Edifying Philosophy as Therapy for Absurdity

As you’ve been reading this chapter, Sisyphus has kept at it, rolling his stone up the hill over and over again, only to see it tumble back to where it started in each instance. Camus tells us, perhaps surprisingly, that “...Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth.”37 The intervention of contingency into the best-laid plans of Sisyphus—that is, the justice of the gods—meant that in his repetitious task, Sisyphus would have to make his own truth, because the absurdity of his situation quickly revealed to him that there was none to be found.

“The pragmatist must avoid saying that truth will win,” Rorty says, since we all share only mutual yet contingent starting points for justifying our actions, our thinking, and our ways of life.38 But if philosophy isn’t about finding truth (at least) or setting the conditions for better prediction and control of our lives (as applied sciences do), then what’s it good for?

Philosophy shares with broad, deep artifacts of popular culture like Breaking Bad the potential to be edifying rather than truth-discovering. The practice of philosophizing, as asking questions and offering redescriptions of world and self that make the comfortable seem strange and the strange more comfortable, is for Rorty, as it was for the existentialists, a product of self-cultivation (Bildung) without a particular goal or endpoint in sight:

To say that we become different people, that we “remake” ourselves as we read more, talk more, and write more, is simply a dramatic way of saying that the sentences which become true of us by virtue of such activities are often more important to us than the sentences which become true of us when we drink more, earn more, and so on. The events which make us able to say new and interesting things about ourselves are, in this nonmetaphysical sense, more “essential” to us ... than the events which change our shapes or our standards of living.39

Seeking truth seems like a public project, while pursuing edification through philosophy and popular culture seems narrowly private. Yet edification is not about self-interest, but instead aimed at expanding the horizons of the self and its community. “...[A]ll human existence is a passion,” Sartre writes, “the famous self-interest being only one way freely chosen among others to realize this passion.” And as Beauvoir emphasizes in her assertions that freedom is social—that when I will my freedom, I will the freedom of all others—this edifying project need not be solipsistic or about navel-gazing. In fact, when the creative team behind challenging and thoughtful television programs like Breaking Bad share their passion with the world, they illustrate the ways in which absurdity and contingency, far from urging us toward a quietism about our own agency, can provoke edifying activity (I assume, after all, that is why you’re reading this book). In the end, we did it for ourselves.

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