Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Albert Camus (for my Western Philosophy students)

To my Western Philosophy Students at MCCC: Here are the Camus notes I will be lecturing from. The essay is "An Absurd Reasoning," from The Myth of Sisyphus; in Jerry Gill, The Enduring Questions, pp. 167 ff.


“An Absurd Reasoning”

How difficult, even impossible, “to distinguish what is true from what is false.”

If we assert: All is true. Then this statement’s contrary (All is false) is true.

But that is absurd.

If we assert: All is false. This is contradictory, because then the statement “All is false” is false. Which is absurd.

But… what if we say something different than this.

For example: If we say, God does not exist. Call this statement X.

Then, we apply truth to that statement only, and we get: X1 - It is true that God does not exist.

But then: is X1 true? If we say yes, we then generate statement X2, which is:

X2 – It is true that it is true that God does not exist.

“For the one who expresses a true assertion proclaims simultaneously that t is true, and so on ad infinitum.”

People want to understand reality. This means, for a person: to reduce reality to thought.

Only then is the mind satisfied.

“The mind that aims to understand reality can be considered itself satisfied only by reducing it to terms of thought.” (168)

“To understand is, above all, to unify.” (168)

“That nostalgia for unity, that appetite for the absolute illustrates the essential impulse of the human drama.” (168)

But the problem is this:

· The mind asserts total unity
· This very assertion proves its own difference and the diversity it claimed to resolve
· This is a “vicious circle” that “is enough to stifle our hopes.”

BUT NOTE: Camus is using logic/reasoning to make this very point. If this point can itself be made, then it seems that we’re really not so hopeless and helpless to get at truth. In other words:

Camus thinks his reasoning is true
Therefore, we can get at truth without slipping into some vicious circle

As Camus writes: “These are again truisms… I know another truism: it tells me that man is mortal.” (168-169)

Camus instructs – constantly keep before you the great gap between what we think we know and what we really know. (169)

This is the epistemological issue.

Camus thinks that “practical assent” and “simulated ignorance” allow us to live with false and contradictory ideas.

If we only knew all the false stuff in our minds, “if we truly put them to the test,” this “ought to upset our whole life.” (169)

“So long as the mind keeps silent in the motionless world of its hopes, everything is reflected and arranged in the unity of its nostalgia.” (169)

“But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles: an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding.”

“We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart.”

History is a series of “successive regrets and its impotences.”

(“The history of science is the history of error.”)

“Of whom and of what indeed can I say: “I know that!””

NOTE: Camus makes a lot of knowledge claims in this essay.

“This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.” (169)

One can’t, e.g., define the “self.” One cannot get a hold of the self.

“This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance, a gap will never be filled.” (169)

“Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.”

OK. But what about empirical reality? Can’t we know that?

“And here are trees and I know their gnarled surface, water and I feel its taste. These scents of grass and stars at night, certain evenings when the heart relaxes – how shall I negate this world whose power and strength I feel?” (169)

“Yet all the knowledge on earth will give me nothing to assure me that this world is mine.” (169)

Which means?

· You describe the world to me
· You reduce the things described to the atom
· You reduce the atom to the electron
· “You explain this world to me with an image” (169)
· Your “science” has been reduced to poetry. Thus, “I shall never know.”
· The paradox of analysis
· “I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.” (169)
· “You give me a choice between a description that is sure but that teaches me nothing and hypotheses that claim to teach me but are not sure.” (169)

“Hence the intelligence, too, tells me in its way that this world is absurd.” (170)

But… “I had said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty.

The world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said.

But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.

The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.” (170)


1. The mind cries out for clarity and unity
2. The world defies clarification
3. THIS… is the absurdity, that we should so much want understanding but can never, ever get it.

“From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing one of all.” (170)

There’s no proof yet that human reason works to bring real understanding and unity of mind.

There is much proof that the mind is intense in its hopes for understanding. (170)


2. A VISION OF THE “WALLS ENCLOSING HIM” (i.e., understanding is not possible, and this is becoming clearer and clearer)


1. “I want everything explained to me or nothing.”
2. Human reason is powerless when it hears this cry from the heart.

“The mind aroused by this insistence seeks and finds nothing but contradictions and nonsense.”

“The world itself, whose single meaning I do not understand, is but a vast irrational. If one could only say just once: “This is clear,” all would be saved.” (171)

The mind reaches its limits.

Then, it must “make a judgment and choose its conclusions.

“This is where suicide and the reply stand.” (171)

The experiences Camus is writing about were “born in the desert.”
- “The desert” = the crying out for “water” when there is no “water.”
- The crying out for understanding when there is no understanding.
- “At this point man stands face to face with the irrational.”
- “He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason.”

“The absurd is born of this confrontation between:
- The human need
- And the unreasonable silence of the world.” (171)

There is an encounter of:
- The irrational
- Human nostalgia (longing for the old understanding)
- The absurd

The “absurd” is the “divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together.” (171)

For Camus the question was: Can one live with this?

Or – does logic command one to die of it.

“I am not interested in philosophical suicide, but rather in plain suicide.”

Camus is certain of these things:

I have a desire for unity, a longing to solve, for clarity and cohesion.

The actual world resists such things.

“I don’t know whether this world has a meaning which transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”

Here’s what Camus knows:

What he understand is this – what he touches, and what resists him.

Camus has two certainties:
- He has an appetite for the absolute and for unity
- It is impossible to reduce this world to a rational and reasonable principle
- HE WRITES: “I know that I cannot reconcile them.” (172)

And this is absurd.

To live, or not to live, with this constant, hopeless absurdity?

COMMENTS, PP. 180-182

Existentialism is a philosophy of crisis.

People are “hungry for meaning, for identity, for some roots in existence, for some structure of purpose in human experience, for some protection against anxieties and frustrations.” (181)

NOTE: It is precisely at this point that the historical nature of Christianity is appealing to me.

In existentialism “there is a constant protest against what might be called the na├»ve optimism of all forms of Idealism, religious and nonreligious.” (181)

Existentialism has a “negative appraisal of the importance of empirical or scientific reason.” (181)

“Existentialist writers maintain a strict dichotomy between the factual and the valuational dimensions of human existence.” (181)

Critical reason is essentially irrelevant to valuational considerations.

“Critical reason, with its stress on objectivity, alienates the knower from the known and systematically avoids all questions of decision and commitment as hopelessly “subjective.”” (181)