Camus’s Absurd and the Argument against Suicide

Abstract

There are striking differences between Camus’s early and late philosophical essays, but Camus often claimed that his works were part of one consistent project. This paper argues that, although Camus had a significant change in his views on the consequences of the absurd, throughout his life he also had a common concern with the relation of the absurd to morality. Showing this requires us to clarify what Camus meant by the “absurd,” and identify at least three different uses of the term by Camus: lacking a purpose; lacking an explanation; and a tension between purpose and purposelessness. Clarifying the meaning of “absurd” allows one to show that Camus’s late argument against suicide, often dismissed as inadequate, is valid. This also illustrates the consistency of his concerns over time.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Some scholars have put this experience of the absurd at the center of their accounts. David Carroll (2007) argues that for Camus the feeling of the experience of the absurd signifies facts about the absurd that cannot be captured in theory.

  2. 2.

    Cruikshank (1960: 45) quotes Sartre as having this view also: “Camus’s philosophy is a philosophy of the absurd. For him the absurd arises from the relation between man and the world, between man’s rational demands and the world’s irrationality.” (I have been unable to find the original quote.)

  3. 3.

    Camus does recommend a certain form of skepticism as a personal virtue, but this is a different matter. In The Rebel he is concerned that we should not use our political theories to justify violence, and argues that we should be skeptical about their accuracy. A valuable discussion of this is to be found in Sharpe (2015). Camus is also concerned that we should be skeptical about political theories. But this skepticism is actually derivable from the notion of teleological absurdity, since what concerned Camus was that the prophecies of Marx or Hegel were used as consequentialist justifications for violence. Here again, Camus is rejecting some kinds of teleological explanations and not causal explanations.

  4. 4.

    The exceptions are rare, and include things like when the organism breaks down, such as through illness. Thus, we could answer the question, “Why isn’t Tom here?” with something like, “Because he did not want to come.” Which is an explanation in terms of his purposes. An example of the (more rare) causal explanation would be something like: “Because he has the flu.”

  5. 5.

    See also (2004:205).

  6. 6.

    A strikingly similar account of the affront of suffering is given by Nietzshe in his third Untimely Meditation (1997 [1874]: 157).

  7. 7.

    Also, some scholars have asserted that Camus’s abilities as a philosopher were not worthy of serious consideration. The view is expressed strongly, for example, by Beauvoir: “Camus had a very simplistic mind, and he took extremely simplistic views on politics, ethics and philosophy. He wrote well, but he was not a profound man. The difference between him and Sartre is that Sartre was a true philosopher and Camus was a pure journalist, a journalist who was also a bit of a writer…. Nobody in France today reads anything he wrote. It was all too facile, too obvious.” (Bair, 1991: 290). Even literary critics like Susan Sontag have been dismissive (which is remarkable when we note how literary critics tend to celebrate even the most fanciful of theories): “Starting from the premises of a popular nihilism, [Camus] moves the reader—solely by the power of his own tranquil voice and tone—to humanist and humanitarian conclusions in no way entailed by his premises. This illogical leaping of the abyss to nihilism is the gift for which readers are grateful to Camus” (1963).

  8. 8.

    I am indebted to an anonymous reviewer for Philosophia for many helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Craig DeLancey.

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DeLancey, C. Camus’s Absurd and the Argument against Suicide. Philosophia (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-021-00333-7

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Keywords

  • Camus
  • Absurd
  • Purposefulness
  • Teleology
  • Suicide