Absurdity?

What does it mean to feel “absurd”? (That mood which Camus made so much fuss about?) Thomas Nagel, here, I think got it basically right: Absurdity is the experience of the contradiction between the objective and the subjective, stemming out of the human capacity of self-transcendence. (The significance I feel of whatever I am doing right now, vs. the objective “view from nowhere” that turns it inconsequential.) However, perhaps one can go further than the dualistic schema that Nagel provides. Absurdity does not need to be this radical contrast between the objective and the subjective, but the minimal difference between the subjective, intersubjective, and the objective—the impossibility for them to reconcile (the impossible difference between the universal and the particular).

Subjective: The view from myself. Intersubjective: The view from everywhere. Objective: The view from nowhere. The special thing about human beings is that we can be all three at the same time.

The subjective is the most natural. It is the state, in the Christian story, before the Fall, the pure consciousness of life which puts itself, as DFW says, at the center of everything. It is the understanding of myself as the Absolute—and making it a logical impossibility for any other absolute to enter my life (since the Absolute can only be one, no matter how hard Narcissus tries to be two). The intersubjective is the realm of reflective judgement (at least in Hannah Arendt’s reading of Kant’s Third Critique), the place of politics, friendship, and love—us as political and linguistic animals. It is to see at something from my subjective point of view along with other peoples point of view, using imagination (here it is significant that imagination is what, in perception, links concepts to intuition through the schema) and common sense (sensus communis, the sense that unites us as persons, that enables us to be-with other people). It sees myself as valid, but as one amongst myriad of other valid voices, as a doxa (a point of opinion) that can be argued and refuted. The objective is the scientific ideal (though great scientists will be the first to admit that it is an impossible one—because all three human realms almost-always exist simultaneously), the point from which the world is seen qua universe, as a place lacking meaning and significance for me, and myself and other people as a thing equivalent to all other things.

There is nothing wrong with all three realms. They are all valuable. They are all important. They are all meaningful. It is just that they conflict, though their conflict simultaneously endows us with humanity. We are, therefore condemned to absurdity, though it may not be so terrible a place to be.

—Small afterthought: Kierkegaard is the great thinker of the subjective. Arendt, the intersubjective. Science, the objective. All three provides a solution to the absurd by sublimating one realm to (in Lacanian jargon) “the dignity of the Thing.”

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