|UFDC Home||myUFDC Home | Help|
This item has the following downloads:
1 THE COST OF GOING NOWHERE: THOMAS NAGEL, SREN KIER KEGAARD AND THE ABSURD By THEODORE BENSON RANDLES A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2007
2 2007 Theodore Benson Randles The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Depart ment of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
3 But suppose the whole matter were really a hocus-pocus Suppose that whatever meaning you may choose in your fanc y to give to it, the real mean ing of the whole was mockery. Suppose it was all folly. Suppose I have been in it, answer ed the voice from the tall and strange figure, and I know it was not. G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill With much admiration and affection to all those who have ennobled my life by their care and concern; especially to General Richard La wson, whose example and character have made this study possible
4 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS To all those who aided me in this endeavor I give my most sincere thanks. I individually mention and thank Drs. Robert DAmico, Gord on Marino and Stewart Duncan; who guided and challenged my work. To those friends and fa mily who have put up with my ramblings on absurdity these past few months, you also have my thanks.
5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... ..............6 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION................................................................................................................... .8 2 AN ABSURD CONFLICT.....................................................................................................12 Irreconcilables................................................................................................................ .........12 Nowhere Man.................................................................................................................... .....21 Proximity...................................................................................................................... ..........27 3 AN ABSURD RESOLUTION...............................................................................................35 The Knight of Faith............................................................................................................ ....35 A Grave Pursuit................................................................................................................ ......45 Speculations................................................................................................................... .........54 4 AN ABSURD RECONCILIATION.......................................................................................65 LIST OF REFERENCES............................................................................................................. ..73 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.........................................................................................................75
6 Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts THE COST OF GOING NOWHERE: THOMAS NAGEL, SOREN KIER KEGAARD AND THE ABSURD By Theodore Benson Randles December 2007 Chair: Robert DAmico Major: Philosophy Thomas Nagel develops his philosophical sense of absurdity, between his Mortal Questions and The View from Nowhere as the conflict between th e objective and subjective perspectives regarding our lives. We can objec tively doubt all of the subjective commitments of our lives, viewing them as matters of indifferenc e. These viewpoints cannot be eliminated or reconciled, and their cl ash is the absurd. Sren Kierkegaard argues that the search for objective certainty with regards to subjective matters is a futile effort; it is beyond the abilitie s of a person. Objective doubts can always be raised about our subjective ente rprises. Despite this objective doubt, we commit ourselves to our lives with the passion of inwardness. This, one of the pseudonyms tells us, is a paraphrasing of faith. Both Nagel and Kierkegaard belie ve that the absurd is inherent to human life and that it cannot be solved. Life is a matter of living w ith our absurdity. Both recommend reengaging our lives despite lacking rational justification for doing so. For Kierkegaard, absurdity is an occasion for faith, as reason cannot compel our reengagement. Nagel advocates a return to life with irony. For both, consciousness of our absurdity also leads to humilitya recognition that our subjective pursuits are without objective grounds.
7 And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus we nt unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they we re troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, B e of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me co me unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was af raid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. And immediately Jesus stretched forth his ha nd, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wher efore didst thou doubt? Matthew 14: 28-31 (KJV)
8 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION The present work does not attempt to give an exhaustive analysis of the various senses and meanings of the term absurd. The term has lent itself to myriad uses and, partly as a consequence of this, myriad topics. For exampl e, in Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus1 absurdity is linked with theology, free will, metaphys ical realism, and the moral issue of suicide. The interweaving of these themes has much to do with the difficulty of grasping Camus view. The aim of this work is to carve out what I cons ider a central meaning of the term absurdity and to avoid, as much as possible, thes e other issues, as interesting as they may be. In pursuit of this narrower focus I compare the philo sophical analysis of absurdity found in Thomas Nagel with some of Sren Kierkegaards writings on faith and absurdity. I contend that there is an interesting and important converg ence of ideas between them conc erning the absurd as well as how to practically live with th e problem. Before concentrating on their work, it may be helpful to begin with a broad characteri zation of the idea of absurdity. Why should we concern ourselves with the absurd? Absurdity seems to arise when contemplating the place of humanity in the expans e of the universe. The length of human life is a mere moment when compared to cosmic time; a human being is of miniscule size compared to astronomical objects. If we firmly immerse our selves in our immediat e lives, these thoughts may never arise. Frank Ramsey offers just such a nepenthe in commenting, W here I seem to differ from some of my friends is in attaching little importan ce to physical size. I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The st ars may be large, but they cannot think or love, and these are qualities which impres s me far more than size does. I take no credit for weighing 1 Albert Camus, trans. Justin OBrien, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage International, 1991).
9 nearly seventeen stone. My pictur e of the world is drawn in perspe ctive, and not like a model to scale. The foreground is occupied by human bei ngs, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.2 But we are not bound to Ramseys perspectival schema. We can make the jump into the stars that shrinks our concerns and pursuits. We can distance ourselves, viewing our lives as the background with the stars in the foreground. The ab surd arises because both accounts remain, and yet we cannot fully marry the view from wit hout with the view from within. This gap or incongruity is common to most senses of th e absurd, whether the problem is treated as circumstantial or universal. Camus thought this matter was connected with the question, Ought I to live? Absurdity is a condition we naturally seek to escape. Yet, if it is a fact of our lives, we may be forced to give the problem central significance. Camu s introduces his essay by announcing, Judging whether life is or is not worth living amount s to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.3 Jeffrey Gordon, whose comparison of Nagel and Camus will be considered later in this work, argues, If human life is indeed absurd, it would be difficult to imagine a more important fact about it. Whatever view we might project upon the st ars, it would be a fact that we humans, for whom alone it would be releva nt, could not but find deeply dispiriting.4 In pursuing our lives, we all occupy Ramseys perspec tive. But we can take the viewpoint of the stars, and it is that abrupt shift that is at the center of the concept of the absurd. 2 Frank Ramsey quoted in Simon Blackburn, Being Good: A Short Introduction to Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 79. 3 Camus, Sisyphus p. 3. 4 Jeffrey Gordon, Nagel or Camus on the Absurd? Philosophical and Phenomenological Research Vol. 45, No. 1 (Sept., 1984), pp. 15-16.
10 Like many other philosophical problems, the problem of absurdity lacks clear consequences for day-to-day life. This does not mean it is a puzzling ri ddle devoid of practical import. Rather, it is an issue in the way we understand ourselves; it addresses our deepest concerns. In this way, the absurd is similar to such classic philosophical questions as the clash between free will and determinism or the notion of personal identity. The conflicting intuitions that form the basis of philosophi cal problems often do not arise in everyday life. The present grasp of the absurd in Nagel and Kierkegaard is critical. Consciousness of the absurd has a peculiar consequence: though it ch anges nothing, it changes everythi ng. We continue to do just the things that we did before our consciousness of the absurd, and yet a metamorphosis occurs in our understanding of ourselves and the lives we lead. The sense of absurdity being carved out as centr al to this work is often treated comically. In Woody Allens Annie Hall the main character as a child is seen being taken to the doctor by his mother for refusing to do his grammar school homework. When asked to explain his actions, he notes that the universe is e xpanding and thus eventually all matter will come apart. Whats the point? the child asks. The conflict between the effort required to complete his homework and the childs grasp of cosmic impermanence fuel s the scenes absurd humor: here we glimpse the simultaneous proximity and inco ngruity of the absurd. Allen s comic question is a form of that larger philosophical question, Ought I to live? Thomas Nagel concludes that human existe nce is inherently absurd. Though we may attempt to practically confront the conditions of absurdity, Nagel contends that we cannot eliminate them. If Nagel is corre ct, we should be able to locate a conflict inherent to existence and understand what about the conflict is irreco ncilable. Nagels reasoning on this issue comprises the first chapter of the present work.
11 Sren Kierkegaard, writing under his own name and various pseudonyms, discusses the relationship of faith and the absurd. In the se cond chapter I will examine a number of his works that parallel Nagels account. Albert Camus, whose views on absurdity in The Myth of Sisyphus are contrasted with Nagels in the seco nd chapter, criticizes th e faith of Kierkegaard for evading the absurd through irrational faith. Using Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling I show that Camus criticism is based on a misreading. Faith is made despite consciousness of the absurd, not in ignorance of it. Faith does not deny the impossibil ity of reconciling the conflicted elements. Yet, can Kierkegaards faith address Nagels way of posing the issue? We will move from Fear and Trembling to other Kierkegaardian works relevant to Nagels sense of the absurd. In the discourse At a Graveside as well as in the pseudonymous Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, an ex amination of the relation of objectivity and subjectivity is developed whic h will bear on our understanding of Nagel. The third chapter compares Nagel and Kierkega ard. I believe that Nagel and Kierkegaard share a common grasp of absurdity, despite their di fferent means of arrivi ng at this conclusion. Also, both Kierkegaard and Nagel advocate a return to living our lives despite the absurd: Kierkegaard through passionate inwardness, Nagel through the ir onic distancing of objective consciousness.
12 CHAPTER 2 AN ABSURD CONFLICT Irreconcilables I begin by exploring Thomas Nagels development of the absurd in The View from Nowhere1 and especially in the article The Absurd in his Mortal Questions2. The second part of this chapter examines the objective perspectiv e as an essential feature of Nagels sense of absurdity, the necessity of which leads Nagel to c onclude that human existence is essentially and irrevocably absurd. Nagel largely constructs his sense of absurdity in contrast to Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus and this chapter ends by using this contrast as a final means of clarifying Nagels account of absurdity. Nagels sets about in The Absurd to desc ribe and understand absurdity as a feeling. Most people feel on occasion that life is absu rd, and some feel it vividly and continually.3 After noting the near universality of this feeling, Na gels effort is to offer an explanation of why we have this feeling. Nagel dis tinguishes between the feeling that accompanies absurd situations and the feeling that human life as such is absurd beginning with the former manifestation to aide in his explanation of the latter. Ordinary cases of circumstantial absurd ity become the foundation on which Nagel develops his philosophical sense of the absurd. In ordinary life, write s Nagel, a situation is absurd when it includes a conspicuous discrepanc y between pretension or aspiration and reality .4 He provides several exampl es: [S]omeone gives a complicated speech in support of a 1 Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). 2 Thomas Nagel, The Absurd in Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and originally printed in The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 68, No. 20 (Oct. 21, 1971), pp. 716-727. 3 Ibid, p. 13. 4 Ibid.
13 motion that has already been passed; a notori ous criminal is made president of a major philanthropic foundation; you declare your love ove r the telephone to a r ecorded announcement; as you are being knighted, your pants fall down.5 All these situations share the sort of discrepancy between aspiration and reality that Nagel identifies as common to ordinary cases of the term. The absurd conflict is apparent. However, the observer can imagine changes that would eliminate the absurdity of these situati ons. Thus, these ordinary cases are neither permanent nor universal. The account of absurdity Nagel seeks to locate is broader than these individual cases. The sense that life as a whole is absurd arises when we perceive, perhaps dimly, an inflated pretension or aspiration which is inseperable from the contin uation of human life and which makes its absurdity inescapable, short of escape from life itself.6 This conflict, common to all human existence, constitutes what Nagel describe s as the philosophical sense of absurdity. If there is a philosophical sense of absurdity, however, it must arise from the perception of something universal some respect in which pret ension and reality inevitably clash for us all.7 Ordinary manifestations of absurdity come and go in the course of circumstances. But if human life in itself is absurd, what reason can be give n for this? In what wa y do reality and pretension inevitably clash? This is not as clear, for often we are solemn and have the good fortune of wearing our pants. Nagel argues that the re asons normally given for absurdit yfor instance, the brevity or smallness of human lifecould not be why there is this deeper sense of the absurd. For suppose we lived for ever; would not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid, p. 13. 7 Ibid.
14 absurd if it lasted through et ernity? And if our li ves are absurd given our present size, why would they be any less absurd if we filled the universe (either b ecause we were larger or because the universe was smaller)?8 Though appeals to the brevity an d minuteness of human life seem bound up with the notion of absurd ity, they cannot be the reason for the absurdity. According to Nagel, philosophical absurd ity is not produced by a conflict between ourselves and our circumstances, as in ordinary cases, but is more properly understood as an irreconcilable conflict within persons. This condition [of absurdity] is supplied, I shall argue, by the collision between the seriousness with which we take our lives and the perpetual possibility of regarding everything about which we are serious as arbitr ary, or open to doubt.9 Our ability to look on our lives as both a serious matter and a matter of indifference constitutes our absurdity. These evaluations are joined in one person, combining to form the apparently conflicted report: Life is a serious matter of indifference. And this, we can see, is rather absurd. Nagel sets himself two tasks in defending his sense of absurdity: Thi s analysis requires defense in two respects: first as regards the una voidability of seriousness; second as regards the inescapability of doubt. Seriousness and doubt, the conditions for absurdity, are for Nagel inextricably intertwined with two perspectives that are esse ntial parts of human personhood. Nagel maintains that neither of the perspectives can be eliminated, a nd thus, neither can the resulting seriousness or the doubt. As a result, absurdity can not be eliminated. Nagel begins with what he calls the subjec tive perspective, the first-person perspective of the course of life. From within the subj ective perspective, we grasp the importance and 8 Ibid, p. 12. 9 Ibid, p. 13.
