much more discussion.) Borrowing some Heideggerian jargon we can say that for Nagel the sense of the absurd is constitutive of human Dasein. To be a fully awake human being, one who avails himself of both POVs, is to live with the sense of the absurd. The only way to escape our absurd predicament would be by causing the cessation of embodiment (suicide) or by somehow-- via meditation perhaps-- emptying the 'I' out into something pre- or non-egoic.
I think it is important to point out that for Nagel and in truth the absurd exists only as the sense of the absurd. This is another way of saying that the absurdity of the human predicament is not a merely objective fact if it is a fact: it involves consciousness/self-consciousness.
Is the absurdity of human existence a problem to be solved? It cannot be a problem that we can solve since it arises necessarily from the collision of the two POVs both of which are essential to being human. If the problem arises for a person, then that person cannot both solve the problem and continue to exist. (This is not to say that the problem must arise for every person since not everyone exercises his capacity to reflect on matters under the aspect of eternity.) Nor is absurdity a predicament. To call a state of affairs a predicament is to suggest the possibility of extrication. But there is no escape from absurdity. So it is neither a problem nor a predicament. What is called for is not the defiant posturing of an Algerian existentialist but irony: "If sub specie aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair." (23)
As for Peter Lupu, he seems to be maintaining the exact opposite of what Nagel maintains. Peter's thought seems to be that the meaning of an individual life is constituted by the power to reflect. Every agent of a life has this power essentially even if not all choose to exercise it. Meaning is therefore not bestowed by the agent upon himself or by something or someone outside the agent such as God. Existential meaning inheres in the agent's power to reflect on his life, his values, desires, and purposes. For Lupu, meaning is not subjective . Nor is it externally objective, imposed from without. Every life is meaningful just in virtue of the agent's power to reflect.
I questioned whether existential meaning could be both objective and subjectively appropriable by all. Lupu thinks he can answer this by saying that meaning is objective albeit internally objective in virtue of every agent's having essentially the power to reflect; but meaning is also subjectively appropriable by each agent if he chooses to actualize his power to reflect. Here again is my aporetic tetrad:
A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.
Lupu solves my tetrad by rejecting (C) while accepting the remaining limbs. Nagel, I would guess, would solve the tetrad by rejecting (D) while accepting the other limbs.
There are several questions I need to pose to Lupu, but for now let me just pose a Nagelian question/objection. Nagel is surely on to something when he underscores the power of reflection to undermine the seriousness of our projects and make them appear arbitrary, contingent, and dubious. When this power is exercised it collides with our tendency toward straighforward unreflective living under the guidance of taken-for-granted norms and values imbibed uncritically from the circumambient culture. How can Lupu accommodate Nagel's point? Is it not more plausible to hold that it is absurdity, not meaning, that is the upshot of reflection?
Albert Camus is a frustrated rationalist. He values reason and wants the world to be rationally penetrable, but he finds that it is not. What he calls the Absurd consists in the disproportion between the human need for understanding and the world's unintelligibility, "the unreasonable silence of the world." (Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage 1955, p. 21, tr. Justin O'Brien)
Lev Shestov, on the other hand, is an irrationalist. He delights in what he takes to be reason's impotence.
Such wild diversity in the life of the mind and spirit does not delight me, but it does fascinate me and serve as a goad to struggle on, day by day, for as much light as can be attained in these inasuspicious circumstances until the curtain falls -- or lifts.
Albert Camus, one of the luminaries of French existentialism, died on this day in 1960, in a car crash. He was 46. Had he lived, he might have become a Christian. Or so it seems from Howard Mumma, Conversations with Camus. This second-hand report is worth considering, although it must be consumed cum grano salis. See also Camus the Christian?
Czeslaw Milosz, "The Importance of Simone Weil" in Emperor of the Earth: Modes of Eccentric Vision (University of California Press, 1977), p. 91:
Violent in her judgments and uncompromising, Simone Weil was, at least by temperament, an Albigensian, a Cathar; this is the key to her thought. She drew extreme conclusions from the Platonic current in Christianity. Here we touch upon hidden ties between her and Albert Camus. The first work by Camus was his university dissertation on St. Augustine. Camus, in my opinion, was also a Cathar, a pure one, ['Cathar' from Gr. katharos, pure] and if he rejected God it was out of love for God because he was not able to justify Him. The last novel written by Camus, The Fall, is nothing else but a treatise on Grace — absent grace — though it is also a satire: the talkative hero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who reverses the words of Jesus and instead of "Judge not and ye shall not be judged: gives the advice "Judge, and ye shall not be judged," could be, I have reason to suspect, Jean-Paul Sartre.