Albert Camus, one of the luminaries of French existentialism, died on this day in 1960, in a car crash. Not tragically, straining hubristically against limits, but absurdly, a passenger in a recklessly-piloted vehicle. "In his coat pocket was an unused train ticket. He had planned to travel by train with his wife and children, but at the last minute he accepted his publisher's proposal to travel with him." (Wikipedia)
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?
Csezlaw Milosz also draws attention to Camus' religious disposition.
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.
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?
It is important to distinguish between the putative fact of human fallenness and the various theories and doctrines about what this fall consists in and how it came about. The necessity of this distinction is obvious: different philosophers and theologians and denominations who accept the Fall have different views about the exact nature of this event or state. I use 'fact' advisedly. It is unlikely that we will be able to peel back to a level of bare factuality uncontaminated by any theory or interpretation. Surely G. K. Chesterton is involved in an egregious exaggeration when he writes in effect that our fallen condition is a fact as "plain as potatoes." (See here for quotation and critique.) But while it is not a plain empirical fact that we are fallen beings, it is not a groundless speculation or bit of theological mystification either.
It is widely recognized that there is something deeply unsatisfactory about the human condition, and that this deep unsatisfactoriness is both universal across time and space and apparently unameliorable by anything we do, either individually or collectively. Indeed, the prodigious efforts made in amelioration have in notable cases made things vastly worse. (The Communists, to take but one example, murdered 100 million in their ill-starred attempt at fundamentally improving the human condition.) This sort of 'ameliorative backfire' is a feature of our fallenness as is the refusal of many to admit that we are fallen, not to mention the cacophany of conficting theories as to what our fallenness consists in. We are up to our necks in every manner of contention, crime and depravity. One would have to be quite the polyanna to deny that there is something deeply wrong with the world and the people in it, or to think that we are going to set things right by our own efforts. We know from experience that there is no good reason to believe that. The problem is not 'society' or anything external to us. The problem is us. In particular, the problem is not them as opposed to us, but us, all of us.
So that's an important first distinction. There is the fact or quasi-fact of fallenness and there are the various theories about it. If you fail to make this distinction and identify the Fall with some particular theory of it, then you may end up like the foolish biologist who thought that the Fall is refuted by evolutionary biology according to which there were no such original human animals as Adam and Eve. To refute one of the theories of the Fall is not to refute the 'fact' of the Fall.
Lev Shestov, the Russian existentialist and irrationalist, has an interesting theory which it is the purpose of this post briefly to characterize and criticize. I take as my text an address he delivered at the Academy of Religion and Philosophy in Paris, May 5, 1935.
Start with the 'fact' of deep, universal, unameliorable-by-us unsatisfactoriness. Is this unsatisfactoriness inscribed into the very structure of Being? Is it therefore necessary and unavoidable except by entry into nonbeing? Shestov thinks that for the philosophers of West and East it is so: "In being itself human thought has discovered something wrong, a defect, a sickness, a sin, and accordingly wisdom has demanded the vanquishing of that sin at its roots; in other words, a renunciation of being which, since it has a beginning, is fated inevitably to end." (p. 2) Buddha and Schopenhauer serve as good illustrations, though Shestov doesn't mention them. Shestov, of course, is one of those for whom Athens and Jerusalem are mortal enemies ever at loggerheads. And so it comes as no surprise that he opposes the revealed truth of the Book of books, the Bible, to the wisdom of the philosophers. For the philosophers, the deep wrongness of the world is rooted in its very Being and is therefore essential to it; but for the Bible the world is good, as having been created by a good God, and its deep deficiency is contingent, not necessary:
What is said in it [the Bible] directly contradicts what men have found out through their intellectual vision. Everything, as we read in the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, was made by the Creator, everything had a beginning. But this not only is not seen as a precondition of the decay, imperfection, corruption, and sinfulness of being; on the contrary, it is an assurance of all possible good in the universe. (2)
Since the source of all being, God, is all-good, to be, as such, is good. But whence then evil? The Bible-based theist cannot say that being itself harbors imperfection and evil; so where did evil come from?