15 significance of our intents, actions and attachments. In this ma nner, we directly understand the meaning of our lives. We dedicate constant attention and effort to these pursuits; we take them seriously. In committing great energy to the realization of our goals and aspirations we are not that different from the animals. We struggle to survive, to find a spouse, and to fulfill our needs and desires. This is not absurd for Nagel; a mous e is not absurd. The cl ash is not between our struggle for survival and the world, as we may at first be led to believe. There is rather an additional condition specific to human existence; namely, a perspective other than the firstperson, subjective perspective. Nagel calls the second perspective the objec tive perspective. Y et humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themse lves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. Without developing the illusion that they are ab le to escape from thei r highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis and the view is at once sobering and comical.10 Thus the trait essential to absurdity, that one which sets us apart from the animals, is the co-presence of both external and in ternal views of ourselves; a life is both me and it. This external view of ourselves as it allows us to doubt everything we pursue as me. We watch an ant and we think that the ants survival or extinction is a matter of indifference. We can take a similar view of ourselves and, despite the subjective feelings, see our own success or failure as a matter of indi fference. Objectively we doubt the subjective standards of meaning for a persona l life, for they all appear arbitrary. This evaluation is itself 10 Ibid, p. 15.
16 not absurd, just as the seriousness of our lives alone is not absurd. Absurdity is the collision that occurs when we commit ourselves to our own lives as though they were meaningful even after we have taken the step back and seen that ther e is no external match for our commitment. We find no objective echo for the subj ective conviction that our lives are meaningf ul, yet we return to living with that very convicti on. As Nagel puts it, Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and ther e lies our absurdit y: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ul timate concerns we so coolly regarded.11 While the subjective perspec tive is easy enough to understa nd (it is, after all, the perspective of our lives), the objective perspectiv e may seem more mysterious. It usually takes a metaphorical form in Nagels descriptions. We step back, regard our selves from without, feign a nebulas-eye view. In short, as we noted before, we cease seeing a life as me and see it as just it. I will discuss the objective pers pective later in this ch apter; but for now only a rough grasp of the the perspective is needed for Nagels thesis. Turning away from our subjective personhood, we no longer find ourselves. Instead, we find bits of organized matter in a seemingly endl ess expanse of matter. Philosophical absurdity arises when this view collides with our subjec tive feelings. Subjectiv ely we are convinced we have significant lives. We could not dedicate the requisi te effort needed to maintain our lives if we did not feel they were significant. Yet this feeling of significance cannot be substantiated from the objective perspective. From without we look with i ndifference upon what from inside constitutes serious and meaningful work; ther e is no reconciling th e gap between the two perspectives. 11 Ibid.
17 An example may clarify this conflict. From the subjective perspectiv e, a graduate student may view the completion of his thesis as a highl y significant, watershed moment. He may even dream of the impact his words will have on the destiny of the world. Yet if he takes the objective view, and coolly distances himself all significance deflates : some being on an insignificant planet orbiting an insignificant st ar in an insignificant galaxy finishes an insignificant thesis. It just doe s not matter; no objective reason ju stifies that students sense of the works import. As in the scene from Annie Hall this realization may result in asking, Whats the point? When we continue the effort despite our inability to answer this question, we confront the absurd. Now, of course, objective significance has b een sought in a commitment to higher causes such as service to humanity, the state, or God. Relinquishing pe rsonal aspirations in order to serve a larger cause gives hope of evading absu rdity. Perhaps such a course of action can reconcile the subjective and objec tive viewpoints in the sense that one can subjectively share in an intersubjective enterprise with real, objective value. Yet, Nagel points out, these endeavors can be deflated in the same way as an individual life was. If we detach ourselves and ask, Why is this significant? Why does it deserve my conc ern? Whats the point? no answer can be given without once again appealing to th e subjective perspective. If th e lives of individuals have no significance, why should a state composed of mu ltiple lives have any significance? Higher pursuits appear the same as base needs when looke d at externally: as matters of indifference. And so we can doubt their signif icance in just the same way. From outside we do not see a larger purposera ther, we see that no pu rpose can satisfy us beyond doubt. We do not step outside our lives to a new vantage point from which we see what is really, objectively significant. We continue to take life largel y for granted while seeing that all
18 our decisions and certainties are pos sible only because there is a great deal we do not bother to rule out.12 We can only hold onto the subjective value of our lives because of a sort of natural faith that allows us to cling to truths we do not and cannot rationally defe nd. If we relied solely on reason Nagel contends we could not return to our lives. This return to them without any reason, though, is absurdity. Meaning and significance are erased in the shift from the subjective to the objective perspective. When our lives lose their place as the cen ter of our concerns, they also lose their significance and importance, and onc e that erosion has begun there is no way to return to a nave confidence in a lifes significance. Yet in returning to our subj ective projects after our objective detachment, we act as though we had found that which always elude s us. We take seriously a life whose significance we doubted without finding an answer. To Nagel, despite being irreconcilable, neither the subjective nor the objective perspective can be abandoned. Thus we have trapped within our persons the elements of the absurd conflict. This constitutes our universal absurdity, regardless of any external circumstances. There does not appear to be any conceivable world (conta ining us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise. Consequently the absurdity of our situation derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves.13 Our absurdity lies in the inextinguishable possibility of both doubting and caring for the significa nce of any life we may live within any world of which we find ourselves. Once he has established the essential part s played by the subj ective and objective perspectives in absurdity, Nagel turns to consid er possible means of eliminating or minimizing 12 Ibid, p. 19. 13 Ibid, p. 17.
19 the conflict. Since the absurd results from a conflict between the two perspectives, eliminating one or the other of them can eliminate absurdity. These efforts constitute the first two solutions proposed. A third solution seeks to dissolve the problem as unreal. Ridding ourselves of one of the two perspectives is not worth the cost, according to Nagel, even were it possible. Giving up the subjective pe rspective by self-etiolation costs us our lives and all the pleasures that come with being a person. The sh edding of subjective pursuits sacrifices personhood, and it demands such asce tic effort that it may, Nagel suspects, inadvertently heighten the absurd ity of the person rather than eliminating it. The person must work far too strenuously and seriously in an ente rprise whose value is doubtful, returning him once again to absurdity. On the other hand, giving up the objective persp ective is to rid ourselv es of a knowledge of ourselves and the world that sets us above other creatures and marks our greatness. It is to caste off our highest rational faculty, one that Nagel fi nds essential. Much of the development of ethics, argues Nagel, involves objectively recasti ng the way we look at human life. Ethical thought demands objectivity; stepping beyond ourse lves recognizing the s ubjective claims of others as well as our own. The subjective clai ms of multiple persons are given equal objective weight. Thus, for Nagel, ethics is a co mpromise between the subjective and objective perspectives. Additionally, Nagel argues that the objectiv e perspective cannot be consciously willed away. The capacity to assume the objective vantag e, once it is develope d, cannot thereafter be forgotten. Absurdity is much like the elephant in the room. As much as we may seek to ignore the elephant, once we notice its existence it become s hard to forget. We could seek to stop the objective perspective from developing in the first place, but Nagel finds this a great price to pay.
20 If consciousness of the objectiv e perspective never de veloped absurdity would not become an issue. We would not be able to take the step from which all our subjective engagements come under doubt. Our lives would resemble the mous e we spoke of earlierthe mouse was not absurd. To rid ourselves of absurdity we w ould sacrifice all the posi tive developments made possible by the objec tive perspective. Nagel considers a third solution, which is ra ther a repudiation of the problem. This objection has to do with the rela tion of the objective and subjective perspectives, whether there truly is a conflict between them. This final objection will be discussed in the next section, where it will give occasion to more thoroughly examin e the objective perspective. Glossing over this matter for the time being, Nagel concludes that the absurd is a problem inherent to human existence. That which makes us persons also makes us absurd, and the means of extinguishing absurdity also involve extingui shing ourselves as persons. Nagel puts the problem in abbreviated form near the end of his articl e. And that is the main condition of absurdity the dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life.14 The objective and subjective views of our lives cannot be r econciled, yet we must live with them both. We can always doubt the commitments that are central to our lives Though he suggests means of minimizing our absurdity, Nagel argues that as long as the objec tive and subjective perspectives coexist, the significance of a life can be put in irresolvable doubt. Yet Nagel does not find absurdity repugnant. The recognition of absurdity is possible because of our advanced understanding of ourselv es. In this regard, Nagel echoes Pascals Penses : The greatness of man is great in that he knows himself to be miserable. A tree does 14 Ibid, p. 22.
21 not know itself to be miserable. It is then bei ng miserable to know oneself to be miserable; but it is also being great to know that one is miserable.15 The knowledge of our absurdity is, in a way, a price of human existence, and though it may sober us, the ab ility to evaluate our objective significance is a unique ability. Having established that absurdity is real a nd inescapable, Nagel considers what practical steps should follow from the recognition of our absurdity. Nagel recognizes that, while suicide has been viewed as a response to absurdity, it is not. Suicide can only cease the struggle, not solve it. Instead of such action, Nagel recommen ds two courses to minimize our absurdity. In his article Nagel recommends returning to our lives with a certain ir ony. Though we reengage our lives, and begin taking them seriously again, we can view them with a sense of irony that can mitigate the subjective importance we may be tempted to feel. In The View from Nowhere Nagel recommends humility as a means of winnowing our self-importance down to a more rationally justified level.16 Between the two works, we return to our lives with an ironical understanding of our objective unimportance and a humility that admits that, in our unimportance, we are no more important than those people around us. Our lives remain absurd, but less delusional. Nowhere Man The third solution Nagel considers in both The Absurd and The View from Nowhere seeks to deny the conflict between the objective a nd subjective perspectives. In his article, Nagel puts the objection in the following way: It may be objected that the standpoint from wh ich these doubts are supposed to be felt does not exist that if we take the recommended backward step we will land on thin air, without any basis for judgment about the natural responses we are supposed to be surveying. If we retain our usual standards of what is important, then questions about the 15 Blaise Pascal, trans. W.F. Trotter, Penses (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2003), p. 107. 16 Nagel, The View from Nowhere pp. 222-223.
22 significance of what we are doing with our live s will be answerable in the usual way. But if we do not, then those questions can mean nothing to us, since there is no longer any content to the idea of what matters, and he nce no content to the idea that nothing does.17 In The View from Nowhere the objection takes similar form. The movement to the objective perspective is a denial of our basic humanity, and ther efore it should not surprise us that human convictions concer ning meaning and significance also disappear. How can the unimportance of my life from that poi nt of view have any importance for me ? Perhaps the problem is a purely philosophi cal artefact, and not real.18 The fact that human concerns do not matter for this constructed nowhere man does not me an that they should not matter to me. Our objectivity is simply a development of our human ity and doesnt allow us to break free of it.19 The objection seeks to deflate the conflict. There is no collision be tween the objective and subjective perspectives when they are properly unde rstood. Each perspective is properly distinct from the other, and the judgments they make are adequately relativized. The absurd is to be perplexed by that which is not perplexing. Nagel responds to this solution in differi ng ways, emphasizing throughout the nature and importance of the objective perspective and the doubts it raises concerni ng subjective meaning. Nagels responses will give me the occasion to examine the objective perspective more closely than has thus far been possible. The viability of the third solution becomes, to use a bit of Shakespeare, a step on which we must fall down, or else oerleap.20 Either the conflict is serious or it is illusory; we are stuck or we leap over what once seemed a terrible prospect. 17 Nagel, Mortal Questions p. 17. 18 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 216. 19 Ibid, pp. 220-221. 20 William Shakespeare, Macbeth I.4.48-49.
23 We have seen that the objective perspective al lows us to view our lives from outside or from far away. Yet these distancing expressi ons are only a metaphorical means of relating the viewpoint Nagel is discussing. We must endeav or to understand what it is about the objective perspective that makes meaning impossible. And if objective meaning truly is impossible, should it affect the subjective pe rspectives commitment to life? In speaking of the objective perspective, Nagel has in mind a loosening of the grip that the particular concern we have for our lives bears on our reasons for engagement. I picture the universe of which I am a small part, and thereby I picture my concerns as small and insignificant. I view myself as one among billions; my life lose s any privileged status. My detachment from the lives of others and my normal valuation of their lives becomes a pattern for this new, detached view of myself. Once I loosen the nor mal attachment, through these or other means, I become an unconcerned spectator. Having discarded the inherent c oncern I have for my life in the normal course of living, I take new stock of my life. Everything now app ears quite differently. Th e only justifications I seem to be able to give in defending my engage ment in life hinge on the subjective valuations of that life. The concern I have then for my own particular life is unjustifiable when viewed from without. Not only can I not find objective reasons to care about my life, but Nagel argues that such reasons are impossible because there is a point at which justifications give out. [W]e can ask not only why we should take aspirin, but why we should take trouble over our own comfort at all. The fact that we shall take the aspirin without waiting for an answer to this last question does not show that it is an unreal question.21 We cannot answer the question by saying, Well, it is my life! since the subject ive commitments are what are being doubted; we are seeking a 21 Nagel, Mortal Questions p. 19.
