The Difference Between Existentialism, Nihilism, and Absurdism
For centuries there have been people who believe there is no intrinsic meaning in the universe. Here I’ll summarize the three major branches of this belief, and how each proposes we deal with the situation.
Existentialism is the belief that through a combination of awareness, free will, and personal responsibility, one can construct their own meaning within a world that intrinsically has none of its own.
Nihilism is the belief that not only is there no intrinsic meaning in the universe, but that it’s pointless to try to construct our own as a substitute.
Absurdism is the belief that a search for meaning is inherently in conflict with the actual lack of meaning, but that one should both accept this and simultaneously rebel against it by embracing what life has to offer.
Intrinsic as opposed to created.
For those who come to accept that life is without intrinsic meaning, there are three main ways to react.
Philosophical Suicide, such as completely embracing a religion or a spirituality framework—because one believes it’s too hard to sad or difficult to live on without one
Physical Suicide, due to life being ultimately meaningless and therefore either too boring or too painful to continue
Acceptance, which means continuing on despite knowing that ultimate meaning is not possible
I view Camus’ Absurdism as the most satisfactory response, as it takes the third option of acceptance and works from there.
Adopting a religion or some sort of nebulous “spirituality”—as someone who has accepted the truth of intrinsic meaninglessness—amounts to either intellectual laziness, emotional weakness, or some combination thereof. It is to say that the truth is too difficult to consume and accept, and that you’ve chosen to believe something untrue because it is easier.
To commit suicide is to turn one’s back on the beauty that life has to offer, which I feel should only be explored in extreme cases.
Resigning to truly believe something you know isn’t true is a weak position, but it often looks identical to Absurdism, which is not.
Camus’ Absurdism is about working within our human limitations, but without abandoning our respect for ourselves or the truth. Absurdists often either adopt or construct a belief structure that provides a day-to-day reprieve from the crushing impossibility of true meaning. Such constructs allow us to trick our evolution-soaked brains into extracting meaning from the universe, while never forgetting that the system itself is a trick.
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Perhaps the Hipster drive to obsess over minutia is a form of Absurdism.
This awareness is the difference between rebellion and surrender.
A construct could be existing or new, and either structured or amorphous.
A person who has surrendered will say that they believe in their construct completely, and that it provides true meaning in the universe, while someone who has not surrendered may say they’ve adopted a scaffolding for practical reasons, but they know it’s artificial.
The barrier is delicate between embracing a belief structure because not doing so is too empty or painful, and only doing so for practical purposes while still knowing it’s false. Many start as one or the other and then migrate, or exist day to day as one and become the other when pressed.
Examples of surrender vs. rebellion
True believers in mainstream religions either never believed that the world lacks inherent meaning or they chose to stop believing it because it was too empty and sad. You can’t really know which a person is without deep conversation, and significant honesty on their part.
Many religious people become atheists later in life, but after much introspection decide to stay loosely tied to the beliefs and the community because of the social and meaning-based benefits. Many in this situation are not entirely sure day-to-day how much they really believe vs. how much they’re pretending for practical reasons.
Conversely, many people brought up without religion see later in life that all their happy friends have a family and a strong faith, and decide to adopt religion to acquire its benefits. Similarly, they might not know at any given moment how much of their participation is genuine vs. secular.
In my opinion, the defining characteristic of Absurdism/Rebellion is the maintaining of extreme clarity between seeking the benefits of belief in intrinsic meaning all the while knowing it’s impossible. Such a person can go to church with the family and mentally pray in some sort of secular but semi-spiritual way, while simultaneously knowing (but not actively thinking about) the fact that nobody is listening.
As humans, it’s virtually impossible to exist in both modes simultaneously. We either have faith in a system, a structure, or a person, or we deconstruct that thing into its parts and see its flaws, limitations, and—perhaps—that it’s false. Transparency removes magic. And unfortunately, our brains are most happy when the magic is intact.
The religious believe that meaning was imbued into the universe by a supreme being, that this knowledge is available to us via one or more texts, and that it’s our responsibility to go learn about it.
Existentialists may or may not agree that religions speak to real/discoverable meaning, but they believe that people can make their own meaning that wouldn’t be any less real than what religion offers.
Nihilists believe/know not just that religion is false—i.e., that there is no built-in meaning in the universe waiting to be discovered—but that any meaning we try to build for ourselves will not be “real” either. It’ll just be a construct of our own minds that we pretend has the gravity of religious meaning.
Absurdism is the unifier: it accepts that we seem to function best with some sort of religious belief in our lives, but that science has shown the nihilists are right about both revealed meaning and constructed meaning. As a result, many choose to use some parts of a meaning structure—either borrowed or constructed—to get the human benefits thereof, but without relaxing so far that they start believing it’s true.
Knowing where one stands among—or perhaps outside—these options is a crucial part of self-understanding.
I’m quite aware that one can, and people have, written entire books on each of these definitions. The goal of this exercise is not to dive deeply into each, but instead to summarize as cleanly as possible how they respond to a lack of intrinsic meaning.
Nihilists aren’t Absurdists because they’re not fighting for meaning that they know they can never have. They’re just moving through life without it.
The choice to rebel is specifically Camus’ response to the situation, but since he’s associated with the term I include it in the definition here.
The pretend use of a false scaffold is my interpretation of Absurdism, as I’m not sure if using a knowingly false system in this way would be endorsed by Sarte or Camus. To me it still represents rebellion because we’re still getting the joys from life (and having a structure is part of that), while never surrendering our intellect that knows it to be false.