Scripture gives a definite answer to this question. God planted among the other trees in the Garden of Eden the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And He said to the first man: "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." But the tempter . . . said: "No, ye shall not die; your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing." Man succumbed to temptation, ate of the forbidden fruit; his eyes were opened and he became knowing. What was revealed to him? What did he find out? He learned the same thing that the Greek philosophers and Hindu sages had learned: the "it is good" uttered by God was not justified—all is not good in the created world. There must be evil and, what is more, much evil, intolerable evil, in the created world, precisely because it is created. Everything around us—the immediate data of consciousness—testifies to this with unquestionable evidence; he who looks at the world with open eyes," he who "knows," can draw no other conclusion. At the very moment when man became "knowing," sin entered the world; in other words, it entered together with "knowledge"—and after sin came evil. This is what the Bible tells us. (p. 3, emphasis added)
Whence the horrors of life, the deep-going unsatisfactoriness that the Buddha announces in the first of his Noble Truths, Sarvam dukkham? The answer from Athens and Benares is that being is defective in itself, essentially and irremediably. And it doesn't matter whether finite being is created by God or uncreated. Finite being as being is intrinsically defective. The answer from the Bible according to Shestov is that "sin and evil arise from 'knowledge,' from 'open eyes,' from 'intellectual vision,' that is, from the fruit of the forbidden tree."
This is an amazing interpretation. Shestov is claiming that the Fall of Man consists in his embracing of philosophy and its child science, his discovery and use of reason, his attempt to figure things out for himself by laying hold of law-like and thus necessary structures of the world. The Fall is the fall into knowledge. Like his mentor Kierkegaard, Shestov rails against the hyper-rationalism of Hegel who "accepts from the Bible only what can be 'justified' before rational consciousness" (p. 5). "And it never for a moment entered into Hegel's mind that in this lies the terrible, fatal Fall, that 'knowledge' does not make a man equal to God, but tears him away from God, putting him in the clutches of a dead and deadening 'truth.' (p. 6)
My first problem with this is the substitution of 'tree of knowledge' for 'tree of the knowledge of good and evil.' I don't find any justification for that substitution in the text under examination. Surely moral knowledge, if knowledge at all, is but a proper part of knowledge in general.
But it is worse than this. Shestov thinks of God as a being for whom all things are possible. This is connected with his beef with necessity and with reason as revelatory of necessity. "What handed man over to the power of Necessity?" (p. 12) He quotes Kierkegaard: "God signifies that everything is possible, and that everything is possible signifies God." But this leads straightaway to absurdities -- a fact that will of course not disturb the equanimity of an absurdist and irrationalist like Shestov.
If God is defined as the being for whom all is possible, then nothing is necessary and everything that exists is contingent, including God, all truths about God, and the moral laws. And if all things are possible, then it is possible that some things are impossible. Therefore, possibly (All things are possible & Some things are not possible), whence it follows that it is possible that some contradictions are true.
So the position Shestov is absurd, which fact will not budge him, he being an embracer of absurdities. But it does give us a reason to ignore him and his interpretation of the Fall. So I consider his theory of the Fall refuted.
S. Kierkegaard/J. Climacus, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Swenson and Lowrie tr., Princeton UP, 1941, pp. 154-155, emphasis added):
All honor to him who can handle learnedly the learned question of immortality! But the question of immortality is essentially not a learned question, rather it is a question of inwardness, which the subject by becoming subjective must put to himself. Objectively the question cannot be answered, because objectively it cannot be put, since immortality precisely is the potentiation and highest development of the developed subjectivity. [. . . ] Systematically, immortality cannot be proved at all. The fault does not lie in the proofs, but in the fact that people will not understand that viewed systematically the whole question is nonsense, so that instead of seeking outward proofs, one had better seek to become a little subjective. Immortality is the most passionate interest of subjectivity; precisely in the interest lies the proof. [. . . ]
Quite simply therefore the existing subject asks, not about immortality in general, for such a phantom has no existence, but about his immortality, about what it means to become immortal, whether he is able to contribute anything to the accomplishment of this end, or whether he becomes immortal as a matter of course . . .
I agree that the question of immortality is primarily an existential question, a question for the existing individual, and not primarily a learned or scholarly or 'scientific' or objective question. And surely there is no immortality in general any more than there is a chamber pot in general. Mortality and immortality are in every case my mortality or immortality and it is clear that I have an intense personal interest in the outcome. I am not related to the question of my own immortality in the way I am related to a purely objective question that doesn't affect me personally, the question, say, whether the universe had a beginning 15 billion years or only 5 billion years ago, or had no beginning at all, etc. Such questions, as interesting at they are from a purely theoretical point of view, are existentially indifferent. What's more, occupation with such questions can serve to distract us from the existential questions that really matter. Finally, I agree that one is not immortal as a matter of course, but that immortality is at least in part a task, a matter of the free cultivation of inwardness, the ethical constitution of the self.