24 justification for those subjective commitments. But this search for objective justifications eventually founders: no objective re ason can be given for the enga gement we have toward our lives. Yet why should the absence of objective justificati on affect the subjective meaning and importance of my life? This is the basic form of the third objection. I will begin with Nagels answer in The Absurd and then move to The View from Nowhere Nagel replies that such an objection misconceives the natu re of the backward step.22 Its purpose is not to show us a larger perspective in order to demonstr ate what is really important. Rather, it reveals a perspective from which nothi ng matters or can matter. Nagel notes that in ordinary cases of circumstantial absurdit y, our judgments depend on normal standards of seriousness. But this is not so with regard to the objective perspective and the philosophical judgment of absurdity. Nagel concludes by reit erating the difference between the philosophical judgment of absurdity and ordinary cases: [Ph ilosophical absurdity] departs from them only in contrasting the pretensions of life with a larger context in which no standards can be discovered, rather than with a context from which alte rnative, overriding sta ndards may be applied.23 The judgment stems not from the paltriness of our specific concerns, as an ordinary sense of absurdity might. Rather, the objective perspective causes us to doubt any and all reasons for engagement in a life, even what we normally r ecognize as the best reas ons. Nagel likens this philosophical judgment to skepticism.24 Once the cord to our lives has been severed, no reason is sufficient to justify reconn ecting it. Absurdity does not i nvolve so much a repudiation of 22 Ibid, p. 17. 23 Ibid, p. 18. 24 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 218.
25 subjective significance as a recognition of its la ck of foundation. The lack of foundation allows us to doubt the subjective judgments we make in choosing to take our lives seriously. Without our natural affinity for life, objectiv e detachment could permanently separate us from our subjective concerns, as Nagel notes in The Absurd: What sustains us, in belief as in action, is not reason or justifica tion, but something more basic than these for we go on in the same way even after we are convinced that the reasons have given out. If we tried to rely entirely on reas on, and pressed it hard, our lives and beliefs would collapse a fo rm of madness that may actually occur if the inertial force of taking the world and life for granted is someho w lost. If we lost our grip on that, reason will not give it back to us.25 It is not by reason that we return to our livesi f this were our only means of return, we would fail and perhaps go mad. We return despite the ab sence of justification. Nagel quotes a famous passage from Humes Treatise on Human Nature : Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mi nd, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and wh en after three or four hours amusement, I would return to these speculations they appear so cold, and st raind, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to en ter into them any farther.26 There is no means of rationally assuaging the doubts we can feel c oncerning any subjective reasons for involvement. Our convictions concer ning the significance of our lives return when we reengage our lives; however, we also know that reason did not justify the reengagement. In The View from Nowhere Nagel considers the following re sponse: Even if the problem cant be dismissed as unreal, it may have a simple solution. Is it so certain that the attitudes conflict as they appear to? Si nce the two judgments arise from di fferent perspectives, why isnt 25 Nagel, Mortal Questions p. 20. 26 Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, bk I, pt IV, sect 7; ed. Selby-Bigge, p. 269 quoted in Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions p. 20.
26 their content appropriately relativized to t hose perspectives, rendering the conflict illusory?27 Nagel objects that the two judgments are made by one and the same person concerning one and the same thing. It is I who say both this is mean ingful and this is mean ingless about my life; the collocation of these judgments is what is absu rd. Nagel laments: The trouble is that the two attitudes have to coexist in a single person who is act ually leading the life toward which he is simultaneously engaged and detached.28 Nagel does consider a compromise between the two perspectives. The objective perspective can recognize the role of the subjective pe rspective in the leading of a life. In The View from Nowhere he compares the objective perspective s grasp of meaning to a deaf mans grasp of music: The fact that the point of something cant be understood from th e objective standpoint alone doesnt mean it must be regarded objectivel y as pointless, any more than the fact that the value of music is not directly comprehensib le to someone deaf from birth means he has to judge it worthless. His knowledge of its value must depend on others. And the objective standpoint can recognize th e authority of particular point s of view with regard to worth as it can with regard to essentially perspectival facts.29 Though from the objective perspec tive life is a matter of indi fference, we can objectively recognize the subjective values that are central to the living of a life. But this does not justify the concern I feel for my life, and in this regard it is insufficient as a solution to absurdity. The chasm between objective and subj ective evaluations remains unbr idged. From the objective vantage, I can see the subjective co nvictions, but I cannot discover a wa y that leads to that place. For Nagel, the search for independent, objec tive justifications for living a life cannot be discovered. 27 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 216. 28 Ibid. 29 Ibid, p. 219.
27 This absence of justifications leaves us seriously undertaki ng tasks that may not warrant our concern, like the boy who questions doing his homework. The objective perspective makes us cognizant of this possibility. Thus we seek to find an inherent meaning to justify our engagement before we take life seriously. When the objective perspective fails to find this justification, yet we continue, we have absurdity in the philosophical sense. Thus Nagel finds all attempts to reconcile the two perspectives, or to eliminate their conflict, unsatisfactory. The obj ective and subjective perspectives necessary to human life and yet at odds, render human life absurd. Living is a matter of maintaining an uncomfortable peace between these two vantages in th e pursuits of subjectivity. Proximity Nagel contrasts his sense of absurdity with Ca mus. Camus, in opposition to Nagel, locates the conflict of absurdity between a person and the world. It may be of value to delve more deeply into the salient differences between Camu s and Nagel, and the reasons for their differing conclusions. There are two main differences between Na gel and Camus. Nagels absurdity is constituted by our failure to find objective reasons to justify the concern centr al to our lives. The doubt that arises from consciousne ss of the objective perspective collides with the commitments of the subjective perspective. Until this objective consciousne ss awakens in us, we are not absurd, for the conflict is not present. For Camu s, absurdity is a featur e of our confrontation with the external world and consciousness is not an essential part of ab surdity, but is only a way to recognize absurdity that exists regardless of th is awareness. Thus Nagel holds that there is no possible world in which human ex istence would not be absurd, while for Camus absurdity comes about because of the world that we by chance find ourselves inhabiting.
28 For Camus, the absurd is born of a search fo r a meaning that this world cannot satisfy. Several passages from Sisyphus make this clear: T his world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irra tional and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world.30 The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation.31 [T]he Absurd is not in man (if such a metaphor could have a meaning) nor in the world, but in their presence together.32 Our natural longing for meaning cannot be fulfilled by this world, and this confrontation is absurdity. Camus grants that consciousness of our absurd ity can make us tragic but it is not the source of absurdity. Camus makes this clear when he speaks of Sisyphus fate: If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Wh ere would his torture be, i ndeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. Bu t it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.33 Thus, the absurd person becomes c onscious of absurdity and lives with it, but his consciousness is not a constitutive elemen t of his absurdityabsurdity is simply a fact of the world as it is. In some passages Camus writes as though it is a fact of the world that it lacks meaning. But he also makes a skeptical argument that we simply do not know if it has such a meaning: I dont know whether this world has a meaning th at transcends it. Bu t I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? Wh at I touch, what resists methat is what I 30 Camus, Sisyphus p. 21. 31 Ibid, p. 30. 32 Ibid. 33 Ibid, p. 121.
29 understand. And these two certaintiesmy appeti te for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principleI also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, w ithout bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothi ng within the limits of my condition?34 Here Camus treats the problem as epistemic: tr anscendent meaning may not be knowable. This sense of absurdity is not the same as that in which the world as a fact has no objective meaning. But Camus ignores this differe nce in stating the problem. Nagel distinguishes his conception of absurdit y from that of Camus in the following way, part of which we have already seen: Camus maintains in The Myth of Sisyphus that the absurd arises because the world fails to meet our demands for meaning. This suggests that the world might satisfy those demands if it were different. But now we can see that th is is not the case. There does not appear to be any conceivable world (containing us) about which unsettlable doubts could not arise. Consequently, the absurdity of our situati on derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but fr om a collision within ourselves.35 In Nagels account the absurd ha s nothing, constitutively, to do w ith the world: thus the question of absurdity may be raised concerning any po ssible world. Absurdity results from the opposition created when the subjective and objective perspectiv es are taken of any possible world. Disputes about the facts of the world have no bearing on absurdity. This explains why, according to Nagel, humans are absurd while animals are not. As Nagel notes, A mouse is not absurd, because he lacks the capabilities for self-consciousness and self-transcendence that would enable him to see that he is only a mouse. If that did happen, his life would become absurd .36 Consciousness of the objective perspective, from which our lives appear as matters of indifference, is neces sary to render our caring for those lives absurd. 34 Ibid, p. 51. 35 Nagel, Mortal Questions p. 17. 36 Ibid, p. 21.
30 We are absurd because we nonetheless rededicate ourselves to our lives given this objective indifference. Camus in contrast argues: If I were a tr ee among trees, a cat among animals, this life would have a meaning, or rather this problem would not arise, fo r I should belong to this world. I should be this world to which I am now opposed by my whole consciousness and my whole insistence upon familiarity. This ridiculous reason is what sets me in opposition to all creation.37 In spite of the phrase w ould have meaning, Camus come s close in this passage to Nagel. Absurdity has to do with an ability to di vorce ourselves from the world and look at it as though one were not a part of it, from without. Our reas on, giving rise to objective doubts, sets us in opposition to the lives we lead and the world of which we are a part. Camus also agrees that the pr oblem is not to be solved: The rule of method alluded to above appears here If I judge that a thing is true, I must preserve it. If I attempt to solve a problem, at least I must not by that very solution conjure away one of the terms of the problem. For me the sole datum is the absurd. The first and, after all, the only condi tion of my inquiry is to preserve the very thing that crushes me, consequently to respect what I consider esse ntial in it. I have just defined it as a confrontation and an unceasing struggle.38 Like Nagel, Camus identifies the absurd as a conscious struggle that cannot be assuaged. For Camus, absurdity is connected to the issu e of suicide. This is clear from his own synopsis of essay: The fundamental subject of The Myth of Sisyphus is this: it is legitimate and necessary to wonder whether life has a mean ing; therefore it is legitimate to meet the problem of suicide face to face. While the precise connection between absurdity and suicide may seem unclear, and I will not explore it furthe r here, Camus held that suicide was a possible rational response to consciousness of the absurd. But Camus then examines another course. 37 Camus, Sisyphus p. 51. 38 Ibid, p. 31.
31 Suffering can be avoided through hope: Is one to die voluntarily or to hope in spite of everything?39 Thus hope becomes a means of eludi ng absurdity while continuing to live. Though we may not understand the meaning of the world, while it may elude us completely, it can still be hoped for by way of faith. While Camus notes several philosophers who embrace such a view, he rejects this appeal to faith. Camus specifically attacks the idea of the leap of faith as he found it in the writings of Kierkegaar d, Jaspers, and Dostoevsky: Prayer, says Alain, is when night descends over thought. But the mind must meet the night, reply the mystics and exis tentials. Yes, indeed, but not that night that is born under closed eyelids and through the mere will of mandark, impenetrable night that the mind calls up in order to plunge into it. If it must encounter a night, let it be rather that of despair, which remains lucidpolar night, vi gil of the mind, whence will arise perhaps that white and virginal brightness which outlines every object in the light of the intelligence.40 Camus rejects those who would dissolve the absurd conflict through faith a nd thereby rid it from their consciousnesses. One cannot rationally resolve the conflict, a nd so faith jumps over reason. Camus specifically argues against Kierkegaard, belie ving that Kierkegaard, in his call for faith, demands the resignation of reason in the face of absurdity. Christi anity is the scandal, and what Kierkegaard calls for quite plainl y is the third sacrifice require d by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: The sacrifice of the intellect.41 His solution, then, is not a solution of the conflict but a suspension of our consciousness of it. We abandon reason and remain (or willingly become) ignorant of our absurdity. The accuracy of Camus characterization of Kierkegaard and faith will be considered in the ne xt chapter. Central to Camus critique is a belief that Kierkegaard calls for a Pyrrhic aba ndonment of consciousness in defiance of the meaningless appearance of the world. 39 Ibid, p. 16. 40 Ibid, p. 65. 41 Ibid, p. 37.
32 We can see why such an action, even if accep ted, would not dissolve human absurdity if we return to Nagels sense of the absurd. Fa ith in the meaningfulness of the world does not eliminate the distance between objective and subject ive perspectives. One can ask, even if the world is objectively meaningful, Why should I bother? This question cannot be answered in the way that justifies our subjective commitments. Having faith that the world has a meaning does not justify partic ipation; it bypasses justification entirely. Camus seems to assume th at religious belief is an easy means of avoiding the question of absurdity, but Nage l recognizes that belief is not enough to justify involvement. Belief concerning the metaphysical nature of the wo rld is something entirely different from the reasons that justify my invol vement in that world. Jeffrey Gordon notes this broadening of absurd ity from Camus to Nagel. The problem of absurdity came to the fore in the wake of a part icular movement in the history of ideas, in a particular setting. Yet Nagel take s this development and poses it in such a way that it becomes a universal human condition, independent of any meta physical realities or beliefs. Gordon alludes to Nagel when he asks rhetorically, Could it be however, that the relation between the theme of the Absurd and its historical occasion, the so -called "death of God," is wholly contingent?42 Gordon sees Nagels development of the philoso phical sense of absurdity as just such a broadening. Absurdity is not a contingent fact about the world, but a feature of the clash between objective and subj ective perspectives rega rdless of the world. Gordon rejects Nagels account of the absurd, and defends Camus by a line of thought akin to the third solution to absurdity discussed by Nagel: the demands of th e objective perspective cannot be fulfilled. Gordon argues that this should not surprise us. No longer in a position to 42 Jeffrey Gordon, Nagel or Camus on the Absurd? Philosophical and Phenomenological Research Vol. 45, No. 1 (Sept., 1984), pp. 15-16.
