Jean-Paul Sartre on Camus, Empiricism, Literary Description, & the Absurd

This succession of movements is supposed to be rigorously identical with the act considered as a complete entity. Are we not dealing here with the analytic assumption that any reality is reducible to a sum total of elements? Now, though analysis may be the instrument of science, it is also the instrument of humour. If in describing a rugby match, I write, “I saw adults in shorts fighting and throwing themselves on the ground in order to send a leather ball between a pair of wooden posts,” I have summed up what I have seen, but I have intentionally missed its meaning. I am merely trying to be humorous. M. Camus’ story is analytic and humorous. Like all artists, he invents, because he pretends to be reconstituting raw experience and because he slyly eliminates all the significant links which are also part of the experience.

That is what Hume did when he stated that he could find nothing in experience but isolated impressions. That is what the American neo-realists still do when they deny the existence of any but external relations between phenomena. Contemporary philosophy has, however, established the fact that meanings are also part of the immediate data. But this would carry us too far afield. We shall simply indicate that the universe of the absurd man is the analytic world of the neo-realists. In literature, this method has proved its worth. It was Voltaire’s method in L’Inginu and Micromégas, and Swift’s in Gulliver’s Travels. For the eighteenth century also had its own outsiders, “noble savages,” usually, who, transported to a strange civilization, perceived facts before being able to grasp their meaning. The effect of this discrepancy was to arouse in the reader the feeling of the absurd.


SOURCE: Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Camus’ The Outsider” (February 1943), in Literary and Philosophical Essays, translated by Annette Michelson (New York: Collier Books, 1962 [1955]), pp. 26-44. This quotation, pp. 39-40.


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