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Albert Camus (1913–1960)

Camus borrowed from Heidegger the sense of being "abandoned" in the world, and he shared with Sartre the sense that the world does not give meaning to individuals. But whereas Sartre joined Heidegger in insisting that one must make meaning for oneself, Camus concluded that the world is "absurd," a term that has (wrongly) come to represent the whole of existentialist thinking. Indeed, one of the persistent errors in the popular understanding of existentialism is to confuse its emphasis on the "meaninglessness" of the universe with an advocacy of despair or "existential angst." Camus insists that the absurd is not license for despair.

At the outset of World War II, Camus published a novel entitled L'étranger (1942; first trans. in English as The Outsider, 1955; best known by the title The Stranger) and an essay called Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; English trans. The Myth of Sisyphus, 1955). With those two books, he became a spokesman for the new modern morality, the ability to face life in the face of "the Absurd," a metaphysical a sense of confrontation between ourselves and an "indifferent universe." The Myth of Sisyphus is ostensibly a re-telling of the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend all of eternity pushing a rock up a mountain, where it would then roll back down of its own weight. This is the fate of all of us, Camus suggested. We expend all of our energy pushing our weight against futility and frustration. Camus presents the question of whether life is worth living, or, put differently, whether we ought to commit suicide. Camus's Sisyphus throws himself into his meaningless project, and thereby makes it meaningful. "One must consider Sisyphus happy," concludes Camus, and so, too, by acknowledging and throwing ourselves into the absurdity of our own lives, might we be.

The protagonist of The Stranger, by way of contrast, accepts the absurdity of life without much thinking about it. Is our acceptance of the absurd therefore tinged with bitterness and resentment? Camus seems torn between acceptance and defiance. Similar themes motivate La Peste (1947; English trans. The Plague, 1948) and L'Homme révolté (1951; English trans. The Rebel, 1954). In Camus's final novel, La Chute (1956; English trans. The Fall, 1957), a perverse character named Jean-Baptiste Clamence exemplifies the culmination of all of the bitterness and despair for the most part rejected by his previous characters and in his earlier essays. Clamence, like Meursault in The Stranger, refuses to judge people, but Clamence makes the refusal to judge a matter of philosophical principle, "for who among us is innocent?" Indeed, how can one be innocent in a world that is absurd?

Existentialism today has weathered thirty years of post-modernism and a shift of the center of philosophy from Europe to America. Enthusiasm for Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre is as great as ever, and the philosophy of choice and responsibility remains the cornerstone of a great deal of American philosophy, even among those who would not recognize their debt to the existentialists.


de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. Translated and edited by H. M. Parshley. New York: Knopf, 1953.

Camus, Albert. The Fall, and Exile and the Kingdom. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1957.

——. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Random House, 1955.

——. The Plague. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. New York: Knopf/Random House, 1948.

——. The Stranger. Translated by Matthew Ward. New York: Knopf, 1993.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper, 1962.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

——. Either/Or. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Translated by Douglas Smith. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

——. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Random House, 1974.

——. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer. Translated by Duncan Large. Oxford, England, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: an Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.

——. No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Translated by S. Gilbert and L. Abel. New York: Vintage Books, 1956.

Solomon, Robert C. From Hegel to Existentialism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Robert C. Solomon

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Evolution to FerrocyanideExistentialism - Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), Martin Heidegger (1889–1971), Jean-paul Sartre (1905–1980)