33 be affected by those issues, we are at the same time no longer in a position to appreciate their significance.43 The objective perspective is too far out of touch to recognize significance when it sees it. Rather than refuting Nagel, Gordon reinfor ces Nagels point. We do not assume the objective perspective to discover wh at is really significant; rather from the objective perspective we discover something very hard to notice when caught up in the subjec tive perspective: we discover that all our subjective concerns are open to objective doubt. Gordon acknowledges that we can always occupy a viewpoint from which our concerns appear as matters of indifference, and the doubts that this fact ra ises cannot be dispelled. This is the Nagelian sense of the absurd. Yet Gordon argues, similar to the third objective, that since the doubts th e objective perspective raises cannot be answered, we ignore them. Though Gordon errs in his criticism of Nagel, I agree with his characterization of the broadening of absurdity from Camus to Nagel. Gordons point can be se en in the example of Sisyphus. Sisyphus mythical fate is a natural expression for the absurd, according to Camus, because it evokes the absurdity of all human life. Condemned forever to the backbreaking and fruitless labor of rolling a rock up a hill, the pretension of Sis yphus labor is impossibly at odds with the reality of his situation. Likewise fo r Camus our absurdity lies in the conflict between our longing for meaning and the world we inhabit. The world is a rock, and cannot fulfill our desires. If Sisyphus could accomplish his task, he would not be absurd. If our longing for meaning could be fulfilled, we would likewise not be absurd. Yet Sisyphus may just as well serve as an example of Nagels broadened sense of the absurd. Sisyphus may, if he becomes conscious of his fate, question the obj ective significance of 43 Ibid, p. 28.
34 his task. Then Sisyphus would be absurd in Nage ls sense, for he would remain committed to a task whose serious undertaking he could doubt, seeing it as a matter of indifference. Yet even if Sisyphus could complete his task he could still ask why he should be interested in rolling rocks up a hill. He will still fail to find objective reas ons to participate in this work, despite his new reality. Thus, his ability to accomplish his task has no bearing on its objective significance. He is absurd as long as he is consci ous of this objective perspective. The most general characterizati on of Camus and Nagels senses of absurdity may be drawn in the following way. For Camus, the human longi ng for meaning is absurd because it cannot be fulfilled by the world. Thus we spend our liv es pursuing a task whose consummation cannot come about. This is our similarity to Sis yphus: earnest engagement in a task the world precludes. For Nagel, our subjective striving is not absurd because it cannot be fulfilled, but because it cannot be justified. Thus we can alwa ys doubt the subjective dedication that is central to being a human person. I turn in the next section to a considerati on of Kierkegaard, and the manner in which faith can address both senses of absurdity. We ha ve seen why Camus rejects faith and why Nagel feels it cannot affect our absurd condition. Yet a cons ideration of severa l of Kierkegaards works may give occasion to reconsider the rela tion of faith and the problem of absurdity. We will begin with Camus and the absurdity of unattainable fulfillment, and this will be a springboard from which we will then deal with how faith can respond to Nagel and the absurdity of unattainable justification.
35 CHAPTER 3 AN ABSURD RESOLUTION The Knight of Faith In this chapter I turn my focus from Thomas Nagels development of the absurd to the works of Sren Kierkegaard. Ki erkegaard writes extensively on i ssues of absurdity and faith, and their relation. This chapter begins with a dialectical examin ation of Camus criticism of faith in The Myth of Sisyphus. While Camus contends that the faith of which Kierkegaard speaks denies the absurd, this is not the case. Faith must recognize the absurd to be faith. From this picture of faith as a response to Camus sense of the absurd, I move in the latter part of this chapter to examine how faith can also stand as a response to Nagels sense of the absurd. Kierkegaard acknowledges the conflict between obj ective and subjective perspective. The faith he speaks of embraces subjectivity despite objective doubts. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus writes conc erning Sren Kierkegaard, To be sure, it is hard to outline clear propositions in so elusive a writer.1 The use of pseudonyms is only one among many factors that make Kierkegaard so elusive. As Camus notes, it is exceedingly difficult at times to pick Kier kegaards voice out from the pol yphonic voices of his pseudonyms. Yet, at least in this regard, Kier kegaard has given us guidance with regards to attribution. In his First and Last Explanation, Ki erkegaard writes, Therefore, if it should occur to anyone to want to quote a particular passage from the books, it is my wish, my prayer, that he will do me the kindness of citing the respective pse udonymous authors name, not mine .2 The pseudonyms are not Kierkegaards mouthpieces, and to attribute any pseudonyms views as 1 Camus, Sisyphus p. 37. 2 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 627.
36 Kierkegaards is a risky endeavor. As Kierkegaard also tells us in his explanation, Thus in the pseudonymous books there is not a single word by me.3 For our purposes, the question of Kierkegaards pa rticular views can be left aside. Rather, our investigation seeks to understand two things, ultimately, concerning Kierkegaard. First, did he deal with something similar to Nagels sense of the absurd in his wr itings, pseudonymous or not. Second, if he did, what response did he re commend to this absurdity, and in what ways, if any, does this response differ from that advocated by Nagel. Leaving aside the ever-present questions of pseudonymity that are tempting in any study of Kierkegaard, the goal of this part is to develop a single tapestry from the various th reads of the pseudonyms: a tapestry that will at once resemble and diverge from Nagels project. We have already briefly sketched the criticisms of faith leve led by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, centering especially on what Camus ch aracterizes as Kierkega ards evasion of the conflict of the absurd. That conflict, we rememb er, was between the drive for meaning that is so central to human life and the meaninglessness of the world. Camus faults the advocates of faith, especially Kierkegaard, with denying one of th e conflicts elements. In making this point, Camus centers on Kierkegaards pseudonymous Fear and Trembling ; Camus quotes directly from the work as he considers faith as a solution to the absurd. In this section I intend to show that Camu s criticisms of Kierkegaard are mistaken by demonstrating the essential relation of the absurd conflict with faith in Fear and Trembling Far from dissolving the conflict by false means, for Kierkegaard the conflict is the ground of faith. The discussion of faith and the absurd in Ca mus sense will lay the foundation for a later discussion of Nagels sense of the absurd. In addressing Nagel, I will turn to Kierkegaards 3 Ibid, p. 626.
37 examination of the relation of objectivity and subjectivity across a number of his works, but especially the Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Fear and Trembling written by Kierkegaards pseudonymous author Johannes de Silentio, is a study of faith primarily focused on the Biblical father of faith, Abraham. It should be noted that Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, make s no distinction between Kierkegaard and de Silentio; it seems clear that the ch aracterization of faith Camus objec ts to and which he attributes to Kierkegaard is that set forth by de Silentio. This is interesting, as de Silentio tells us again and again in the course of Fear and Trembling that he is not a man of fa ith; he is a poet-dialectician.4 Thus it is strange that Camus woul d take de Silentios stated belie fs for the position of faith. De Silentio does not possess the faith he sees in Abraham, but this does not lead him to dismiss Abraham. Rather, he finds in Abraham a figure and trial both wondrous and appalling. Of note for our present discussion, de Silentio and Ca mus take strikingly opposed positions regarding a faith they both admit they do not possess. Their dialectic may aide in showing the inadequacy of Camus criticism of Kierkegaard s faith. But more than that, a clearer understanding of faith may be helpful as we turn, later, to a possible Kierkegaardian response to Nagels sense of the absurd. To begin, Camus criticism should be reca lled and expanded. As Camus discusses Kierkegaard in The Myth of Sisyphus, it beco mes clear through repetiti on that Camus faults Kierkegaard for dissolving one of the elements of th e absurd conflict. That conflict, according to Camus, is between the human longing for meani ng, which Camus in this specific section calls nostalgia, and the irrational silence of the world of which we are a part. Of these two things, 4 Cf. Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Fear and Trembling (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 32, 34, 37, 50, 51.
38 Camus finds that Kierkegaards faith demands that we sacrifice our nostalgia, giving it up in an act of trust in God. Camus finds in de Silentios description of this position an evasion, a cheat, a scandal. And, in truth, something like the ch eat that Camus describes is pres ent. It gives up one of the elements of the conflictthe te mporal longingand its consolati on is a belief in a future resolution. De Silentio acknowledges that this is where he st ands; he gives up his nostalgia, to use Camus term. But Camus has overlooked a ke y point: de Silentio does not have faith. He longs to possess it, but he cannot. Central to de Silentios depiction of faith in Fear and Trembling is what he calls the double-movement of fa ith. There are two movements on the path to faith: one the movement of in finite resignation, th e other the movement of faith. Both are essential to faith, but de Silent io admits he has only made the first movement and cannot make the second. Thus Camus, in taking de Silentios position as the position of faith, makes a fatal error. Camus criticizes de S ilentio on resignation, not faith. De Silentio seeks to make the double-movement clear through an example: Nevertheless, this marvel can so easily deceive that I shall describe the movements in a specific case . A young lad falls in love with a princess, and this love is the entire substance of his life, and yet the relation is such that is cannot possibly be realized, cannot pos sibly be translated from ideality into reality.5 Reality precludes the fulfillment of the knights love. We may already note the parallel between such an example and the conf lict Camus describes as our longing for meaning in a world that cannot possibly fu lfill it. De Silentio descri bes the double-movement of faith through the responses to this conf lict of two knights: the knight of infinite resignation and the knight of faith. 5 Ibid, p. 41.
39 The first knight, the knight of infinite resignation, beholds the impossibility of his love and resigns himself to this impossibility. Fro m the moment he has made the movement, the princess is lost.6 He sees the conflict, his love and reality, and he knows the princess cannot be his within the bounds of time. Thus he give s her up, seeing the conflic t and knowing it cannot possibly be resolved. It appears that the movement of infinite re signation is just what Camus has fixed upon when he accuses Kierkegaard of dema nding the resignation of our longing. Yet this is not an accurate critique of the knight of faith. Infinite resignation is the last stage before faith de Silentio tells us, but now we turn to the knight of faith: Now let us meet the knight of faith on the o ccasion previously mentioned. He does exactly the same as the other knight did: he infinitely renounces the love that is the substance of his life, he is reconciled in pain. But then the marvel happens; he makes one more movement even more wonderful than all the ot hers, for he says: Nevertheless I have faith that I will get herthat is, by virtue of the ab surd, by virtue of the fact that for God all things are possible.7 The knight of faith acknowledges the impossibility of his love being fulfilled in reality, resigns himself to this fact, and then has faith that he will get her. Camus may claim that faith simply believes that what appears impossible is really possible, ye t this does not seem to be de Silentios point, for he says, Consequen tly, he [the knight of faith] acknowledges the impossibility, and in the very same moment he believes the absurd, for if he wants to imagine that he has faith without passi onately acknowledging th e impossibility with his whole heart and soul, he is deceiving himself and his testimony is neither here not there, since he has not even 6 Ibid, p. 44. 7 Ibid, p. 46.
40 attained infinite resignation.8 Recognition of the impossibility and the accompanying resignation is a requisite movement before the movement of faith can be made. De Silentio further explains, The act of re signation does not require faith, but to get the least little bit more than my eternal consciousness requires fait h, for this is the paradox. The movements are often confused.9 The movements are confused it seems, when Camus characterizes faith as the evasion of one of the poles of the conflict, saying of Kierkegaard, The entire effort of his inte lligence is to escape the antimony of the human condition.10 Yet in the movement of faith there is no denial of what Camus calls the antimony. The knight of faith holds the two conflicted elements, recognizing th at their reconciliation is impossible, but believes they can be reconciled. Both poles of th e conflict are necessary to faith, for the leap of faith is made while conscious of the absurdity. Camus believes he demonstrates the weakness of faith when he writes, For the spectator, if he is conscious, that leap [of fa ith] is still absurd. In so far as it thinks it solves the paradox, it reinstates it intact.11 Yet the knight of faith is conscious of this fact; he does not imagine that the movement is not absurd. It is absurd. The conflict must be recogniz ed if he is to leap, otherwise he would simply walk the road of reas on in the light of his understanding. In this way the man of faith is very close to Camus own position, a dogged resistance to false resolutions. Camus absurd man will not give up his nostalgia or the irrationality of the world; he holds fast to both in an act of scorn. The knight of faith, likewise, gives up neither his love nor the reality 8 Ibid, p. 47. 9 Ibid, p. 48. 10 Camus, Sisyphus p. 39. 11 Ibid, p. 65.
