“To exist in such a way that my opposition to existence expresses itself every instant as the most beautiful and safest harmony, that I cannot.” – Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (78)
“What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms.” – Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (51)
Incommensurability is the lack of a common measure between two things. The incongruence that presents itself in the situation of incommensurability gives us two options: We must either abandon one term or leap from one to the other without explanation. We are put in the position to choose when faced with a paradox; something that is self-contradictory demands that we either refuse to grant one of the terms that contradicts the other or transcend our understanding – leap over it – and grant both terms despite their incommensurability. If, as many thinkers declare, human life involves a paradox, then simply living demands that we choose one of these options. Existentialism, as a branch of philosophy that concentrates heavily on paradox, offers many different perspectives on the significance and implications of the incommensurable aspects of the human condition. Kierkegaard and Camus referred to man’s position in the world as “the absurd;” though the term is shared between them and their definitions are not dissimilar, their approach to the absurd and the conclusions they draw therefrom are, well, incommensurable. In both of our thinkers’ writings, man with his concrete experiences represents one of the terms of the incommensurable; the other is what man longs for: unity, clarity, justification – in a word, God. What should we do without a common measure between what we live and what we want, the former being certain, the latter being unknowable yet desperately longed for? Is there a correct attitude toward the paradox? Since Kierkegaard and Camus share a similar starting point and end worlds apart, one leaping over the understanding and the other revolting against the incomprehensible, a discussion of their attitudes toward the incommensurable will provide two extreme positions for analysis. This could result many ways: One of these poles may stand out as the clearly correct approach; perhaps neither will ring true, but their extremity may refer us to a middle path; perhaps no conclusion can be found for such a question, because paradox may not admit of a right or wrong approach.
When discussing the lack of a common measure between man and the objects of his desire, we know the instrument of measurement of the first term: the understanding. The absurd is that which surpasses the understanding, that which defies its logic and offends its sensibility. The absurd is the incommensurability between man and God. Kierkegaard, a zealous Christian, is often referred to as the father of existentialism – interesting to consider today, since the modern connotation of “the existentialist” is highly atheistic, or at least agnostic. Kierkegaard’s thought, though, is a clear precursor to modern existential philosophy; in his treatment of paradox, he diminishes the status of reason and exalts human passion. His preference of a lyrical writing style over the more traditional linear, dialectical structure indicates his emphasis on mood rather than logic. His ideas of paradox and the absurd unfold in his writings on faith, namely, in Philosophical Fragments and Fear and Trembling.
Philosophical Fragments concerns man’s ability to know truth. In it we find the Socratic idea of midwifery and immanent truth called into question. Kierkegaard does not provide an argument against it, but provides an alternative based on a hypothetical premise: If we are divorced from truth, how can we learn it? His answer is, of course, Jesus, but this is not the focus of my present discussion. The most relevant part of the Fragments for my concerns is Kierkegaard’s chapter on what he calls the “absolute paradox.” What he describes here is essentially a drive toward intellectual self-destruction. “This…is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.” (37) Thought wants to transcend itself, but it cannot, since this would require pulling itself over its own limits. Kierkegaard gives a name to that against which the understanding wants to destroy itself: the unknown, or the god.
Thus thought wants God, but God cannot be thought; he is defined only as the unknown, as the “absolutely different,” as that which is essentially incomprehensible. Kierkegaard proceeds to attack the attempts made by philosophers and theologians to prove God on rational grounds, such as the ontological “argument.” He makes the familiar complaint that it already presupposes the existence of God; the step it takes from the idea of God to his necessary existence is a leap, not a logical link, and therefore no proof can be spoken of. Kierkegaard advocates a different approach: “…when I let go of the demonstrations, the existence is there.” (43) This “letting go” is precisely the “leap of faith,” Kierkegaard’s personal coinage. To let go of demonstrations is to refuse the practice of thought, to stop looking for reasons and proofs, and to leap over the understanding. The understanding cannot transcend itself, but we can disregard the understanding. For Kierkegaard this is simply necessary when confronted with the absurd. If thought cannot grasp it yet strives for it, we can only obtain it by throwing thought away. The birth of faith is the death of the understanding; as we’ll soon see, not everyone is willing or able to make this sacrifice.
