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Whether or not Camus was an existentialist is an issue for some people. Some people say he is while others suggest he is an absurdist. Camus, like most people, did not like to be labelled. So why do people want to label him, either as an existentialist or an absurdist?
If it is a matter of filing, or compiling a directory, then it's perfectly reasonable to categorize Camus as an existentialist. His name is often thrown in with other philosophers already labelled existentialists, such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. When people think existentialism then often think of Albert Camus, and vice-versa. His work shares many themes with that of recognised existentialists. It is reasonable to assume that people interested in existentialism would be interested in Camus. Labelling Camus an existentialist for directory purposes seems harmless enough. What other reason would you have for wanting to label Camus an existentialist? Let's have a look at what Camus thought about it and then hear what some commentators have to say.
Camus didn't consider himself to be an existentialist but then neither did Kierkegaard, Nietzsche or Heidegger consider themselves existentialists. Do we want to label Camus an existentialist against his will? How important is the label writers give themselves? Let's hear some of Camus' thoughts on the subject:
Is he an existentialist?
“No, I am not an existentialist. Sartre and I are always surprised to see our names linked. We have even thought of publishing a short statement in which the undersigned declare that they have nothing in common with each other and refuse to be held responsible for the debts they might respectively incur. It's a joke actually. Sartre and I published our books without exception before we had ever met. When we did get to know each other, it was to realise how much we differed. Sartre is an existentialist, and the only book of ideas that I have published, The Myth of Sisyphus, was directed against the so-called existentialist philosophers.”
Is he an absurdist?
“This word “Absurd” has had an unhappy history and I confess that now it rather annoys me. When I analyzed the feeling of the Absurd in The Myth of Sisyphus, I was looking for a method and not a doctrine. I was practicing methodical doubt. I was trying to make a “tabula rasa,” on the basis of which it would then be possible to construct something. If we assume that nothing has any meaning, then we must conclude that the world is absurd. But does nothing have any meaning? I have never believed we could remain at this point.”
Does he like to be labelled?
“A writer writes to a great extent to be read (let's admire those who say they don't, but not believe them). Yet more and more, in France, he writes in order to obtain that final consecration which consists of not being read. In fact, from the moment he can provide the material for a feature article in the popular press, there is every possibility that he will be known to a fairly large number of people who will never reach his because they will be content to know his name and to read what other people write about him. From this point on he will be known (and forgotten) not for what he is, but according to the image a hurried journalist has given of him.”
Camus tired of being labelled ‘a philosopher of the absurd' and he tired of being labelled in general. He claims to have written The Myth of Sisyphus as a challenge to existentialists. It's worth noting that at the end of the interview with Delpech he is asked about his future projects, he answers: “…perhaps I ought to make up my mind to study existentialism…”
Someone who has studied existentialism is David E. Cooper, author of Existentialism (Blackwell, 1990, 1999) and he has this to say:
|“… there is at least one writer who, although he is often included does not really belong on the list [of existentialists] – Albert Camus… One reason for excluding Camus is that, unlike the rest of our writers, it is not his aim to reduce or overcome a sense of alienation or separateness from the world. In the attitude of Meursault, The Outsider, we find a defiant pleasure taken in our alienated condition. Sisyphus, the ‘absurd hero', feels a ‘silent joy' in living in a world where ‘a man feels an alien, a stranger… his exile… without remedy.' Camus wants to invert Merleau-Ponty's dictum into ‘The world is wholly outside me, and I am wholly inside myself.' Moreover Camus was, by his own admission or boast, not interested in the weighty philosophical topics which occupied his Parisian friends, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty – the nature of consciousness and perception, the mind-body relation, the problem of ‘other-minds' and so on. Existentialism, as treated in this book, is not a mood or a vocabulary, but a relatively systematic philosophy in which topics like these are duly addressed. I shall have rather little to say about those, like Camus, who make a virtue out of being neither a philosopher nor systematic.”|
Cooper obviously would not consider Camus an existentialist. Equally as obvious is that he hasn't read Camus as closely as he ought to. Let's hear from someone else. Stephan Eric Bonner, author of Camus Portrait of a Moralist (Uni. Minnesota Press, 1999) writes:
|“[The Stranger] never explicitly denies the need for a moral form of social conduct, which would increasingly concern Camus as he grew older, but it clearly highlights a bohemian individualism that the author would never fully relinquish. The conflict between them remains, and as a consequence Meursault becomes both an exemplary and a cautionary figure. Critics have often seen this as a deficiency, and perhaps Camus' refusal to resolve the motivations of the main character - or “make matters clear” – adds to its difficulty. Again, it remains an open question whether this is a weakness or a strength: an abdication of responsibility or a recognition of ambiguity. Camus' connection with existentialism is underestimated: Camus no less than most existentialists considered such conflicts between subjective intention and objective judgments philosophically irresolvable and all universal solutions inherently abstract.”|
Here's what John Cruickshank had to say on Camus and labelling:
"Readers and critics alike are often quick to find some label by means of which they can characterize or summarize and original writer and thereby render him less disturbing. Once the formula has been found the actual work itself can be largely ignored. Camus was subjected to such a labelling process at an early stage and soon came to be regarded generally as a 'philosopher of the absurd'. In a brief preliminary note to Le Mythe de Sisyphe, however, he states clearly that he is not elaborating a 'philosophie absurde' but describing the 'sensibilite absurde'. He adds that his attitude towards the absurd is a provisional one. Nevertheless, the majority of of readers have taken no notice of these remarks. They have continued to equate the various - and sometimes conflicting - ideas of L'Estranger and Caligula or Le Malentendu which Camus' own private beliefs. The result is that he is still most widely known as the author of L'Estranger and Le Mythe de Sisyphe. He continues to de described as a writer or philosopher of the absurd. The complexities of his own attitudes to this question, together with his development since 1942, are too often ignored. "
We've heard opinions from Albert Camus and the commentators. Are we any more enlightened on Camus the existentialist? He didn't consider himself one, nor did he like to be labelled. No-one likes to be labelled but Sartre allowed himself to be labelled an existentialist. Cooper doesn't consider Camus worth including in a text-book on existentialism wheras Bronner considers Camus' connection with existentialism to be underestimated.
What is The Albert Camus Society UK's position on Camus and Existentialism?
We don't have one. Labelling Camus an existentialist for purposes of filing might make Camus' work easier to find for the general public, but does considering Camus an existentialist help us understand what he has to say once we've found him? A label might tell us what's in the jar but does nothing to help us understand its contents. Labelling philosophers, this or that, necessarily over-simplifies their contribution to philosophy, often it is devisive. Are those who refuse the existentialist label for Camus doing so because they don't appreciate what he has to offer philosophy? And equally, are those who insist on considering him an existentialist only doing so to somehow validate his philosophy?