Absurdism is a type of philosophy centered on the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any. The conflict itself is called ‘the absurd,’ by absurdist philosophers.
Absurdists, most notably French philosopher Albert Camus, believe that when human beings realize this fundamental absurdity the most sensible response was to accept the absurd, and also to keep trying to overcome it. He believed that a human being could become happy by finding meaning in their relationship with the absurdity of their existence. In acknowledging the absurdity of seeking any inherent meaning, but continuing this search regardless, one can be happy, gradually developing meaning from the search alone.
Another reaction is to believe in something higher (Camus gave religion as an example, but went on to criticize its merit as a solution to fundamental absurdity). The final reaction is suicide, but Camus dismisses the viability of this option, stating that it does not counter the Absurd. Rather, the act of ending one’s existence only becomes more absurd. In the philosophy of absurdism, finding meaning in life is not ‘logically impossible,’ but rather ‘humanly impossible.’ The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously.
Accordingly, the absurdist school argues that the efforts of humanity to find inherent meaning will ultimately fail (and hence are absurd) because the sheer amount of information as well as the vast realm of the unknown make total certainty impossible. As a philosophy, absurdism furthermore explores the fundamental nature of the Absurd and how individuals, once becoming conscious of the Absurd, should respond to it. Camus stated that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also defiantly continuing to explore and search for meaning.
Absurdism shares some concepts, and a common theoretical template, with existentialism and nihilism. It has its origins in the work of the 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who chose to confront the crisis that humans face with the Absurd by developing his own existentialist philosophy. Absurdism as a belief system was born of the European existentialist movement that ensued, specifically when Camus rejected certain aspects of that philosophical line of thought and published his essay ‘The Myth of Sisyphus.’ The aftermath of World War II provided the social environment that stimulated absurdist views and allowed for their popular development, especially in the devastated country of France.
Camus believed that by accepting the Absurd, one can achieve the greatest extent of their freedom, and that by recognizing no religious or other moral constraints and by revolting against the Absurd while simultaneously accepting it as unstoppable, one could possibly be content from the personal meaning constructed in the process. ‘To live without appeal,’ as he puts it, is a philosophical move to define absolutes and universals subjectively, rather than objectively. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, regarded this solution as ‘demoniac madness’: ‘He rages most of all at the thought that eternity might get it into its head to take his misery from him!’
Absurdism originated from (as well as alongside) the 20th-century strains of existentialism and nihilism, and so it shares some prominent starting points with, though also entails conclusions that are uniquely distinct from, these other schools of thought. All three arose from the human experience of anguish and confusion stemming from the Absurd: the apparent meaninglessness in a world in which humans, nevertheless, are so compelled to find or create meaning. The three schools of thought diverge from there.
Existentialists have generally advocated the individual’s construction of his or her own meaning in life as well as the free will of the individual. Nihilists, on the contrary, contend that ‘it is futile to seek or to affirm meaning where none can be found.’ Absurdists, following Camus’s formulation, hesitantly allow the possibility for some meaning or value in life, but are neither as certain as existentialists are about the value of one’s own constructed meaning nor as nihilists are about the total inability to create meaning. Absurdists following Camus also devalue or outright reject free will, encouraging merely that the individual live defiantly and authentically in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.
Camus himself passionately worked to counter nihilism, as he explained in his essay ‘The Rebel,’ while he also categorically rejected the label of ‘existentialist,’ he was, and still is, often broadly characterized by others as one. Both existentialism and absurdism entail consideration of the practical applications of becoming conscious of the truth of existential nihilism: i.e., how a driven seeker of meaning should act when suddenly confronted with the seeming concealment, or downright absence, of meaning in the universe. Camus’s own understanding of the world (e.g., ‘a benign indifference’, in ‘The Stranger’), and every vision he had for its progress, however, sets him apart from the general existentialist trend.
For Camus, the beauty people encounter in life makes it worth living. People may create meaning in their own lives, which may not be the objective meaning of life (if there is one), but can still provide something to strive for. However, he insisted that one must always maintain an ironic distance between this invented meaning and the knowledge of the absurd, lest the fictitious meaning take the place of the absurd.
Freedom cannot be achieved beyond what the absurdity of existence permits; however, the closest one can come to being absolutely free is through acceptance of the Absurd. Camus introduced the idea of ‘acceptance without resignation’ as a way of dealing with the recognition of absurdity, asking whether or not man can ‘live without appeal,’ while defining a ‘conscious revolt’ against the avoidance of absurdity of the world. In a world devoid of higher meaning or judicial afterlife, the human nature becomes as close to absolutely free as is humanly possible.
The rejection of hope, in absurdism, denotes the refusal to believe in anything more than what this absurd life provides. Hope, Camus emphasizes, however, has nothing to do with despair (meaning that the two terms are not opposites). One can still live fully while rejecting hope, and, in fact, can only do so without hope. Hope is perceived by the absurdist as a fraudulent method of evading the Absurd (along with religion), and by not having hope, one is motivated to live every fleeting moment to the fullest. In the words of Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ epitaph: ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’
The absurdist is not guided by morality, but rather, by their own integrity. The absurdist is, in fact, amoral (though not necessarily immoral). The Absurdist’s view of morality implies an unwavering sense of definite right and wrong at all times, while integrity implies honesty with one’s self and consistency in the motivations of one’s actions and decisions.