41 that precludes the consummation of that love. He resigned everything in finitely, and then he grasped everything again by virtue of the absurd.12 The same movement of faith is made by Ab raham, when God commands him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. He both resigns his love for Is aac in obedience to God and believes that Isaac will not perish. De Silentio, compar ing himself to Abraham, knows th at he could only take the step of resignation. The moment I mounted the horse, I would have said to myself: Now all is lost, God demands Isaac, I sacrifice him and along with him all my joyyet God is love and continues to be that for me, for in the world of time God and I cannot ta lk with each other, we have no language in common. 13 Where de Silentio can only resign himself to Gods love, Abraham makes the additional movement of fait h. While acknowledging the impossibility of keeping Isaac after hearing Gods command, Abraham believes that Isaac will live. Thus faith is not as distant from the conflict as Camus imagines. In seeking to distance his feeling of absurdity from faith, Camus instead demonstrates their proximity: It [the absurd] is that divorce between the mi nd that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented unive rse and the contradic tion that binds them together. Kierkegaard suppresses my nostalgia and Husserl gathers the world together. That is not what I was exp ecting. It was a matter of liv ing and thinking with those dislocations, of knowing whether one had to ac cept or refuse. There can be no question of masking the evidence, of suppressing the absurd by denying one of the terms of its equation.14 Both the absurd man described by Camus and the knight of faith described by de Silentio live and think with the dislocations Camus describes. It is de Silentios re signation that surrenders half the conflict; Abraham, by faith, did not deny either of the terms of the conflict, though holding to both may have been absurd. The knight of faith acknowledges the impossibility and 12 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling p. 40. 13 Ibid, p. 35. 14 Camus, Sisyphus p. 50.
42 believes. Such an internal grasp of the conflict is just what de Silentio admits he cannot do. Yet he hopes for the day he might possess faith, imagin ing it as the highest accomplishment. If I ever manage to be able to make this movement I will in the future drive with four horses.15 De Silentios position marks a middling way between the absurd ma n and the knight of faith. As Edward Mooney writes, In the overall scheme of Fear and Trembling resignation is a transitional stage between lack of faith and fait h, between shallow unbelievers and heroic men of faith.16 De Silentio believes in God but he does not possess the faith of Abraham. I cannot make the movement of faith, I ca nnot shut my eyes and plunge conf idently into the absurd; it is for me an impossibility, but I do not praise myself for that.17 Though the movement of faith is impossible for him, he does not for this reason di sparage it. But to be able to lose ones understanding and along with it ever ything finite, for which it is th e stockbroker, and then to win the very same finitude again by virtue of the ab surdthis appalls me, but that does not make me say it is something inferior, since, on th e contrary, it is the one and only marvel.18 Though he uses the struggles of Abraham a nd the knight of faith to illustrate the movements of faith, de Silentio st ruggles with another conflict. He is not called to give up his son; he does not have the specific promise or co mmandment that Abraham had. Yet de Silentio recognizes a conflict that demands a faith like un to Abrahams: the conflict between the world and Gods love. To me Gods love, in bot h the direct and the converse sense, is incommensurable with the whole of actuality.19 Here de Silentio makes his closest approach to 15 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling p. 51. 16 Edward Mooney, Understanding Abraham: Care, Faith and the Absurd, in Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling, ed. Robert L. Perkins (University, Alabama: Un iversity of Alabama Pr ess, 1981), p. 101. 17 Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling p. 34. 18 Ibid, p. 36. 19 Ibid, p. 34.
43 Camus. De Silentio cannot reconcile the world as he encounters it with his belief in Gods love. Reality does not mesh with de Silentios belief in Gods love. Despite this conflict, he holds fast to Gods love. But I do not have faith; this co urage I lack. I am convinced that God is love; for me this thought has a primal lyrical validity.20 While he has consolation in Gods love for eternity, in the realm of the tem poral he resigns this hope. He has made the movement of infinite resignation, but he cannot make the additional moveme nt of faith that grasps again the temporal which was given up. The knight of faith, after making such a move ment of resignation, would then believe by faith, despite the impossibility, that Gods love and the world are r econcilable. This de Silentio cannot do; he sacrifices the worl d in order to keep Gods love. I do not trouble God with my little troubles, details do not conc ern me; I gaze only at my love and keep its virgin flame pure and clear. Faith is convinced that God is concerned about the smallest things.21 The knight of faith is convinced that God is concerned with ev en the most impossibly hard aspects of reality. Faith is convinced of a reconci liation it acknowledges as impossible. If Camus would seek the response of faith to the absurdthat conflict between mans longing for meaning and realityit seems misconceive d to characterize it as the resignation of the longing. The knight of resigna tion might make such a move, r ecognizing the im possibility of holding both of the elements of the conflict. Bu t the knight of faith, af ter this resignation and still recognizing the impossi bility, believes and is convinced of their reconciliation. He believes, despite the nature of the world, that his longing for meaning can be fulfilled. Not in eternity, but 20 Ibid. 21 Ibid.
44 in temporality. Though he may object to such a faith for differing reasons, Camus cannot claim, as he does, that faith is a denial of the conflict. Besides evading the conflict of the absurd, Camu s finds in faith an irrational jump that he cannot make. This jumping over reason Camus cannot justify. That transcends, as the saying goes, the human scale; therefore it must be superhuman. But this therefore is supe rfluous. There is no logical certainty here. There is no experimental probability either. All I can say is that, in fact, th at transcends my scale. If I do not draw a negation from it, at leas t I do not want to found anything on the incomprehensible. I want to know whether I can live with what I know and with that alone. I am told again that he re the intelligence must sacrif ice its pride and the reason bow down. But if I recognize the limits of the re ason, I do not therefore negate it, recognizing its relative powers. I merely want to remain in this middle path where the intelligence can remain clear. If that is its pride, I see no sufficient reason for giving it up.22 Camus sees the human longing for meaning and the re ality of the world and denies that there can be any reconciliation. And these two certaintiesm y appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principl eI also know that I cannot reconcile them.23 Unwilling to give up his unders tanding, Camus cannot accept any superhuman reconciliation. Yet the only reconciliation he can im agine is a superhuman one, for his human measure cannot conceive of any reconcil iation. He is left, then, with the absurd. We are now in a position to see that that de Silentio, in characterizing faith, does not describe a denial of the absurd through sacrificing one of the elements of the conflict. Kierkegaard himself, in his journal, demonstrates the intimate relation of absurdity to faith when he writes, [T]o be a believer every person must be alone with the absurd.24 The difference between the faith described by de Silentio and the consciousness of absurdity propounded by 22 Camus, Sisyphus p. 40 23 Ibid, p. 51. 24 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Alistair Hannay, Papers and Journals: A Selection (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 482.
45 Camus is what is done with this absurd conflict once it is affirmed. Both Camus and de Silentio see the impossibility of reconcili ng the absurd conflict, and, likewi se, neither will deny the truth of the opposed elements. De Silentio does not deny the repugnant nature of the world; Camus will not abandon the longing for meaning. The kn ight of faith accepts and is convinced of reconciliation, the absurd man does not and is not so reconciled. The faith of Kierkegaard, then, is not so far from the scorn called for by Camus. Scorn is to continue the absurd struggle in full consciousness, despite the fact that there can be no reconciliation; fa ith is convinced of reconciliation, not in in finity, but even now. We have seen, then, that faith is not the eas y and improper resolution Camus imagined it to be in The Myth of Sisyphus. Faith struggles with the same conf lict of which the absurd man is consciousthe struggle of reconc iling the irreconcilable, of unde rstanding that which is not understandable. Or, as we fi nd it written in Kierkegaards Philosophical Fragments But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will th e collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, the n, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that t hought itself cannot think.25 Faith, like consciousness of the absurd, involves the acceptance of the coexistence of two realitie s that the understanding cannot reconcile. A Grave Pursuit In regarding Camus and de Silentio we ha ve focused on the conflict between a persons longing for meaning and the nature of the worl d. Camus and de Silentio, recognizing this conflict, develop the differing responses of scorn and faith: a faith that believes the impossible 25 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 37.
46 conflict can be reconciled and a consciousness of absurdity that denies that any such reconciliation can be real ized. Yet with Nagel we remember a different problem, a problem of motivation independent of a ny metaphysical reality. For Nagel absurdity is a problem that could ap pear whether God exists or there is simply the silence Camus found. From the objective pers pective involvement in any of these realities becomes a matter of indifference. We transition now to another of Kierkegaards works, one that may bear more directly on Nagels sense of the ab surd. Yet in this transition we may be aided one last time by Camus, in whose dramatization of Dostoevskys novel Demons we find the following confrontation between th e character Grigoriev and the advocate of logical suicide, Alexei Kirillov: Grigoriev: And what, in your opinion, keeps people from killing themselves? Kirillov: The pain. Those who kill themselv es through madness or despair dont think of the pain. But those who kill themselv es through reason obviously think of it. Grigoriev: What, are there people who kill themselves through reason? Kirillov: Many. Were it not for the pain and the prejudice, there would be many more, a very large number, probably all men. Grigoriev: What? Kirillov: But the idea that they will suffer keep s them from killing themselves. Even when one knows there is no pain, the idea remains. Just imagine a stone as big as a house falling on you. You wouldnt have time to feel anything, to suffer at all. Well, even so, men are afraid and hesitate. It is interesting. Grigoriev: There must be another reason. Kirillov: Yesthe other world. Grigoriev: You mean punishment. Kirillov: No, the other world. People th ink there is a reason for going on living. Grigoriev: And there isnt any?
47 Kirillov: No, there is none, a nd thats why we are free. It is a matter of indifference whether we live or die.26 In this passage we find bound up those strands of absurdity, meaning, freedom and suicide which become central to Camus Myth of Sisyphus Yet Kirillov draws attention to one point that Nagel also makes in his article, The Absur d. Immortality is not a solution to the question of absurdity, for as Nagel noted earlier, [W]ould not a life that is absurd if it lasts seventy years be infinitely absurd if it lasted through eternity?27 Appeals to eternity are an evasion of the question of absurdity, as de Sile ntio has already shown. The ques tion of meaning, if it cannot be answered for the present, seems unlikely to be resolved by eternity. It is a question of reconciling the subjective seriousness of a life w ith the objective doubt felt when we see that, objectively, a human life is a matter of indifferen ce. The length of a life has no bearing on its significance, or its absurdity. There seems to be no compelling, objective reason to engage in a life, even if that life is without end. If there is to be a response to Nagels sense of absurdity, it should be equally applicable to a life of seventy years and an eternal life. It should address the apparent conflict between the objective and subjective pers pectives. Such a response seems apparent in the next work to be considered, a work penned by Kierkegaard under hi s own name. In the imagined discourse, At a Graveside, Kierkegaard speaks about how the thought of death can be an aide in the earnest, or serious, pursuit of life. Despite acknow ledging the objective nothingness of a human existence, Kierkegaard nonetheless encourages hi s listener to appropriate the thought of death in order to live with subjective se riousness. An objective grasp of the significance of human worth does not seem to preclude the subject ive pursuit of life with earnestness. 26 Camus, The Possessed p. 33-34. 27 Nagel, The Absurd, p. 12.
48 Though elsewhere Kierkegaard speaks at length of the significance of the hope of eternal life for the believer28, in At a Graveside the afterlife is not mentioned. Kierkegaard opens the discourse with words he reiterates throughout his speech, Then all is over!29 In avoiding mention of eternity, Kierkegaard pushes his listener toward the focus of the discourse: how the thought of deaths impending decision can be an aide to earnestness in life, an aide in subjective inwardness. And just as de Sile ntio assured us that faith is confident not in resolutions in eternity, but in resolutions even now; so Kierkegaard speaks to th e role of earnestness in life without appeal to what may lie af ter death. His solution will be of interest to the believer, but also the nonbeliever, as a means of relating to life. This is no fals e appeal to eternity or infinity, but an examination of the balance betw een subjective and objective realities. Then all is over! With these words Kierke gaard pronounces the verdict of death for the subject of his discourse. Yet, t hough we listen at the funeral of a nother, the discourse is aimed at each of us. Kierkegaards concern in At a Graveside is subjectivity and how the earnest thought of death can be an aide in subjectiv e inwardness. The discourse concerns the individuals relation to his own death, for this is where earn estness is to be found. Kierkegaard is quick to emphasize this essent ially inward orientation of the earnest thought of death: Death can expressly teach us that earnes tness lies in the inner being, in thought, can teach that it is only an illusion when the external is regarded light-mindedly or heavymindedly or when the observer, profoundly considering the thought of death, forgets to think about and take into 28 Cf. The Expectancy of an Eternal Salvation in Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 253-273. 29 Sren Kierkegaard, At a Graveside in Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 71.
49 account his own death.30 Again, Kierkegaard tells us, [I]t is the inner being and the thinking and the appropriation and the ennobl ing that are the earnestness.31 Kierkegaard sets his discourse in opposition to Epicurus at seve ral points, writing, A pagan has already declared that one ought not to fear death, because when it is, I am not, and when I am, it is not.32 Kierkegaard identifies the jest by which Epicurus and others place themselves outside of their lives, looking in at death. Epicurus takes an objective viewpoint in regarding death, from which he disengages himself totally from hi s death. But for Kierkegaard the earnest thought of death is the contraryit is a subjec tive encounter with death, a commingling of death with oneself. Earnestne ss is that you think death, and that you are thinking it as your lot, and that you are then doing what death i ndeed is unable to donamely, that you are and death also is.33 Though when death is, indeed I am not; this does not preclude my appropriating the thought of death as an aide while I yet live. Here the objective admission that death is the end of life does not preclude the subjective appr opriation of the thought of death as a spur to earnestness. Kierkegaard links earnestness w ith subjectivity. Indeed, the li stener is mistaken if he thinks something external is earnestness, for earnestness concerns the consciousness relation to the external. It lies in none of the extern al circumstances of life : [E]arnestness is the earnestness of the inner being, not of the job.34 In juxtaposing lifes earnestness with deaths earnestness, Kierkegaard notes how life often deceives one into thinking the external is the 30 Ibid, p. 73. 31 Ibid, p. 74. 32 Ibid, p. 73. 33 Ibid, p. 75. 34 Ibid, p. 74.
