Existentialism vs Absurdism — Explanations and Key Differences of Each

A Medium commenter recently asked an interesting question: What’s the difference between the philosophy of Absurdism and the philosophy of Existentialism? I’ll answer that question in this article, as there are certainly some differences.

Just to clarify, this person was referring to the philosophy of Existentialism associated with 20th-century European philosophers — particularly John Paul Sartre, who popularized the term. Some scholars extend the term back to Sorin Kierkegaard, and others extend it as far back as Socrates. This quick article will explain and contrast the Absurdism of Albert Camus and the Existentialism of John Paul Sartre.

What is Existentialism?

First, let’s go over what Existentialism is. Existentialists believe that the world intrinsically has no objective meaning, but through a combination of free will, awareness, and personality responsibility, we can create our own subjective meaning.

The basis of Sartre’s Existentialism is the phrase ‘existence precedes essence,’ meaning no general account of what it means to be human can be given, and that meaning can only be decided and constructed through existence itself.

We are responsible for creating our own meaning and essence

For example, the phone you may be reading this article on already has a meaning or essence. It was built for communication and entertainment. Human beings, however, create our own meaning and essence through the choices we make while we live our lives.

At the end of the day, no one else is responsible for this meaning but us. In fact, Sartre wrote that we’re ‘condemned to be free’ because of the overwhelming, near-infinite choices we can make to give our lives meaning.

Avoiding “Bad Faith”

If we choose to live without pursuing freedom and our own meaning, then we’re what he called ‘living in bad faith.’ Bad faith is the phenomenon of accepting that we are a certain way, and subsequently refusing to pursue alternate options.

He explains this concept through the example of a waiter who’s so immersed in his job that he believes a waiter is what he truly is and all he’s ever meant to be. He lives in bad faith because he rejects his freedom and his responsibility to explore the possibilities life presents him. He believes the choice to do something or not to do it is ultimately not his, even though according to Sartre it is. Thus, he does not allow himself to be a truly free human being.

Through embracing freedom and creating authentic meaning, we better our lives and humanity in general.

Now, there’s a lot more to Sartre’s philosophy and Existentialism, but I think that gives you the core idea of what he was about.

What is Absurdism?

So, what about Absurdism? First, we’ll go over what Absurdists believe, and then we’ll contrast the major differences.

According to Absurdism, it’s only natural for humans to seek out meaning in life. However, conflict occurs when we go to do so and find the universe is really cold, chaotic, and utterly devoid of any meaning at all. It’s this contradiction between our mind’s search for meaning and the reality of nature that Absurdism’s founder Albert Camus calls ‘The Absurd.’

Unfortunately, we have no choice but to confront reality and solve this dilemma.

How do we solve it? Camus says we have three options, and we have to choose one.

Choice #1.

The first is suicide, which isn’t a good idea according to Camus. Suicide only makes the Absurd more absurd, and it ends your life, which was sort of a miracle to begin with.

Choice #2.

Then there’s option two, ‘The Leap of Faith.’ Basically, we can do what Camus refers to as “commit philosophical suicide” and pretend there’s a higher power that gives our life meaning — in other words, God. We’d have to pretend that make-believe was the actual truth and accept a limited role of freedom in our lives. By accepting the imposed moral codes of faith, we may be suppressing what we truly believe and want deep down.

Choice #3.

Finally, we have option three, wherein we can embrace the Absurd and realize that we’re truly free. From there, we’re free to pursue anything we want and try to embrace what life has to offer.

So, both of these philosophies have to do with confronting what seems like meaninglessness and being responsible for creating our own meaning in life. Some scholars consider Camus an existential philosopher.

What Are Key Differences?

Absurdism isn’t as set on the value of meaning in one’s life as Existentialism is. For Sartre, constructing meaning was ontological; it was your essence and being. Plus, the pursuit of meaning can have meaning in itself.

For Absurdists, meaning is more transient, and that meaning is always nullified by death. In the end, for Absurdists, any meaning we construct is ultimately meaningless since the universe is an Absurd place we can’t even begin to fully comprehend. The pursuit of created meaning is possible with Existentialism, and that is its goal. For Aburdists, meaning might be possible, but it probably is irrelevant to the entire human experience anyway.

While Existentialism’s goal is the creation of one’s essence, Absurdism is just about embracing the Absurd or meaningless in life and simultaneously rebelling against it and embracing what life can offer us. Yes, we can find some joy amidst the struggle and chaos of the Absurd, but it will all end in annihilation anyway.

Also, Existentialists believed in free will and that we have a duty to pursue freedom, while Absurdists aren’t so set on the concept of free will. They believe that people should just try their best to live in defiance to and in spite of the psychological tension of the Absurd.

So although both constructs are similar, you can see how Camus departed from the Existentialist crowd and went his own way, with some unique ideas about how to live life and what reality is.

Do you follow either of these two philosophies? Which do you think is better?

Let me know in the comments below.

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