“Sacrifice:” a fine segue into the discussion of Fear and Trembling! The focal point of this book is the story of Abraham. Abraham is for Kierkegaard the personification of faith. Faith is a manifestation of the absurd. It involves knowing something for certain and believing, in spite of this certainty, that the impossible will happen. Referred to Abraham’s trial, this means that Abraham puts Isaac under the knife, fully intent on sacrificing him, while having faith that he will not have to sacrifice him. The inner turmoil of the will, the self-contradictory will toward and against something, the tension between the ethical and Word of God – these paradoxes surpass comprehension. The key component of faith for Kierkegaard is its focus on the temporal, on this world and what happens therein. This means that those who appeal to eternal justice and reconciliation in the afterlife are not representatives of true faith, for faith would require the conviction that justice and reconciliation are present here and now, in spite of all we experience to the contrary. It is precisely the incongruence of the actual and the ideal that makes faith great; it demands that we believe in the impossible.
Kierkegaard’s approach to the incommensurable is to leap from one term to the other – from man’s understanding to that which cannot be thought. Perhaps that is misleading of me, though; Kierkegaard says himself that he is unable to do this. “I cannot close my eyes and hurl myself trustingly into the absurd, for me it is impossible, but I do not praise myself on that account.” (63) He describes faith as an act of immense courage, a courage which he lacks. He speaks of his conviction that God is love, then says that this idea opposes reality. He cannot transcend that reality and trust completely in God’s love. This inability to leap over the understanding is a weakness in his view, an example of cowardice.
One of the most striking features of Fear and Trembling and its treatment of faith is the resulting approach toward the ethical. I find it unfortunate that Kierkegaard simply adopted the Kantian notion of ethics as “the universal” without elaborating or providing a foundation for this definition, but this is what we are given. We must, then, consider his idea of ethical action as that which can be willed universal action. The story of Abraham poses a great problem: Would Isaac be the victim of sacrifice or murder? If the latter, then Abraham, that great man of God, is unethical; if the former, then acts of faith are beyond the ethical. Kierkegaard says that if we grant the absurd, if we can leap over the understanding into faith, then there is such a thing as the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” (83) The ethical, as the universal, demands that the individual sacrifice his individuality for the sake of the universal. It is only possible to justifiably disobey this demand if there is in fact something higher than the universal. For Kierkegaard, this something higher is the individual who attains to a direct relation to the absolute, to God. God is higher than all men or the universal; as such, one man with a relation to God is higher than all men without this relation. If we grant the unknown and the possibility of this relationship, then and only then can Abraham be justified; he is not unethical, but beyond ethical.
How can we understand the exaltation of the irrational? Kierkegaard deifies what he can’t comprehend, it seems, precisely because he can’t comprehend it. Perhaps an answer lies in Kierkegaard’s attitude toward passion. He sees passion as “the genuinely human factor.” (144) Passion fills and validates human life; without it, we have only biological functioning. Man is more than an organism; his life consists of more than breathing and bloodflow. Without passion, man is inhuman. If this is granted, then we can agree that passion is the most anyone can strive for in life. The highest passion, Kierkegaard says, is faith. This makes sense if we keep in mind that faith is absurd. It is entirely beyond reason and the understanding. Our position in faith is pure passion, the passion of Abraham with the knife in his hand, believing in what seems impossible for no other reason than the exaltation of the incomprehensible. He loved what he could not understand, and this love for the unknown is passion in its rawest, most demanding form. Kierkegaard is essentially saying that the man with the most humanity is able to step beyond a part of his nature – reason – and throw himself into the absurd. This passion requires a courage beyond most, the courage to look the world in the face, see that it is incommensurable with God’s love, and tell it that God is love.
I agree that passion is the human factor, and that without it man is just another mechanism. Can we find another form of passion that validates life, yet does not involve throwing oneself into the absurd and killing the understanding? Camus has something to offer on this matter.
Camus is more in line with the contemporary connotation of existentialism. He was an agnostic thinker who tried to find a middle ground between absolutism and nihilism. His first premise is that life and the world are, cosmically speaking, meaningless. In The Myth of Sisyphus, he asks whether this meaninglessness is thorough, whether the lack of telos in the world nullifies the notion of meaning in man, and whether life is therefore not worth living. Camus’ category of the absurd includes every contradiction he discovers between man and the world he lives in. It can be summed up as the incongruence between what man requires and expects of the world and what the world actually provides. This tension between man’s ideals and his actual life manifests in numerous ways: man’s drive to live and consciousness of inevitable death is absurd; his lack of affinity with nature is absurd; his desire for unity and his inability to discover it in the world is absurd. Some might accuse Camus of exaggerating the truth of these points, particularly the last one, since science and basic experience offer us an ordered view of the world: There are natural laws and patterns we see everyday. Camus’ response to this is: “I realize that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.” (20) The order of natural laws and the unity we seek are not the same. Science answers the how and leaves the why unattended to. We want reasons, justifications – in a word, we want the world to make sense, and science cannot provide this sense.