50 earnestness. A person may believe that sufferings, trials and task s are earnestness; but this is incorrect, for earnestness is how the person subjectively relates to these things. With death this illusion is less likely, for once death is, all is over. Thus earnestness involves the thought of death, the inner appropriation. Lifes earnestness is earnest, and yet there is not earnestness unless the external is ennobled in ones consciousness; in this lies the possibil ity of illusion. The earnestness of death is without de ception, because it is not death th at is earnest but the thought of death.35 Here again we see that the objective can not be taken seriously unless it is made a matter of inward consciousness. Thus Kierkegaard makes the cardinal distinct ion of his discourse: that between mood and earnestness. To think of oneself as dead is earnes tness; to be witness to the death of another is mood.36 The deaths of others are external events and though they may greatly affect us, we are mistaken if we think that these deaths create anything but mood. My own death is singularly important to me, in a way that no other death can approach. The deaths of others, being objective events, are not linked to my subjectivity as my own death is. Earnestness is the thought that I shall die, that ther e is a scarcity of time before me. Consciousness of this future, impending loss ennobles life, for to think that all was over, that everything was lost along with life, in order then to win everyt hing in lifethis is earnestness.37 The consciousness of death, the earnest though t of death, has the power of ennobling the present by aiding in the movement of inwardness. This ennoblement is glimpsed in common examples of those nearing death. Kierkegaard notes that the earnest person has always that feeling of scarcity that is usually reserved for those conf ronted with certain death: 35 Ibid, p. 74-75. 36 Ibid, p. 75. 37 Ibid, p. 76.
51 Death itself produces a scarc ity of time for the dying. W ho has not heard how one day, sometimes one hour, was jacked up in price wh en the dying one bargained with death! Who has not heard how one day, sometimes one hour, gained infinite worth because death made time dear! Death is able to do this, but with the thought of death the earnest person is able to create a scarcity so that the y ear and the day receive infinite worthand when it is a time of scarcity the merchant profits by using time.38 Consciousness of death as a subjective reality is a spur to inwardness; and it is this inwardness that ennobles life. The urgency supplied by the thought of death he lps the individual to view no time or task as too small; he dismisses such obj ective evaluations. He unde rtakes all the tasks of life with seriousness. We see, then, that earnestness is dependent on no external circumstance, but rather ennobles all external circumstances Death creates the scarcity of time, but it is the thought of death that ennobles time by appropr iating the scarcity. Kierkegaar d drives the listener to the conclusion that earnestness is a matter of subj ectively appropriating the external. Nothing external can be an object of earne stness unless it subjectively matters. And though the earnest person grasps life, the presence of objectivity is not completely lost, as is evinced in the following self-reflectiv e statement: Then earnestness grasps the present this very day, disdains no task as too insignifican t, rejects no time as too s hort, works with all its might even though it is willing to smile at itself if th is effort is said to be merit before God, in weakness is willing to understand that a human be ing is nothing at all and that one who works with all ones might gains only the proper opportunity to wonder at God.39 The earnest person does not lose all objective perspective. If a pe rson would praise him, he responds with an irony not unlike that advocated by Na gel in his The Absurd. For objectively, he knows he is nothing. In like fashion, he spurns all comparis ons, submitting himself to humble equality with 38 Ibid, p. 84. 39 Ibid, p 83.
52 others, which resembles the course advocated by Nagel in The View from Nowhere Irony and humility accompany the earnest person, though in earnestness he grasps this very day. The earnest person is not object ively deluded concerning his ow n worth. But this does not prevent his taking life seriously. For the scar city of time makes time, by this same token, precious: [T]he earnestness of deat h has helped to make a final hour infinitely meaningful; the earnest thought of it has helped to make a long life as meaningful as in a time of scarcity, as watchful as if sought by thieving hands.40 The length of time has no bearing on the ennobling power of earnestnessan hour and a lifetime eac h obtain infinite significance. And the inevitable conclusion of all lives in death doe s not affect the earnestness, Even though the equality of all the dead is that now all is ove r, there is still one di fference, my listener, a difference that cries aloud to heaventhe differen ce of what that life was that now in death is over.41 Indeed, all those devices of time which fuel absurdity rest on the view from which all is over. But the earnest person unders tands that, though all will be ove r, it is not over yet. So, then, let death keep its power, that all is over. bu t let life also keep the right to work while it is day; and let the earnest person seek the t hought of death as an aid in that work.42 Subjectivity is central to the serious pursuit of li fe: this fact is central to At a Graveside. As Kierkegaard develops and emphasizes ag ain and again the necessity of subjective appropriation as the basis for earnestness, he recognizes both the objec tive nothingness of human existence and the inability of external factor s to create earnestness. An admission of the objective triviality of subjectiv e matters does not affect the seriousness with which they are approached in subjectivity. Life only becomes e nnobled when it is appropriated in earnestness, 40 Ibid, p. 84. 41 Ibid, p. 85. 42 Ibid, p. 84.
53 or inwardness, by the subject; ot herwise life remains what it obj ectively is: nothing. And, even after this ennoblement, when the earnest person is forced to consider himself and his works objectively, he smiles in the knowle dge that they are nothing. This quick examination of a Kierkegaardian pi cture of the commingling of the external and internal, of objectivity a nd subjectivity, suggests the path ahead. It stands as an example of the relation of subjectivity and object ivity which Kierkegaard develops in the last pseudonymous works to be considered. These are the works Philosophical Fragments (henceforth Fragments ) and Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (henceforth Postscript ), penned by the pseudonym Johannes Climacus. Before turning completely to these pseudonym ous works, we should note the similarity between Climacus and Kierkegaard regarding the issue of death a nd its relation to subjectivity. In the Postscript Climacus develops a similar line of association be tween subjective appropriation and the thought of death. Climacu s considers how death can be an aide in developing subjectivity: But for me, my dying is by no means something in general; for others, my dying is some such thing. Nor am I for myself some such thing in general. But if the task is to become subjective, then every subject becomes for himself exactly the opposite of some such thing in general.43 Subjectivity must abandon this object ive in general and replace it with possessive terms: my death, my life, my self. Kierkegaard recognized th is general, objective orientation of the thought of death in the Epic urean pronouncement, Death is nothing for me. Epicurus fails to apprehend the subjective mean ing of death, preferring an objective vantage in which subjective appropriation is replaced by an objective death in general and thus the thought of death loses its earnestness. 43 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Wong, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments: Volume I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 167.
54 Climacus continues: But if the task is to become subjective, then for the individual subject to think death is not at all some such thing in general but is an act, because the development of subjectivity consists precisely in this, that he, acting, works through himself in his thinking about his own existence, consequently that he actually th inks what is thought by actualizing it, consequently that he does not think for a moment: Now, you must keep watch every momentbut that he keeps watch every mome nt. Here everything becomes more and more subjective, which is natural when it is a matter of beginning to develop the subjectivity.44 Death and mortality are subjectiv e matters and cannot be compre hended objectively. Likewise immortality, a matter that remains in the back ground of At a Gravesid e, cannot be thought of objectively: Objectively the question [of immort ality] cannot be answered at all, because objectively the question of immo rtality cannot be asked, since immortality is precisely the intensification and highest development of the de veloped subjectivity. Not until one rightly wills to become subjective can the question rightly aris ehow, then, could it be answered objectively?45 Climacus agrees with Nagel: questions of mortality and immortality are matters of indifference from an objective vantage. Speculations In common to both Kierkegaard and Climacus is a call for the subjective appropriation of that which is a matter of objectiv e indifference. Subjectivity, bot h its relation to truth and its opposition to objectivity, is the theme of the Fragments and the Postscript The pseudonymous author Johannes Climacus pens both works; an aut hor who, like de Silentio, examines a faith he does not possess: Christianity. Climacus does no t disparage or lampoon the Christian task of developing subjectivity, but become s its champion against the m ovement into objectivity which Climacus found as central to the goals of speculative ph ilosophy in his day. The speculative task 44 Postscript p. 169. 45 Postscript p. 173.
55 of stripping away the subjective, which Climacus found to be impossible for a person, is replaced with the passionate movement of inwardness. A crucial difference between Nagel and Clim acus should be noted before proceeding. While Nagel uses the term absurd to describe the conflict between obj ective and subjective perspectives, this is not the way in which Clim acus uses the term. Climacus discussion of the relation of objectivity and subjectivity is intertwi ned with a discussion of the relation of God and persons. While we will concentr ate of the former passages, the absurd for Climacus is in the domain of the latter. The idea that an exis ting person can relate to God is for Climacus a paradox. But, above this, the Christian claim that God has actually become an existing person is the absurd. Thus, though Climacus does address Na gels sense of absurdity, and though he does speak of faith as a response to this conflict, he does not call this conflict the absurd. This should be kept in mind in the following discussion. Much of Climacus project in the Fragments and Postscript can be characterized as a response to the drive for objectivity that he saw as central to the speculative philosophies of such systematic philosophers as Hegel. Central to these systems was the loss of subjectivity to apprehend and comprehend objective truth. As Merold Westphal describes it, Speculation, whether Platonic or Hegelian, is a mode of objectiv ity in which the finitude of the subject is stripped away for the sake of an objective, universal, timeless apprehension of the truth.46 Climacus response to such speculative philosophy is of significance to ou r greater project, noting the proximity of this speculative goal to the role of the objective perspec tive in Nagels sense of the absurd. In addition to the Platonic and Hege lian, we will see that Climacus responses deal 46 Merold Westphal, Kierkegaard and Hegel in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard ed. Alastair Hannay and Gordon Marion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 111.
56 just as easily with the Nage lian form of speculative philoso phy embodied in the objective perspective. Climacus is familiar with and critical of the sp eculative thought advocated in his age as the cure to all human ills. Hegel and the like s ought to understand subjective matters through an objective grasp. In opposition to this movement, Climacus undert akes the opposite movement of developing subjectivity as response to the philo sophical assumption of objectivity as truth. Objectivity, according to speculative philosophy, is a means of reaching true reality apart from subjective prejudices. Ethics, for instance, is developed by the stripping away of subjectivity in order to understand the human condition objectiv ely. Climacus, while identifying that such things as human vice are to be discarded, avoids appealing to objectivity to effect this change. Rather, the so-called subject must truly become a subject: When one ignores this little Socratically jesting and Christianly infinitely concerned distinction between being a so-c alled subject of sorts and be ing a subject or becoming one and being what one is by having become that then the admired wisdom turns out to be that the subjects task is to strip away more and more of hi s subjectivity and become more and more objective. From this it is easy to see what this guidance understands by being a so-called subject of sorts, th at it thereby quite correctly understands the accidental, the angular, the selfish, the eccentric, etc., of which every human being can have plenty. Christianity does not deny, either, that such th ings are to be discarde d; it has never been a friend of impudent antics. But the difference is simply that science and scholarship want to teach that becoming objective is the way, wher eas Christianity teaches that the way is to become subjective, that is, truly to become a subject.47 Climacus undertaking is to develop this true subjectivity in contrast to the movement of objectivity. The goal of speculative philosophy is errant in it s denial of human reality, and as such is the source of much confusion. That the knowing spirit is an existing spirit, and that every human being is such a spirit existing for himsel f, I cannot repeat enough, because the fantastical 47 Kierkegaard, Postscript p. 131.
57 disregard of this has been the cause of much confusion.48 Much of the perplexity that speculative philosophy grapples with is a conseque nce of the movement of objectivity. A human being simply cannot exist sub specie aeterni Existence precludes this. Yet this does not stop the speculative philosophers from seeking th is vantage, despit e its impossibility. Modern speculative thought has mustered ever ything to enable the i ndividual to transcend himself objectively, but this just cannot be done. Existence exercises it s constraint, and if philosophers nowadays had not become penc il-pushers serving the trifling busyness of fantastical thinking, it would have been discerned that su icide is the only somewhat practical interpretation of its attempt.49 Existence precludes the achievement of the speculative goal, exer cising its constraint. Rather than seeking that which we cannot be, Climacus s eeks that which we are, existing spirits. As Climacus entreats us, Let us be human beings.50 The embrace of objectivity is a denial of a basi c element of our existence. Climacus faults the speculative philosophers for advocating such an embrace. They act improperly in their disregard of our basic subjectivity, whic h he parodies in the following passage: Of what help is it to explain how the eterna l truth is to be understood eternally when the one to use the explanation is prevented from understanding it in this way because he is existing and is merely a fantast if he fancies himself to be sub specie aeterni consequently when he must avail himself preci sely of the explanation of ho w the eternal truth is to be understood in the category of time by some one who by existing is himself in time, something the honored professor himself admits if not always, then every three months when he draws his salary.51 Contrary to embracing subjectivity, the speculati ve seeker seeks to occupy an objective perspective: [T]he speculative thinker, on the other hand, wants to be an existing person, but an 48 Ibid, p. 189. 49 Ibid, p. 197. 50 Ibid, p. 114. 51 Ibid, p. 192.
