Why don’t all existentialist philosophers embrace absurdism? What do they advocate instead?
Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus contends that life is absurd. But, according to his fellow existentialists Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Søren Kierkegaard, absurdism should be rejected; there’s a better way to face life.
Keep reading to learn Camus’s argument, the counterarguments by other philosophers, and Camus’s rebuttals.
Philosophical Rejection of Absurdism
Camus begins his argument with the claim that both the universe and death are unknowable. Theories of existence—such as the belief that God provides life and an afterlife, that there’s a cosmic purpose to human existence which we may realize through our actions, or that death is the end of consciousness and life has no inherent meaning—are just theories, unprovable within the limits of human experience. Despite this, Camus argues that humans have an innate need to believe that our lives have purpose and that there’s continued existence after death, to the point that our inability to definitively answer these questions torments us. This contradiction between our needs and our reality is what Camus calls the absurd.
When giving examples of thinkers who recognized the absurd only to run from it, Camus points to two existentialists he admires, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. For Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard, absurdism isn’t inevitable or beneficial. Both men ultimately turned to Christianity to satisfy their need for meaning and emotional catharsis, and Camus argues that, in doing so, they compromised their rationality.
Kierkegaard on Absurdism
Kierkegaard treats Christianity as the answer to life’s suffering and argues that it requires a leap of faith, in which people abandon their rationality in order to embrace the personal, emotional truth of God. Without making this leap, people are doomed to the anxiety and angst (in Kierkegaard’s words) brought on by recognition of the absurd. Camus claims that this argument tries to diminish the absurd’s power by equating irrationality with God. Kierkegaard’s framing suggests that while God is unknowable, he is also benevolent, meaning that mortality and death shouldn’t be feared even if they can’t be understood.
(Shortform note: Kierkegaard’s description of Christianity as inherently paradoxical and requiring a leap of faith to fully accept has been contested by some later Christian scholars such as C. S. Lewis and John Warwick Montgomery, who argue that belief in God can be logically inferred and isn’t just a matter of “blind” belief.)
Dostoyevsky on Absurdism
Similarly, Dostoyevsky’s fiction frequently deals with amoral characters and pointless suffering, and Camus draws attention to one particular character, Kirilov, who commits suicide after declaring that there’s no God and that a life without God isn’t worth living. However, many of Dostoyevsky’s novels end with his protagonists being redeemed by faith, finding that their mental and physical suffering is alleviated once they accept Christian forgiveness and the promise of life after death. In his nonfiction work Diary of a Writer, Dostoyevsky argues that humanity’s need for God in order to be happy demonstrates that faith is essential to existence, and thus God must exist. Camus dismisses this as circular logic.
Redemption by faith is central to Dostoyevsky’s two most popular novels: In Crime and Punishment, murderer Raskolnikov is tormented by guilt until a Christian friend convinces him to accept a crucifix and turn himself in; and in The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri accepts 20 years in prison as his punishment for a life of violence, gambling, and lust. Dostoyevsky was a devout Russian Orthodox Christian who spent several years in prison, and many scholars have seen autobiographical elements in his fiction.
This type of narrative, in which a sinner is “saved” and absolved of their sins by accepting Christianity, has a centuries-long history that survives into the modern day; for example, in Evangelical “born again” conversions. Camus may have intended to parody this narrative in The Stranger; when provided the opportunity to confess to a prison chaplain, Meursault declares that he “didn’t know what a sin was” and “had only a little time left [before his execution] and… didn’t want to waste it on God.”
Camus speaks more positively about the work of existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he believes accurately describe aspects of the absurd without proposing “solutions” for it. While Heidegger describes the pain of living in a world where death is inevitable, Nietzsche describes the pleasure that comes from living even in a world with no obvious purpose or meaning. However, Camus argues that both descriptions are merely starting points in the development of an absurd philosophy since they don’t address the question of how to live an absurd life.
Additional examples of philosophical rejection may be found in secular humanism or utilitarianism, which suggest that life’s meaning is not inherent but created by human action. This may mean improving life as much as possible for the greatest number of people or working toward the betterment of humanity more generally. Heidegger and Nietzsche both describe humans as being uniquely able to rise above the limits of their existence to affect change in the world around them (these arguments were quickly politicized, inadvertently in Nietzsche’s case).
Camus doesn’t specifically address humanism, and as a philosophy, it shares some similarities with his own argument for living an absurd life, since both propose focusing on earthly existence over the hope of an afterlife or belief in a higher power. However, he would likely argue that humanism’s attempts to provide meaning ultimately fail, since they don’t alleviate the absurd—whatever happiness we find on Earth is temporary, and the shortness of human lives makes affecting truly permanent change impossible.