Existentialist Absurdity

Themes and Ideas in Existentialist Thought

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An important component of existentialist philosophy is the portrayal of existence as being fundamentally irrational in nature. Whereas most philosophers have attempted to create philosophical systems that produce a rational account of reality, existentialist philosophers have focused upon the subjective, irrational character of human existence.

Human beings, forced to rely on themselves for their values rather than any fixed human nature, must make choices, decisions, and commitments in the absence of absolute and objective guides.

In the end, this means that certain fundamental choices are made independent of reason — and that, existentialists argue, means that all of our choices are ultimately independent of reason.

This is not to say that reason plays no role whatsoever in any of our decisions, but too often people ignore the roles played by emotions, passions, and irrational desires. These commonly influence our choices to a high degree, even overriding reason while we struggle to rationalize the result so that it at least looks to ourselves like we made a rational choice.

According to atheist existentialists like Sartre, the “absurdity” of human existence is the necessary result of our attempts to live a life of meaning and purpose in an indifferent, uncaring universe. There is no God, so there is no perfect and absolute vantage point from which human actions or choices can be said to be rational.

Christian existentialists don’t go quite so far because of course, they don’t reject the existence of God.

They do, however, accept the notion of the “absurd” and the irrationality of human life because they agree that humans are caught in a web of subjectivity from which they cannot escape. As Kierkegaard argued, in the end, we must all make choices which are not based upon fixed, rational standards — choices which are just as likely to be wrong as right.

This is what Kierkegaard termed a “leap of faith” — it’s an irrational choice, but ultimately a necessary one if a person is to lead a full, authentic human existence. The absurdity of our lives is never actually overcome, but it is embraced in the hope that by making the best choices one will finally achieve a union with the infinite, absolute God.

Albert Camus, the existentialist who wrote the most about the idea of the “absurd,” rejected such “leaps of faith” and religious belief generally as a type of “philosophic suicide” because it is used to provide pseudo-solutions to the absurd nature of reality — the fact that human reasoning fits so poorly with reality as we find it.

Once we get past that the idea that we should try to “solve” the absurdity of life we can rebel, not against a non-existent god, but instead against our fate to die. Here, “to rebel” means to reject the idea that death must have any hold over us. Yes, we will die, but we shouldn’t allow that fact to inform or constrain all of our actions or decisions. We must be willing to live in spite of death, create meaning in spite of objective meaninglessness, and find value in spite of the tragic, even comic, absurdity of what goes on around us.