58 existing person who is not subjective, not in passion, indeed, is existing sub specie aeterni in short, he is absent-minded.52 Climacus maintains that this kind of objectiv e grasp of the universe, the perspective sub specie aeterni is not possible for an exis ting person. Such a vantage is for God alone. Climacus makes this difference plain: But the absolute difference between God and a human being is simply this, that a human being is an individual existing be ing (and this holds for the best brain just as fully as for the most obtuse), whose essential ta sk therefore cannot be to think sub specie aeterni because as long as he exists, he himself, alt hough eternal, is essentially an existing person and the essential for him must therefore be inwardness in existence; God, however, is the infinite one, who is eternal.53 Climacus illustrates this distinction when he appropriates the following words of Lessing: Lessing has said: If God held all truth enclosed in his right hand, a nd in his left hand the one and only ever-striving driv e for truth, even with the co rollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose! I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!54 Speculative thought seeks the right hand. In so do ing, it seeks a certa inty that cannot be realized and distorts the subjective inwardness central to li fe. It seeks to go beyond faith to certainty, but this simply cannot be done. As Westphal notes: The Hegelian project of going beyond faith is do ubly mistaken, as Climacus sees it. First, it promises to replace the objective uncertain ty with certainty, which it cannot do. But though Climacus sees the system as on par with faith so far as certainty goes, he will not construe it as an instance for faith. For, in the second place, it eliminates the moment of passionate, inward appropriation, reducing the self to an impersonal observer devoid of existential identity.55 In addition to being a futile effort, the move ment toward objectivity confuses subjective questions. One of the confusions of the objectiv e movement is the effect it has on matters of 52 Ibid, p. 227. 53 Ibid, p. 217. 54 Ibid, p. 106. 55 Westphal, Kierkegaard and Hegel, p. 115.
59 subjectivity, as we saw earlier with regards to subjective and objective appraisals of death. Matters of importance to a subjec t become matters of indifferen ce when regarded objectively. Climacus describes this movement from subjectivity to objectivity and its effects on the matters central to subjectivity: The way of objective reflection turns the subj ective individual into something accidental and thereby turns existence in to an indifferent, vanishing something. The way to the objective truth goes away from the subject, a nd while the subject a nd subjectivity become indifferent, the truth also beco mes indifferent, and that is pr ecisely its objective validity, because the interest, just like the decision, is subjectivity. The way of objective reflection now leads to abstract thinking, to mathematics, to historical knowledge of various kinds, and always leads away from the subjective i ndividual, whose existence or nonexistence becomes, from an objective point of view, altogether properly, infinitely indifferent, altogether properly, because, as Hamlet sa ys, existence and nonexistence have only subjective significance. At its maximum, this way will lead to a cont radiction, and to the extent that the subject does not become totally indifferent to himself, this is merely an indication that his objective st riving is not objective enough. At its maximum, it will lead to the contradiction that only objectivity ha s come about, whereas subjectivity has gone out, that is, the existing subjectivity that ha s made an attempt to become what in the abstract sense is called subjectivity, the ab stract form of an abstract objectivity.56 Objective reflection takes what is most essentia l to the person, his subjective existence, and transforms it into a matter of indifference. Climacus sees the contradiction forming as the subject begins to consider hi s existence objectivelythe conflict between the subjective and the objective ways of regarding subj ective matters. It is a confli ct between the answers to the questions What does my life mean for me ? and What does my life mean? The one is subjective, the other objective; and while the first may be answered, Climacus would surely fault the objective orientation of the second. Like Hamlet, for Climacus these questions have only subjective significance. As Edward Mooney not es, To get at the makeup of the physical universe, a scientist (and often a philosopher) discounts personal st andpoints, so far as possible, 56 Postscript p. 193.
60 but to understand an existential stance, the opposite is required.57 To disregard the subject in matters of subjectivity is to be left with no basis for judgment. A similar point is made in Kierkegaards The Concept of Anxiety The pseudonym, Vigilius Haufniensis, makes a note concerning th e relationship between meaning and subjectivity in the course of examining the case of Macbeth. Macbeth, when he commits the act of murder, in guilt seeks to justify his ac tion as insignificant. He takes an objective vantage which is the movement out of inwardness or subjectivity, and therefore it should not surprise us that the momentous act of murder becomes a matter of i ndifference. Haufniensi s writes, Yet every individual who has lost inwardne ss can truly say The wine of lif e is drawn, and also Theres nothing serious in mortality; all is but toys, for inwardness is precisely the fountain that springs up unto eternal life, and what issues from this fountain is precisely earnestness.58 If the term inwardness seems an additional unclear term in the development of this theme, Haufniensis clarifies slightly : It is no doubt difficult to give a definition of inwardness. In the meantime, I shall at this point say it is earnestness.59 Matters of subjectivity are only significant when appropriated by the inwardness of subjectivity, sim ilar to the earnest appr opriation seen in At a Graveside. This same trend of inappropria te objectification of subjective matters is parodied in an example offered by Climacus of a man who earnestly as ks his wife if he is a Christian. The wife responds in the affirmative based on a geopolitical fact: They live in a Christian nation, do they not? Westphal recognizes the twofold error made by the wife in this objec tifying answer: 57 Mooney, Understanding Abraham, p. 103. 58 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Reidar Thomte, The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 146. 59 Ibid.
61 Her husband is asking, out of personal passion and interest, how he s hould live his life. By moving the discourse to the area of objective facts (of mo re interest to population statisticians than metaphysicians, to be sure), she tells him at one and the same time (1) that his question is already an swered objectively so there is nothing for him to ponder or to choose, and (2) that for this reason his question is a silly one that should never have arisen in the first place. In this way the objectiv ity that purports to be a fulfillment of his subjectivity is in fact its obliteration.60 Christianity, like death or immortality, is a concer n of subjectivity that ca nnot be correctly cast as an objective matter. When couched in objecti ve terms, the passion of subjectivity is replaced by the indifference of objectivity. In pursuing objectivity, to the extent that human life does not become a matter of total indifference, total objectivity ha s not been reached. Against th is movement toward objective reflection, Climacus offers the alternative of su bjective reflection: S ubjective reflection turns inward toward subjectivity and in this inward de epening will be of the truth, and in such a way that, just as in the preceding, when objectiv ity was advanced, subjectivity vanished, here subjectivity as such becomes the final factor and objectivity the vanishing.61 The movements of objectivity and subjectivity run in different directions, and precl ude each other. That which is subjectively important is open to objective doubt. Objectivity, it seems, is of little aide in the gr eat existential endeavor of living a life. The motivations and concerns of living are lost in the jump to the objective vantage point. Hegel, and the other speculative philosophers, seeks an ob jective system that is comically incompatible with human life. The humor of this situation is pointed out by Kierkegaard himself, when he writes in his journal, [S]omeone who is really tested in life, w ho in his need resorts to thought, 60 Westphal, Kierkegaard and Hegel, p. 114. 61 Postscript p. 196.
62 will find Hegel comical despite all his greatness.62 The speculative project fails to address the struggles of the existing person. Thus, in the movements of subjectivity and obj ectivity there is both subjective significance and the possibility of objectivel y doubting that significance as a matter of indifference. For Climacus, subjectivity is developed in spite of this objective doubt, not in ignorance of it. Climacus admits that one must embrace subjectivity without any external a ssurance. There is no rational justification for the embrace of subjectivit y. It is another conflict, akin to those we found in Fear and Trembling and it calls for similar action. In fashioning a definition of subjectivity as truth (a claim th at need not be debated here), Climacus makes this antithesis central: When subjectivity is truth, the definition of trut h must also contain in itself an expression of the antithesis to objectivity, a memento of that fork in the road, and this expression will at the same time indicate the resilience of th e inwardness. Here is such a definition of truth: An objective uncertainty, held fast thr ough appropriation with the most passionate inwardness, is the truth the highest truth there is for an existing person. At the point where the road swings off (and where that is cannot be stated objectively, since it is precisely subjectivity), objective knowledge is suspended. Objectively he then has only uncertainty, but this is precisely what intens ifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely what intensifies the infinite passion of inwardness, and truth is precisely the daring venture of choosing the objective uncer tainty with the passion of the infinite. I observe nature in order to find God, and I do indeed see omnipotence and wisdom, but I also see much that troubles and disturbs. The summa summarum of this is an objective uncertainty, but the inwardness is so very great, precisely beca use it grasps this objective uncertainty with all the passion of the infinite.63 The acquisition of truth involves grasping subjectivity while susp ending the doubt that emanates from objective uncertainty. This movement of embracing the irreconc ilable conflict may sound familiar to us, for it is similar to the faith charact erized by de Silentio. Climacus tells us, But 62 Kierkegaard, Journals p. 195. 63 Postscript p. 203.
63 the definition of truth stated above is a paraphrasing of faith. Wit hout risk, no faith. Faith is the contradiction between the infinite passion of inwardness and the objective uncertainty.64 In response to his own absurd conflict, that between objectivity and s ubjectivity, Climacus recommends a faith that suspends objective doubt and embraces subjectivity. This is his definition of subjectivity as truth. It is similar to the movement of faith described by de Silentio: both movements recognize both the doubt and the embrace. Faith is the holding of the two things together, in both cases. With regard to fulfillment, Fear and Trembling s knight of faith believes despite the impossibility. With regard to objective justification, the Postscript s existing person embraces subjectivity in inwardness despite the objective doubt that renders a justification impossible. Kierkegaard notes the difference between the fa ith spoken of by Climacus and de Silentio in his journal. That there is a difference between the absurd in Fear and Trembling and the paradox in Concluding Postscript is quite correct. The former is a purely personal specification of existential faith the other is faith in relation to a doctrine.65 Fear and Trembling deals with personal instances of the meeting of the absurd and faith. Abrahams trial differs from the trial faced by the knight of faith and by de Silentio himself. Yet, in the Postscript Climacus speaks of the paradox that separates a nd relates the individual to God. This paradox exists for every person in their relating to God. F or the absurd and faith go together, which is necessary if there is to be friendship and if this friendship is to be maintained between two qualities so unlike as God and man.66 64 Kierkegaard, Postscript p. 204. 65 Kierkegaard, Journals p. 460. 66 Ibid, p. 459.
64 Yet, despite this difference, the faith of Abra ham in relating to the ab surd conflict he faced is still faith, despite it s differing content. As Kierkegaard tells us: The objection that there is c onflict between the absurd in Joh. de silentio and in Joh. Climacus is a misunderstanding. Thus Abraham is also called the father of faith in the New Testament, yet it is clear that the content of his faith cannot be the Christians, that Jesus Christ has existed. But Abrahams fa ith is the formal specification of faith. Similarly with the absurd.67 Faith, though it differs in content between de Sile ntio and Climacus, remains faith. The conflict between the world and human longing that Camu s recognizes as the absurd has a corresponding faith with that conflict as its content. The conflict between subjectivity and objective doubts that Nagel recognizes as the absurd has a faith with th at conflict as its conten t. In both cases faith believes that which reason cannot couple. For Climacus our subjectivity precludes the certainty sought by speculative philosophy. The view sub specie aeterni is for God alone. Because of this fact, objective doubts can always be raised without the possibil ity of answer. The person of faith, despite this doubt, embraces inwardness with passion. Likewi se, de Silentios knight of faith, knowing reconciliation is impossible, believes nonetheless. Faith, in both in stances, is an internal action without external guarantees or warrant. If we are to return to subjectivity, it will not be by understanding, but by faith. 67 Ibid, p. 460.
65 CHAPTER 4 AN ABSURD RECONCILIATION Thomas Nagel and Sren Kierkegaard develop strikingly similar accounts of what Nagel calls the absurd. Both Kierkegaard and Nagel, in their own ways, id entify the gap between subjective convictions and objective doubts that put those convictions into question. Both recognize the absurd as a problem inherent to hu man existence, one without solution. For each, the cost of going nowhere, of seeking objective jus tifications for our subjec tive endeavors, is an objective doubt that cannot be answered and an absurdity that cannot be rationally dispelled. What we find when we attempt to transcend our subjective lives is not a higher purpose or greater grasp of meaning, but a view from which all our subj ective claims to meaning and purpose seem empty. If life is to be live d, it must be lived despite its absurdity. For Nagel, the feeling of absurdity invol ves the balancing of views from both the subjective and objective viewpoints. Part of being a person is switching between these perspectives and reconciling thes e vantages. Yet, at times thes e vantages cannot be reconciled, as regarding our lives. As objectivity increases detachment sets in and the existence from which all of our concerns and motives and justifications begin becomes a matter of indifference.1 The feeling of absurdity involve s recognizing the gap between the two perspectives. Our inability to squa re these accounts, yet our inability to rid ourselves of either of them, renders our lives absurd. For Nagel, there is no objective framework in to which our lives can be placed and through which we can gain objective meaning. Our subjective convictions concerning our own importance float alone, without objective groundi ng. While in The Absurd Nagel remains skeptical concerning the existence or nonexistence of objective meaning, in The View from 1 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 213.
