Interviewer: Albert Camus made a famous reading of the Greek myth of Sisyphus in which he characterized human life as fundamentally absurd. The image of a man forced by the gods to push, forever, the same boulder back to the top of the same hill – it’s a very powerful one. Nevertheless Camus remained ultimately hopeful, rejecting out-and-out narcissism. An alternative conclusion to the absurdity of human life is a justification of suicide. Do you think absurdity is a useful concept? And does the idea of a philosophical suicide hold water?
Patrick: Personally, I am yet to really get to grips with the absurd. I have occasional moments when the absurdity of life filters through and I find myself chuckling to myself at how unimportant my life is in the context of the stars, the moon, and so on, but these realisations rarely carry much weight the next morning. In terms of the kind of ‘deep’ absurdity that we come across in writers like Camus, Beckett and Kafka, it has yet to prove a useful concept for me. I suspect that this is because I am still too young to really feel the weight of what they were referring to. After all, I am still not even convinced I am going to die. So perhaps questions of the absurd or even, more generally, meaning itself are yet to be experienced at a weighty existential level. Or at least most of the time. I still find Camus’ statement that suicide is the one truly serious philosophical problem baffling. Even in an absurd and meaningless world, there is still the next box set of Mad Men to look forward to. My point, I guess, is that there is a big logical jump from acknowledging the world as meaningless to considering suicide as the one truly philosophical question. What is more interesting to me than the idea of physical suicide is Camus’ idea of philosophical suicide, as it seems that most philosophers commit it as they appear to need an absolute or transcendent concept in order to justify their enterprise, such as Hegel’s ‘Spirit’, Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’, Heidegger’s ‘Being’, and so on. It is when philosophers make these ‘leaps’ to conclusions that contradict or betray their original positions that Camus would suggest they have committed philosophical suicide. So however much thinkers like Nietzsche, for example, revel in the contingency of all truths, he still cannot help building up over-arching or generalizable metaphysical ideas, such as his ‘superman’. I have recently been quite inspired by reading some of the work of Richard Rorty, the late American pragmatist philosopher, in which he praises the much maligned Derrida for avoiding precisely this tendency to eventually move beyond contingency and try to build an absolute or generalizable basis in order to justify his enterprise. While I have not read enough Rorty to really feel comfortable with what he is saying, he seems to focus on irony rather than the absurd as a useful grounding for the philosophical enterprise. For him, the ironist is never ultimately able to take him/herself seriously as they are ‘always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change, always aware of the contingency and fragility of their final vocabularies, and thus of their selves’. Perhaps Camus’ absurd and Rorty’s irony are not so far off from each other, at least insofar as both are seen as ways to avoid trying to get a final word on things and thus committing philosophical suicide!