Wednesday, October 20, 2010
The Absurdity of Life
Thomas Nagel's well known essay "The Absurd" (1971) is one of those memorable, truly eye-opening works of philosophy (sorry, I can't find it online). The basic idea is that we inevitably oscillate between two attitudes. On the "inside" of our activities, we feel engaged, take things seriously, find them meaningful. But inevitably, we step back and take the "outside" view, from which absolutely anything can seem silly and pointless. The absurdity of life is that you can't stay still, you can't permanently maintain one stance or the other.
Now, I think this is a bit exaggerated, and there are things that never seem silly and pointless. For example, in the middle of taking care of a sick child, nobody stops to think "What's the point?" But a counterexample or two (or even three or four) doesn't overthrow the whole idea. There is a lot of oscillation. The irony is: the activity that may be most absurd is philosophy itself--since it has such an air of seriousness, but is especially open to doubt. Nobody makes fun of philosophy as well as Woody Allen. Without further ado...a clip from Love and Death.