66 Nowhere he embraces nihilism outright, admittin g that there are no objective values.2 Our natural longing to avow ourselves of significance from the objective perspective will always fail, and in this failure we will always sense our absurdity. For Kierkegaard to reach for objective trut h is to reach beyond human capacity. We cannot achieve a certain, obj ective understanding. Only God is capable of that sort of objective grasp. We, as persons, cannot transc end our position so as to exist sub specie aeterni When we attempt to do so, we abandon the passion of inwa rdness, and the subjectiv e matters of our lives become matters of indifference. As Climacus earlier noted, The way of objective reflection turns the subjective individual into something accidental and thereby turns existence into an indifferent, vanishing something. 3 Our attempts to assume the objective perspective, far from reassuring us, raise doubts about the significance of our lives. Th ese doubts cannot be dispelled. In opposition to Nagel, Kierkegaard cannot be called a nihilist. But, like Nagel, he agrees that the objective picture we long for cannot be found. It is a cup from which we cannot drink. Both Kierkegaard and Nagel see this conflict as a real problem. It is not a product of a verbal confusion or mistakes in reasoning. As Nagel writes in th e introduction to his View from Nowhere The perplexities do not result from mist akes about the opera tion of language or thought, and there is no hope of a Kantian or Wittgen steinian purity, to be attained if we avoid certain tempting missteps in the em ployment of reason or language.4 Kierkegaard, likewise, holds that humans cannot reconcil e objectivity with subjective in wardness, for reasons we have seen. Such philosophical projects as Hegelian id ealism (against which Ki erkegaard fought a life2 Cf. Steven Luper-Foy The Absurdity of Life, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research vol. 52, no. 1 (Mar., 1992): 85-101. 3 Kierkegaard, Postscript p. 193. 4 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 4.
67 long battle) are doomed in part because of the permanent gap betw een subjectivity and objectivity. This yawning abyss cannot be clos ed, however much we may strive to do so. It is a matter of living with this reality, not eliminating it. Absurdity is too central to human life, too real a problem for existence, to be ignored or denied. Though it may be more comfortable to live without consciousness of th e absurd, it is a false peace. Kierkegaards journal contains a metaphor for such awareness. Keeping open a wound can indeed also be healthy a healthy and open wound at times it is worse when it closes.5 To let the wound, consciousness of the absurd, close is a denial of a real aspect of human existe nce, an aspect that may give occasion for a better understanding of our selves as persons. Nagel makes a similar point in The View from Nowhere : Our problem has in this se nse no solution, but to recognize that is to come as near as we can to living in the light of truth.6 For Kierkegaard the absurd is the occasion for faith. While its experience does not compel faith, without the conflict there can be no faith. As Kierkegaar d writes in his journal, The absurd is the negative criterion of that wh ich is higher than human understanding and human knowledge. The process of understanding is to see it as such and then leave it to the individual to believe it.7 The absurd marks the boundaries of our capacity to understand. Consciousness of the absurd brings a person to the brink of beli ef or disbelief. But since there is no objective rationale for our engagement with our lives, there is no hope of knowledge. In an act of trust, the believer trusts that the objective picture that eludes him or her exists and is known to God. Faith is, viewed from without, absurd. Kierke gaard would grant that faith does not escape the reality of the situation. As Kierkegaard writes, Not one singl e objection has been leveled at 5 Kierkegaard, Journals p. 188. 6 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 231. 7 Kierkegaard, Journals p. 460.
68 Christianity, even by the most infuriated rati onalist and scandalized person, to which the genuine Christian cannot quite calmly answer, Yes, thats the way it is.8 We have not misconceived the problem of the absurd; it is not illusory, and if we are to return to our lives, it will not be by reasons dictate. Yet, once the movement of faith has been made, the absurd changes. To the extent that the believer has faith, the absurd is not the absurd faith transforms it, but in a weak moment it can become more or less the absurd for him again. The passion of faith is the only thing that gets the better of the absurd otherwise faith is not faith in the strictest sense, but a kind of knowing.9 That which is absurd from outside is, fr om within, not absurd. Yet the believer can admit that from without, what he believes is the absurd. This relation of faith and the absurd may be overlooked. What is lacking here is th e necessary dialectical elasticity understanding that as far as the understanding goes it is absurd, speaking of this quite calmly to the third party, admitting the absurdity, maintaining the pressure on th e other to regard it as the absurd yet still believing it. While for himself as a be liever, of course, it is not absurd.10 Thus faith by passion grasps what the understanding cannot grasp. Nagel also advocates our return to inward life, but colore d by his disavowal of objective value. He admits that reengaging with life is completely unwarranted and does not answer the doubts raised from the objective persp ective. He does not call this return faith, but it is a return to subjectivity without rational gr ounds. Nagel calls such a return ironic; it is an occasion for recognizing that we are ignoring our doubts. I take this irony not to be the sardonic, dismissive sense of its contemporary usage, but a Socratic irony. The sardonic sense of irony is at odds with 8 Ibid, p. 483. 9 Ibid, p. 459. 10 Ibid, p. 482.
69 the serious reengagement with life of which Nagel speaks. For Nagel, once again we begin taking our lives seriously as before our objec tive doubts. Holding to our new grasp of our situation and the objective doubts that plague us without solution, we go back to where we started without illusion. In this regard a crucial difference emerges between Kierkegaard a nd Nagel in responding to the absurd. It is a subtle difference, yet it is important. In drawi ng it out, I am once again aided by Camus dramatization of The Possessed In a meeting between the atheist Nicholas Stavrogin and the Bishop Tikhon, St avrogin unburdens himself of the great sin and grief of his past. Their dialogue leads them to a discussion of the diametrical opposition of faith in God and atheism. Tikhon admits that he has an imperf ect faith, leading to th e following exchange. Stavrogin (smiling): Yes, yes. But, in my opinion, faith must be perfect or there is no faith. Thats why Im an atheist. Tikhon: The complete atheist is more respectabl e than the man who is indifferent. He is on the last rung preceding perfect faith. Stavrogin: I know it. Do you remember th e passage from the Apocalypse about the lukewarm? Tikhon: Yes. I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, a nd neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Becau se thou sayest Stavrogin: That will do. 11 Though their conversation concerns faith and disbe lief in God, it may be adapted to the present application of faith in engaging life despite obj ective doubts. Stavrogin denies all compromise with regards to matters of faith and disbelief. It is an either/or. The objective doubts and subjective seriousness, whose clash we are calling the absurd, seem to demand a similar choice. 11 Camus, The Possessed p. 132.
70 Faith embraces seriousness despite doubt; doubt sees all seriousness as superfluous. A choice must be made in light of this clash. Nagel agrees that we cannot reconcile seriousne ss and doubt, but they both remain a part of our lives. The same person who is subjectively co mmitted to a personal life in all its rich detail finds himself in another aspect simultaneously detached; this detachment undermines his commitment without destr oying itleaving him divided.12 We mix the heat of subjective commitment with the cold of objective detachme nt; what results can be st be described as lukewarm reengagement in life, for always we can regard our seriousness as unwarranted and ridiculous. Hence pursui ng our lives for Nagel has an ironic flavor. Kierkegaard does not share in this compromised course. Faith suspends the objective doubts that come through detachment, embracing th e movement of inwardness with passion. As Climacus writes in the Philosophical Fragments : The conclusion of belief is no conclusion but a resolution, and thus doubt is excluded . Belief is the opposite of doubt. Belief and doubt are not two kinds of knowledge that can be defined in continuity w ith each other, for neither of them is a cognitive act, and they are opposite passions.13 Kierkegaard acknowledges that the objective doubts run in the opposite di rection of the serious pursuit of a life. While faith returns us with serious commitment to subjective life, to the understanding absurdity remains. Thus the return to life is made, but it is made by suspending our objective doubts. Not, as in Nagel, in the ironic light of those doubts. Yet, despite this difference, Nagel and Kier kegaard each advocate returning to life with humility. Objective consciousness stands as a check to our all-too-natural hubris. When we 12 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 210. 13 Sren Kierkegaard, trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Philosophical Fragments (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 84.
71 acknowledge that our su bjective pursuits have no objectiv e grounding, we may be less apt to allow those pursuits to tyrannize over our own and others liv es. In Kierkegaards At a Graveside, the response of hum ility is glimpsed in the life of the earnest person. Though he lives in all earnestness, he is conscious of hi s true worth, in weakness is willing to understand that a human being is nothing at all.14 Earnestness and faith, though they embrace inwardness, do not make the additional move of swallowing a ll reality into the subjective sphere. Nagel champions a similar sentiment, The most gene ral effect of the objec tive stance ought to be a form of humility: the recognition th at you are no more important than you are, and that the fact that something is of importance to you, or th at it would be good or bad if you did or suffered something, is a fact of purely local significance.15 This humility can have any number of applicatio ns. In his criticism of Hegel, we have seen how Climacus argues that subjectivity cannot be rendered in objective terms; there can be no system of existence. As Climacus notes, If a dancer could leap very high, we would admire him, but if he wanted to give the impression that he could fly even though he could leap higher than any dancer had ever leapt be fore let laughter overtake him.16 Hegels attempt to raise subjective matters onto the objective plane was just such an attempt. In humility both Kierkegaard and Nagel admit that to fly in this way is beyond our capacities. In a converse way, the humility of the absurd doe s not allow for the sort of fanaticism that clothes a life plan in cosmic cer tainty. If a person would claim for his or her subjective pursuits the authority of the objective, such surety runs aground on the absurd. In acknowledging our absurdity, we likewise acknowledge that our pr ojects, plans and pursuits are not commissioned 14 Kierkegaard, Three Discourses on Imagines Occasions p 83. 15 Nagel, The View from Nowhere p. 222. 16 Kierkegaard, Postscript p. 124.
72 by the view sub specie aeterni We cannot portend to be the executors of a viewpoint whose purpose forever eludes us. Central to both Nagel and Kierkegaards acc ounts is an admission that our lives, whether engaged in by faith or irony, are never justifie d by our understanding of objectivity. For Nagel, part of what it is like to be a human is the fee ling of absurdity. For Kierkegaard, part of what it is to be a subject is to embr ace subjectivity despite our lack of objective assurances. We cannot dispel the doubts felt when we transcend our s ubjective vantage point; we must choose, rather, what to do with our lives once we become consci ous of those doubts. What we choose will not be given us by reason. For bot h Nagel and Kierkegaard, it is not a question of marrying the subjective and objective vantages, bu t of living with their divorce.
73 LIST OF REFERENCES Blackburn, Simon. Being Good New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Trans. by Justin OBrien. New York: Vintage International, 1983. Camus, Albert. The Possessed: A Play in Three Parts Trans. by Justin OBrien. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960. Davison, Ray. Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Demons Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. Gordon, Jeffrey. Nagel or Camus on the Absurd? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 45, No. 1 (Sept., 1984): 15-28. Hannay, Alastair and Gordon D. Marino, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Kierkegaard, Sren. The Concept of Anxiety Trans. Reidar Thomte. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980. Kierkegaard, Sren. Concluding Unscientif ic Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Volume I. Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Prin ceton: Princeton University Press, 1992. Kierkegaard, Sren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. Kierkegaard, Sren. Papers and Journal: A Selection Trans. Alastair Hannay. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Kierkegaard, Sren. Philosophical Fragments Johannes Climacus Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. Kierkegaard, Sren. Three Discourses on Imagined Occasions Trans. Howard and Edna Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. Leahy, D. G. Faith and Philosophy: The Historical Impact Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2003. Luper-Foy, Steven. The Absurdity of Life. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. 52, No. 1 (Mar., 1992): 85-101.
74 Miller, Ed. At the centre of Kierke gaard: an objective absurdity. Religious Studies Vol. 33, No. 4 (Dec 1997): 433-439. Mooney, Edward. Understanding Abraha m: Care, Faith and the Absurd. Kierkegaards Fear and Trembling. Ed. Robert L. Perkins. Un iversity, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981. Nagel, Thomas. The Absurd. The Journal of Philosophy Vol. 68, No. 20 (Oct. 21, 1971): 716-727. Nagel, Thomas. Mortal Questions New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. Nagel, Thomas. The View from Nowhere New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Sagi, Avi. Albert Camus and the Philosophy of the Absurd Trans. Batya Stein. New York: Rodopi, 2002. Singer, Peter. How Are We to Live? Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1995. Smith, Michaela. Is That All There Is? The Journal of Ethics Vol. 10 (2006): 75-106. Westphal, Jonathan and Christopher Cherry. Is Life Absurd? Philosophy Vol. 65, No. 252 (Apr., 1990): 199-203. Wolf, Susan. Happiness and Meani ng: Two Aspects of the Good Life. Social Philosophy and Policy Vol. 14 (1997): 207-225.
75 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Theodore Benson Randles was born on 22 Ma rch 1984 in Youngstown, Ohio, to Dr. Thomas and Emma Randles. He considers hims elf a native-son of Florida, however, as his formative years were spent in Ma dison and Panama City, Florida. Theodore received his B.S. in history from the United States Air Force Academy in 2006 (Spaatz!), minoring in Russian and philos ophy. He received his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and was awarded the Lawson scholarship for immediate postgraduate study terminati ng in a masters degree.