Nagel’s Absurd

Thomas Nagal has written what is perhaps the most profound, accurate, and beautiful depiction of life. It isn’t idealistic, it isn’t pessimistic, and it isn’t farfetched.

The premise of Nagal’s piece, “The Absurd”, is simple and easy to infer from the title: the lives of humans are absurd. He uses the two premises derived from the definition of absurdity (a contrast between either idealism or aspiration and reality) to describe an ironic dichotomy in human activity, which is the seriousness in which people approach their lives and the “possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitrary…”

The crux of the first half of his argument rests on the activity of personal reflection that all humans engage in. Were we to be animals incapable of reflection, he argues, we would be slaves to our instincts, effectively negating any possibility for aspiration, thus defeating absurdity. However, the fact that we are idealistic and have aspirations, the fact that we plan what we want our occupations to be, our concern for our personal lives, our concern for others, categorizes our existence as absurd in that nothing we do “matters a million years from now.”

Nagal, however, seems more concerned with the reaction to existential absurdity than it’s explanation. He addresses attempts to escape absurdity via reflective absence (impossible according to Nagal) and via suicide. He rebuts both by posing the question of whether or not the absurdity of our existence is a problem that needs solving. Instead of attempting to overcome absurdity, Nagal argues that our absurdity is one of humanity’s most human elements.

“If a sense of the absurd is a way of perceiving our true situation, then what reason can we have to resent or escape it? …It results from the ability to understand our human limitations. It need not be a matter for agony unless we make it so…. we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.”

**EDIT** I’ve noticed a lot of people have been visiting this post. I’m curious what all of you have to say about “The Absurd.” Feedback is appreciated.

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6 thoughts on “Nagel’s Absurd

  1. Isn’t it Nagel?

    Yeah, I know it’s not important. He was my advisor a lifetime ago. I didn’t like him then.

    Is he worth reading? Didn’t DuChamp say it all so much better: “There is no solution because there is no problem?”

  2. Thanks for catching that. I don’t know how I made that error.

    I haven’t read DuChamp yet, but I’ll be looking out for him now.

    And, I think the only way you can be sure he isn’t worth reading is to read him. I think you’ll change your opinion.

  3. I am reading this page because I am doing a philosophy paper. We are to summarize the paper.. and I picked this over the Shopenhauer piece… though this is pretty hard to understand as well. So I am looking for someone else that understands what he is saying.. because summarizing each paragraph / idea at a time is way too time consuming.

  4. Nagel’s claim is that our human existence is not absurd even though many people claim otherwise. Being absurd is what makes us human, and it is also what makes us most interesting. Nagel has many different arguments pertaining to the question why live if we people are just going to die? Nagel has many specific arguments that he shuts down throughout the text, but the most important one was if there isn’t a reason for believing that anything matters, then that statement doesn’t matter either which is why “we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism and despair. I agree with that statement and that we should live our life through irony, because living a life through disparity would just be a waste of time of short life. Our questions would forever be questioned and un answered so we should just accept the inevitable, and live our lives through irony.

  5. I mean it’s a great way to really think about life. If we are stuck to realize that our lives are absurd, and in the end our actions don’t truly matter in the grand scheme of life, it definitely frees us to view life ironically, but furthermore pursue the life that it is we would like to pursue. Especially since Nagel brings up that the view that we are but insignificant in the universe isn’t enough to justify [haha] that specific belief, as many tend to do. I also have a presentation on this paper, one due in approximately 7 hours and 11 minutes or so. I’ve already concluded all I can from this paper, but it’s always nice to see the succinct descriptions of others. So thank you very much for that.

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