“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” Albert Camus wrote, “and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards.” Camus eventually reaches the conclusion, as I will, that suicide is not an apt response to existence. But his thoughts raise a question: What if it’s the continued forward discovery of categories that leads man to recognizing his absurdity in the world?
Perhaps this seems a ridiculous question to ask. One may wonder how the pondering of flying things and red things is something that leads man towards absurdity.
The capacity for categorization and the manipulation of categorical things, largely the the fundamental questions of philosophy and science, has benefitted humankind immensely. For one, it has allowed us to shape tools. A rock categorized as dense could be used to chip away at a brittle rock to make something like an arrowhead. Knowing how to properly categorize rocks allows him to manipulate rocks into arrows to hunt and knives to carve his catch. Increasingly more sophisticated and narrower categorizations allowed us to do things like realize silicon, knowledge of acids to etch circuitry, and which materials are conduct electricity efficiently allow technological innovations at an accelerating rate. We analyze things in the world, deconstructing them either physically or categorically, and put them back together in various configurations towards our own aims. This is man’s greatest capacity.
But if we cash out the task of categorization into perpetuity, the task of identifying flying things and red things inevitably turns inward from “what is there in the world” to one of “what am I?” Having learned the methods of falsifiability and analyticity, of what isn’t and how things decompose, the perennial question of what am I becomes a source of perpetual distinction and categorization, further away from the singular, primordial and amorphous category of all things. To turn the task of categorization inwards to ask “what am I?” is not an absurd series of events but an eventuality that comes for us all. But, once we have mentally deconstructed ourselves, could be put them back together the way we once were?
Since categorization and the perpetual analyticity afforded by it allows man to better manipulate the world, then why couldn’t the act of categorization be turned inward? The man who points a gun at the world to gain power over his environment could certainly turn the gun onto himself. Why does a man facing the barrel of a gun or a self-made noose hesitate if not to search his mind for a set of categories to ground himself in the world he finds to be absurd? And if the person at the dangerous end of the gun, whether a bank teller or himself, were to respond undesirably or improperly, the man holding the gun might afford himself the opportunity to carry forward with his threat. It is ridiculous, of course, but it is certainly conceivable.
The questions of what am I doing or why am I here has long been a source of malcontent. And as far as we can tell, it is only us humans that wrestle with these types of questions. Simultaneously, we humans are the exemplary category of categorizers. Indeed, our answers in explaining our existence seem to mostly come in categorical form: I am a father, a daughter, an athlete, a steward of the community. But if one had lost a child, a mother, her talents, or his standing in the community — if one’s deeply grounded categories had been altered or disrupted in some major way, wouldn’t that grant some rationale to recognize the absurdity of it all?
For Camus, the feeling of absurdity is “The divorce between man and this life, the actor and his setting.” It’s well possible that this divorce could between a man and the categories man uses to explain or define himself. The more he relegates his identity towards those categories he becomes disassociated, split between the subject of experience and the image of himself as categorical objects.
“I desperately want to be a medical doctor” the high school student writes in his journal. He thinks and writes as the subject of experience about a future state of himself in another space and time, of himself as an object existing mentally, yet nowhere. When, at the age of 25, he finds himself unable to pass the required examinations to become a doctor, he becomes divorced irreparably from the mental objects of himself — his categories. He thinks about all of the months of studying gone to waste and the sacrifices he made in his personal life to get to this point only to be denied his objective. He is separated from his setting, not only in the world of objects, but separated from a world of himself as object and possibility. Here, he comes across an absurdity.
There is illogic here. The two versions of him, as subject and object, do not match up. But certainly, his distress comes from the notion that the two should be the same person but are not. It is a disassociation and an identity claim at once – a logical absurdity of the two distinct pair of categories of himself to be considered to be the one and the same.
Modern man has evolved with an implicit requirement of his society to look at himself subjectively and objectively. But from this, he also runs into the obstacle of trying to view himself both from the perspective of himself as subject and objectively through a view from nowhere detached from himself. There is an entailment of disassociation in this view, but there is also a pervasive sense of should that the disassociated pieces are also to be taken as a single unit of existence. The question we must ask, then, is would it be troublesome if man could not rejoin these two categories back together cohesively and sufficiently? The tools he is given by contemporary philosophy and science proposes that he should pursue more analyticity, more subcategorizations, and more compartmentalization. He is told that the answers of how to rejoin things will be found in better deconstructing things, that the glue that will hold him together will be found in further the separation and nominalization of things.
That seems absurd.