The Absurd – Thomas Nagel

In this selection, Nagel attempts to analyze a sentiment that is often expressed by those contemplating the meaning of life – namely, that “life is absurd.” He argues first that the reasons that are ordinarily given for thinking that life is absurd are inadequate. He maintains, though, that there is indeed a sense in which the human condition is absurd, and attempts to show why this is so. He further argues, though, that the absurdity of our lives need not be a source of distress for us.

It is sometimes suggested that the human condition is absurd because nothing we accomplish will matter in the distance future. But if this is so, Nagel maintains, then it must also be the case that facts about the distant future also do not matter now. But if that is right, then the fact that nothing I accomplish now will matter in the distant future is a fact that should not matter to me now. Thus, this is an insufficient reason for thinking that life is absurd. Nagel recognizes that people often rely on pointing out the brevity of a human life, and the relative minuteness of a human being in order to demonstrate that human lives are absurd. Again, though, Nagel thinks that these are considerations that are irrelevant to absurdity. He maintains that having infinitely long lives, or being infinitely large, would not diminish the absurdity. Next, he considers the argument that life is absurd because we cannot provide ultimate justification for our behavior in light of the fact that we will, at some point in the future, cease to exist. Nagel again rejects this reasoning; it is not the case that chains of justification need continue indefinitely.

In order to demonstrate that human life is indeed absurd, Nagel begins with a short analysis of how we ordinarily understand the concept. Absurdity results when there is a certain incongruity between the way the world actually is, and the “pretension or aspiration” of our dealings with the world. Absurdity concerning the human condition arises, then, when we attend to the fact that we take our lives extremely seriously, while simultaneously noting that there is a certain arbitrariness to everything that we do. Nagel then attempts to argue that we do indeed take our lives seriously, and secondly, that we are incapable of avoiding doubts about the importance or meaning of our lives. He notes several similarities that the argument for absurdity shares with arguments for epistemological skepticism. Just as skepticism, though, does not cast us into despair concerning our claims to knowledge, Nagel maintains that the absurdity of our lives should not be treated as a threatening problem.