So far, then, I agree with SK. Unfortunately, SK exaggerates these insights to the point of making them untenable. For surely it is preposterous to maintain, as SK does maintain above, that the immortality question has nothing objective about it. Let us suppose that how I live, what I do, whether and to what extent I cultivate my inwardness, and whether or not I lose myself in the pseudo-reality and inauthenticity of social existence does affect whether I will survive my bodily death. Suppose, in other words, that my immortality does depend on the highest development and potentiation of my subjectivity and that soul-making is a task. Well, if this is the case, then this is objectively the case. And if it is the case that immortality is a possibility for beings like us, then this is objectively the case. It is not the case because of some subjective stance or attitude that I might or might not assume. I cannot make it be the case if it is not the case by any potentiation of inwardness. I cannot will myself into immortality unless it is objectively the case that immortality is a possibility for beings like us. Furthermore, if we do not become immortal as a matter of course, then this too is objectively the case if it is the case.
And because the question of immortality has an objective side, it is important to examine the reasons for and against.
Kierkegaard/Climacus comes across as a confused irrationalist in the above passages and surrounding text. If a question is primarily existential, it does not follow that it cannot be "objectively put," for of course it can. If a question is primarily subjective, it does not follow that it is purely subjective. And if immortality cannot strictly be proven, it does not follow that there is nothing objective about the issue. This is another, fairly blatant, confusion. Has any one succeeded in strictly proving that the soul is immortal or strictly proving the opposite? No. Is the question an objective question? Yes.
It is simply false to say that "viewed systematically the whole question is nonsense." What is true is that, if the question is viewed SOLELY in a systematic and objective way it is nonsense. For it is clear that the question affects the existing individual in his innermost being. What is troubling about SK is that he cannot convey his insights without dressing them up in irrationalist garb that makes them strictly false.
Does my interest in my personal immortality constitute the proof of my personal immortality? Of course not. So why does SK maintain something so plainly preposterous? For literary effect? To serve as a corrective to Hegelian or other 'systematic' excess? But surely the proper response to an extreme position is not an equal but opposite extreme position, but a moderate and reasonable one.
Commentators on Maurice Blondel have often noted the similarity of his thought to existentialism. Blondel’s concept of action, for example, is remarkably similar to the concept of existence that we find in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre and other existentialists. Herewith, a brief comparison of action in Blondel’s L’Action (1893) with Existenz in Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (1927) with a sidelong glance in the direction of Jean-Paul Sartre.
One doesn’t have to read much Blondel to realize that he uses ‘action’ in a broader way than is philosophically usual. Thus he does not oppose it to theory or contemplation. It includes the latter. Action in Blondel’s sense is a "synthesis of willing, knowing, and being . . . it is the precise point where the world of thought, the moral world, and the world of science converge." (Action, 40) Thus action is not the same as will when the latter is contrasted with intellect: action is at the root of both intellect and will. Action, we could say, is man’s Being, as long as we do not oppose Being to willing or knowing. (I write ‘Being’ rather than ‘being’ to mark what Heidegger calls the ontological difference between das Sein und das Seiende – but I can’t explain that now.)
Existence is often 'invisible' to analytic types well-versed in logic, for existence is "odious to the logician" as George Santayana sagely remarked in Scepticism and Animal Faith (Dover, 1955, p. 48) It is so odious, in fact, that they need to mask it under the misnamed 'existential' quantifier. So I need to resort to extreme methods to bring it into view I will quote from Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea.
Now it goes without saying that I don't agree with Sartre that existence is an unintelligible surd. For me it is the opposite of unintelligible. But what I will borrow from Sartre is the insight that existence is extralogical: it is precisely not what Quine said it was whn he said that "Existence is what existential quantification expresses." So let's consider the famous 'chestnut tree' passage.
Suppose we divide theories of the meaning of human life into the exogenous and the endogenous. According to the exogenous theories, existential meaning derives from a source external to the agent, whereas on endogenous theories, meaning and purpose are posited or projected by the agent. Classical theism provides an example of an exogenous theory of meaning: because man was created by God for a purpose, namely, to serve and glorify him in this world and commune with him in the next, the purpose of human life is to live in accordance with the divine will so as to achieve one's higher destiny of unending bliss. Jean-Paul Sartre's theory as presented in the manifesto "Existentialism is a Humanism" is an example of an endogenous theory. Indeed, it is the polar opposite of a theistic theory of existential meaning: "Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position." (369, Kaufmann anthology) Herewith, some critical commentary on Sartre's theory as we find it in the essay mentioned.
The anguish of the American confronted with Americanism is an ambivalent anguish; as if he were asking, "Am I American enough?" and at the same time, "How can I escape from Americanism?" In America a man's simultaneous answers to these two questions make him what he is, and each man must find his own answers.
It sounds like projection to me. Anguish? Ambivalence? Had I been able to drag Jean-Paul's sorrily citified Parisian ass away from his cafes, Gauloises, and Stalinist comrades and through the Superstition Mountains in June — well, perhaps the univocity of rock and sun and the reality of a world that is not man-made but also not a featureless surd-like en soi would have cured his anguished ambiguity.