Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. It is up to you to give [life] a meaning.Jean-Paul Sartre
Throughout history, philosophers have sought the answer to what makes life meaningful, if anything. None have been correct in finding a solution, so far. This chapter aims to analyze the various attempts in the search for meaning until now.
Life is inherently meaningless, an accurate representation of Nihilis (specifically existential Nihilism). Since 1980, there has been a surge in the study of meaning. Before that, meaning played the second fiddle to Ethics and Morality. Consequently, this surge brought about contemporary arguments for Nihilism. Before addressing these, a critique has to be made with the conception of meaning, in the eyes of a nihilist.
Oftentimes the claims around nihilism are based on a variation of “Universe doesn’t provide inherent meaning”. However, this can only be dismissed as a philosophical oxymoron. Take a chair for instance. The telos i.e purpose of the chair is to be sat on. A purpose is being given to the chair, for otherwise, it remains a lump of wood arranged in a specific order. Meaning, by its essence, is something to be given. It exists in the becoming, the means, not at the ends.
As meaning and morality are inextricably connected, arguments for nihilism, concerning meaning, frequently come from moral nihilism, the claim that nothing is of moral value. One example might be the meta-ethical claim regarding “error theory”, rejecting the existence of objective or universal values. Smith (2003) 1 argues for moral nihilism, under the assumptions of moral realism, aggregate value theory, and spatiotemporal infinitude of the universe. Benatar (2008) accounts for nihilism with the “asymmetry argument”, arguing life, as a whole, is always net negative for individuals. The major problem with Benatar (2008) 2 and Smith (2003) is the assumption of a consequentialist ethical theory as the only reliable option. Later chapters will see arguments rejecting consequentialism and its variants, for instance, Utilitarianism.
Known as the Father of Existentialism, Kierkegaard was a danish theologian and philosopher. He introduced the idea of The Absurd, further developed by Camus in the 1900s. Contrary to the absurd in the search for meaning, Soren was captivated by the dichotomy of reason and ethics, and by extension faith. One can act rationally, applying the power of reflection, but still fails in finding the good. For reason can’t explain the good.
According to Kierkegaard, goodness was an extension of God. And to act on its virtue meant placing faith in this contradiction, in other words, The Absurd. The highest form of an individual, therefore, was the Knight of Faith – the perfect believer who held faith to act authentically. His radical approach to Christianity, believing that it was not a doctrine to be taught but rather a life to be lived, was far ahead of his time.
However, there are failings in his arguments. Firstly, Kierkegaard mistakes the nature of reason. To put it concisely, Reason is the slave of the passions. The false assumption that reason must provide the ends, results in a red herring masked as criticism. Reason merely exists in the means, the ends are independent of it. Furthermore, the insistence on Christian metaphysics isn’t clear. Philosophically, Soren accepts an almost pantheistic metaphysical worldview. There isn’t a reason to attribute this worldview, solely to Christianity. It remains contingent, not necessary.
Nobel Laureate for Literature. Playwright. Essayist. Albert Camus is many things, but a philosopher is not one of them. Even by his admission, in an interview with Jeanine Delpech in Les Nouvelles Littéraires in November of 1945, commenting that he did “not believe sufficiently in reason to believe in a system”. If so, why must he be mentioned at all? Regardless of his dismay to be seen as a philosopher, his “philosophy” has had a tremendous impact culturally. Creating waves across popular culture, especially amongst the literary community. However, influence invites scrutiny. Even more so as such a worldview is incorrect, and can be a precursor to a life of moral indifference and meaninglessness.
Absurdism, Camus’ position, is a theory of paradoxes. Human beings pursue meaning, by their innate nature. This is an accepted premise in philosophy. However, Absurdism proceeds to deny an answer to this question. More specifically, it rejects the notion that any philosophical theory could ever provide a satisfactory solution to meaning. Yet the pursuit of meaning must go on. For Camus, life is born out of this unresolvable contradiction. The Absurd, in his words.
The Absurd is best presented in the retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus. In his book (Camus, 2000) 3, of the same name, he offers another perspective on the tragic tale of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was punished by Hades to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill in Tartarus. Right before the boulder reaches the peak, Hades enchants it into rolling down the mountain. Essentially consigning Sisyphus to an eternity of futile effort. Rather than imagining Sisyphus to be sad and frustrated, Camus wants us to imagine him happy. Affirming his cruel fate, in all its contradictions, with a smile on his face. For Camus, this represents how humans ought to face the absurd.
At the end of the day, by his own volition, Camus’ philosophy can only be dismissed. For it implies a rejection of reason, but reason has to be assumed for effective communication with the world. It remains an alluring, perhaps melancholic, literary device for understanding the individual and her struggle for meaning. But as a philosophy, it simply cannot be accepted.
Existence precedes essence – perhaps the most succinct expression of the idea of existentialism, and perhaps Sartre’s work. Along with intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Albert Camus (who rejected existentialism), Sartre popularized his philosophy. Identical to the Latin phrase Tabula rasa, translating to “blank slate”, he rejected the idea of innate nature. Individuals were responsible for creating meaning, instead of expecting something inherent.
While the negation of intrinsic nature lacks credibility, one must appreciate Sartre’s intuition regarding meaning. As mentioned before, meaning is something to be given. Existentialism centers around this premise, perhaps a bit too much. Not to mention, the nature of the phenomenological argument might have weakened his theory. For we are still left wondering, to fend for ourselves, how meaning must be found. The only answer, as far as French Existentialists are concerned, is aimless experimentation. Often of the frantic kind.
- Smith, Q. (2003). Moral Realism and Infinite Spacetime Imply Moral Nihilism. Time and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, 14. 10.1007/978-94-017-3530-8_4
- Benatar, D. (2008). Better Never to Have Been. Clarendon Press.
- Camus, A. (2000). The Modern Classics Myth of Sisyphus (J. Obrien, Trans.). Penguin UK.