The absurd is, then, essentially characterized by “divorce” and tension, by the incommensurability of man’s needs and the world’s offerings. As said above, man’s measure is his understanding. For Camus, anything that transcends the human understanding has no meaning to man. The understanding is that by which we recognize meaning. This is where Camus breaks irrevocably from Kierkegaard. He cannot leap over his measuring stick; in his own words, “…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.” (40) He criticizes Kierkegaard’s attitude toward the absurd as being inauthentic. The absurd is offensive to man’s understanding, and Kierkegaard was wrong to diminish this fact by casting off thought altogether and exalting that which transcends it. For Camus, the only authentic attitude toward the absurd consists of three parts: “…absence of hope…continual rejection…31) This attitude does not disregard any of man’s characteristics; it does not try to leap over the man who has it. Camus accuses leapers like Kierkegaard of a certain cheapness; they negate reason altogether since it does not give them what they want, and then jump to the irrational and fall to their knees before it. Their hope is false; their exaltation is hollow. Camus holds that it is impossible to see the absurd for what it is and be reconciled with it. Man cannot genuinely accept the lack of what he longs for, and cannot will the divorce that alienates him from the world he lives in. To “sacrifice the intellect” is to sacrifice a part of one’s humanity, something that I think Camus would say is not a genuine approach to anything.
If Camus wishes, as he says, to live by what he knows, and if what he knows is dissatisfaction, hopelessness, and rejection of the human condition, how can he but conclude that life is not worth living? Yet he does not conclude this. He attempts to locate passion and dignity in a life characterized by the authentic attitude toward the absurd. “Being able to remain on that dizzying crest – that is integrity and the rest is subterfuge.” (50) Dignity lies in the refusal to leap or withdraw from the edge. This stubborn stance on the crest is what Camus calls revolt. Man in revolt against the world that does not reflect his own humanity thereby declares the value of that humanity. The revolter refuses to delude himself, refuses an empty acceptance, refuses cheap metaphysical comfort, and finds his only legitimate reason to live in the glory of his war.
Passion is inherent in the notion of revolt. The key component of the authentic attitude toward the absurd is consciousness; revolting against the absurd demands constant consciousness of the divorce and tension that defines it. If we are to have a sense of dignity, it must be found in revolt. Revolt involves living in the paradox of the human condition, maintaining that state of tension and refusing to resign oneself to it. Suicide is acceptance and forfeit; in it we let the inhuman destroy the human. The passion to live is the passion for humanity, nobility, and the consciousness involved in these. Against Kierkegaard’s notion of passion – that its highest manifestation is in faith, the leap – Camus provides a notion that does not necessitate the sacrifice of man’s faculties. I think Camus would say that Kierkegaards “highest passion” is really a delusion, not a courageous act. True courage is found in the unmitigated recognition of a reality that offends and the refusal to compromise with it. Sacrifice for Camus is compromise; if we sacrifice the intellect, we compromise our own humanity in order to make the offensive seem inoffensive by exalting it. We see here the familiar notion of the value of contrast: the lack of a certain characteristic in one term accentuates the presence of it in the other. Intellect, ideals, and passion in man are accentuated by the contrast of a backdrop, the world, that lacks these traits. To forfeit the understanding is, for Camus, to bring man down to the level of the world that offends him. Kierkegaard’s passionate leap cannot stand against Camus’ conscious, uncompromising passion, since it lacks ground; a passion founded on the negation of one of man’s characteristics is self-mutilating. Only passion that includes and exalts man’s entire being is the truly human factor.
