On existentialism


July, 2007.-- Reading The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, by Camus. Impressive book. Tries to answer the question I was preoccupied with for a while, to wit: given Absurdity, how ought one to live? How can one affirm life while retaining intellectual integrity? Is it possible? The answer I gave was Yes.


N.B.: What I have meant by “absurdity” is not quite what Camus means by it. My idea is broader. He characterizes the absurd as revolving around the human mind’s inability to fully understand the world, to rationally digest all its facets. The human mind demands that the world meet the expectations of reason, but it fails to do so; hence there is intellectual despair. Much of life is incomprehensible, for example time, death, the metaphysical (ontological) foundations of the world, the self’s relationship with itself; humans have been thrown into this strange world and cannot wholly reconcile themselves to it. My conception of absurdity is a little broader, taking account not only of the natural world’s strangeness (i.e., ‘irrationality’) but also of the social world’s. Or the ‘moral’ world’s. Life depends to a horrible degree on chance, and the way it is ordered has nothing to do with justice. People are irrational; their behavior is not what a thoughtful man would expect it to be, based on understanding and compassion.


Anyway, Camus’s book, while thought-provoking, is little more than an exemplary product of its time. I’ve only just begun it, but I can already tell it doesn’t belong in the first rank of philosophical works. Part of the reason is its lack of analytical precision. More important, though, and theoretically culpable, is its quasi-theological, ahistorical attitude toward modes of experience that arise largely from idiosyncratic social conditions. Despite having been written long after Marx, it displays a complete ignorance of the Marxian viewpoint. In this respect it is inexcusably shallow—for, as Sartre said, “Marxism is the philosophy of our time” (and still is, despite people’s unawareness of that). Camus approaches the alienated attitude as if it is necessarily the ‘truest’ attitude, without really arguing for that assumption. He just takes it for granted! It may be true that the world will never be fully understood, or that mankind will never wholly transcend Wonder and Incomprehension, but this inadequacy of reason doesn’t ‘naturally’ or inevitably imply the estranged attitude, the self’s insecurity or debilitating confusion or perception of not belonging in the world. These latter things are (at least implicitly) value-judgments, which as such do not logically follow from any fact, as Camus seems to think they do. For by giving the relationship between “reasonable” man and “unreasonable” world the tendentious label of “absurd”, he is sneaking in a value-judgment, which as such cannot be true (as the hypothesis of the-inadequacy-of-reason-to-understand-the-world can). In other words, his position is a confused fusion of a possible truth and a value-judgment (or set of value-judgments) that it is thought (incorrectly) to entail. The set of value-judgments grows out of the atomized, schizophrenic social conditions of the time, while the possible truth in question—i.e., the strictly cognitive element of Camus’s position (as opposed to the evaluative element)—doesn’t.


Consider this passage:


Men, too, secrete the inhuman. At certain moments of lucidity, the mechanical aspect of their gestures, their meaningless pantomime makes silly everything that surrounds them. A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive. This discomfort in the face of man’s own inhumanity, this incalculable tumble before the image of what we are, this “nausea”, as a writer of today calls it, is also the absurd. Likewise the stranger who at certain seconds comes to meet us in a mirror, the familiar and yet alarming brother we encounter in our own photographs is also the absurd.

Note the word “lucidity”, and the phrase “before the image of what we are”. They show that Camus considers the alienated attitude—the alienated value-judgments—that he describes in this passage to be somehow the truest or best or most honest way of experiencing the world. But why should this be? He doesn’t say why. He just takes it for granted. The reason, of course, is that he was obsessed with this alienated feeling; he couldn’t stop thinking about it, and so it seemed to him to be obviously true. Also, admittedly the feeling does, by some psychological mechanism, carry with it the sensation of lucidity, of clear understanding (as does despair: see Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis). I know that from personal experience. Nevertheless, I realize that this attitude is, after all, nothing but an attitude, i.e., a vague evaluative cast of mind coloring experience, having no more objective validity than a joyful attitude or a loving attitude.


Incidentally, the human ignorance/incomprehension he speaks of can be invoked precisely in order to cast doubt on the “nauseated” attitude he exalts. For, given our ignorance of the world as it is in itself, it’s possible that the whole “meaningless pantomime” is in fact meaningful—that there is some deep significance to everything we do, perhaps a religious significance (if you want to call it that). Who knows? There is no a priori reason why incomprehension (or knowledge of the vastness of the universe and time and death, etc., as against our own littleness) should justify nausea over, say, exhilaration.


*


The conviction that orients my worldview, and has always oriented it, is that nature is not incompetent. It could not have arranged things so that there is a fundamental, necessary disharmony between humanity and its cosmic environment. Whatever disharmony there is must come from the faulty arrangement of society, and hence must be temporary. (By “harmony” I don’t mean utopian bliss or perfection. Harmony is perfectly compatible with certain kinds of suffering.)


Actually, in a sense there is obviously some “disharmony” between man and nature; otherwise there would be no such thing as wonder or philosophy. But it’s the “nauseated”, the alienated, absurdity-obsessed disharmony I'm referring to.


#idealism #marxism

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