Camus faced the same terrible problem as every conscientious secular existentialist: How can ethics exist if there are no absolutes, no hierarchy of values? Based on how he lived his life, it is clear that he believed in an ethics; he was a French Resistance fighter, devoted to the cause of ending genocide. In “Letters To A German Friend,” Camus attempts to develop his thoughts on ethics. These letters are correspondences that took place between himself and an ex-friend who became a Nazi. The first three letters build up all the drama involved in a relationship subjected to such tensions; it is in the fourth letter that a real articulation of an ethical stance and its foundation emerges. Camus says that, though the world may not operate on our conception of meaning, the mere fact that we have this conception validates it: “I continue to believe that the world has no ultimate meaning. But I know that something in it has a meaning and that is man, because he is the only creature to insist on having one.” (28) The world can be totally indifferent, but we are not, and we have the ability to live based on our notions of values. This is perhaps the most clear example of revolt against the absurd: to stare meaninglessness in the face and declare and uphold the meaning immanent to man. This is not empty or contradictory; it does not matter, in our interactions with one another, if the world apart from us does not have meaning. We want meaning, we have values and ideals, and therefore these things exist – on a smaller scale than we’d like, true, but this does not cancel them out. The essence of revolt is upholding the notions one has in the face of that which does not reflect them. It is being humane before the inhumane. Otherwise, we become what we despise; the Nazi aligns himself with brute force and violence, thereby likening himself to that term of the absurd that originally offends the understanding. The dignity and passion Camus exalts are to be found in ethical action, in the reinforcement of the human.
I will admit, this attempt to describe what ethics is in a secular existential system of thought is vague. In order to reach any detailed description, we must ask ourselves what we mean by “human” and “humane.” What exactly are we reinforcing over and against the absurd world? What ideals? What values? How do we avoid relativism? Honestly, I think the only ethical principle Camus put forward is that nobody should take another’s life. Besides the value of human life, I see no other unconditional value advanced.
Yet we are given much to consider; the question of “what is human” has been recurrent throughout this discussion, and I’d like to devote some time to that. To Kierkegaard passion is human, but his notion of passion negates other human traits, i.e. reason and the understanding. Camus is no exalter of reason; he recognizes its limits, its inability to reach beyond experience, yet refuses to let go of the understanding. If something does not make sense to man, then it is senseless; to Camus, “senseless” means “meaningless.”
I think Camus might be right. Initially I thought one could not speak of a “right” or “wrong” approach to the absurd, as the absurd, yet in this current light of considering what is human and how man can authentically approach his paradox, I’ve changed my mind. I think Camus makes a valid point, at least the way I interpret him: If passion is the human factor, it must not devalue what is human. Man’s understanding, thought, and the requirements thereof are as integral to his nature as passion. That which allows no access for the understanding is outside the human sphere, and there is no reason to exalt it. I cannot completely dismiss Kierkegaard, though; it does not seem to be the case that he deified the irrational for the sake of comfort. He struggles greatly with his own idea of faith, setting it beyond his own capacity. He says himself that faith is insane. We cannot establish the reasons for Kierkegaard’s exaltation of the unknown, but I can say that it is beyond me, as it was beyond Camus. It is not possible for me to sacrifice a part of my humanity; this does not reconcile me to the unknown, but sets me against myself while leaving the unknown untouched and untouchable. I do not understand Kierkegaard, but I understand Camus.
The ethical implications of the two different approaches to the absurd are clear. If we grant with Kierkegaard that there is something above the universal, above men, then there is a justifiable suspension of ethics. If we side with Camus and assert the meaninglessness of anything “above” or “beyond” man, then there is no such suspension. Camus tries to indicate an immanent universality upon which to found ethics – man’s humanity. The defining characteristics of man are those that stand out in contrast to the world – his thought, desires, and sense of meaning. The absurd makes what is human stand out, and thus points to an inherent ethics. He says to his ex-friend: “…you saw the injustice of our condition to the point of being willing to add to it, whereas it seemed to me that man must exalt justice in order to fight against eternal injustice…” (28) Whereas Kierkegaard strove to justify Abraham, Camus could offer no such justification. The command of God in this story is absurd; Abraham couldn’t understand it; it therefore had no meaning to him.
When faced with the incommensurable, we can either leap or revolt. We can diminish ourselves for the sake of the absolutely different or exalt ourselves by fighting it. Perhaps it all comes down to pride; yet pride is in our nature, bound up with our sense of dignity. We are a strange combination of pride and limit; Kierkegaard saw our limits and killed his pride. Camus is conscious of both and won’t allow limit to destroy pride. He would prefer to maintain an offended understanding of the world than lose himself in the incomprehensible. I find this to be the more authentically human approach to the absurd.