It’s not absurd to desire the impossible

by John Holbo on June 30, 2009

A couple weeks ago Matthew Yglesias marveled at the heady philosophical stuff French teens have to tackle. I think he got one answer wrong. He says he thinks it’s absurd to desire the impossible. I don’t think so at all. This is just the pony principle. Wishing is free, so you might as well wish for whatever you were going to wish for, plus a pony. A sparkle magic unicorn pony. It’s fun to wish – and wishing is a form of wanting. It is one of your best entertainment values. Thus, on strictly utilitarian grounds it makes sense to wish for the impossible.

What is delicate, I will admit, is settling how and where desire crosses belief and expectation and action. (As Wittgenstein says, wanting and trying to get are very closely related.) For example, this ad crosses over into Kierkegaardian territory.


It is absurd to expect to get more from something than you think it is possible to get from anything. Especially if it’s instant coffee.

Still, I don’t think it is absurd to want coffee that would be better than life itself could possibly be. That would be a damn fine cup of coffee.

Am I right?



Henri Vieuxtemps 06.30.09 at 4:07 pm

I often have a cup of coffee that I’m pretty sure is better than my life in general.


Tim Silverman 06.30.09 at 4:26 pm

That sounds broadly reasonable.

(Another quite different way to come to the same conclusion (in fact, the one I expected you to take) is to start from the position that mere desires as such are arational—you don’t have rational control over them, so although unfulfillable desires may be annoying, they can can’t, in the nature of things, be absurd, at least not by virtue of unattainability. But that argument seems to be incompatible with yours, since a utilitarian argument presupposes not merely rationality but also rational control.)

On the other hand, it seems to me that we need to separate different forms of impossibility. I’m pretty sure that it’s absurd to desire the logically impossible (I’m not sure it’s even meaningful to desire the inconceiveable). It seems clear to me that it’s not absurd to desire the contingently impossible when you don’t know whether it’s impossible or not. It also doesn’t seem absurd to desire what you know to be strictly impossible, but which is an obvious extension of the possible (“a man’s reach should exceed his grasp”). But somewhere between the mere insurmountably difficult and the obviously ludicrous, some taint of absurdity seems to me to creep in. After all, people’s desires are, to some extent, conditioned by their beliefs.

But at that point, I think we have to start being more careful about what we mean by “absurd” and “desire”.


Andy Vance 06.30.09 at 4:28 pm

Isn’t it mighty selfish to think it’s all about you and your cup of coffee, when it’s really about Eunice Olsen and her cup of coffee?


deliasmith 06.30.09 at 4:29 pm

And it’s not any old life:

In Novermber [sic] 2004, Eunice was appointed as a Nominated Member of Parliament in Singapore, making her the youngest member of parliament at the age of 27. She was also winner of the Miss Singapore Universe contest in 2000. In 2008, Olsen was the proud recipient of the prestigious ASEAN Youth Award and was recently nominated as a Young Global Leader representing Singapore at the World Economic Forum.

She first came to the public eye in 2002, when Eunice was selected to be the co-host of Singapore’s version of the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune … etc.

In addition to her parliamentary and entertainment work, she champions causes for the environment, youth at risks, awareness on cervical cancer and AIDS to name a few.

Nothing about world peace though.


bert 06.30.09 at 4:38 pm

I’m fairly sure I saw this at Art Goldhammer’s. Can’t find the post, though.
’68, ça se voit.
It may of course be a statement about negotiating strategy rather than a philosophical principle.


Brad 06.30.09 at 4:46 pm


James Joyner 06.30.09 at 4:46 pm

She merely wants “the most” out of her life. Depending on how she’s defining that, it could be quite achievable.

I’m not sure what’s more than “the most,” though, and why she expects it from her coffee. And, if she does, why the fuck she’s drinking instant.


qb 06.30.09 at 4:48 pm

I’m in sympathy with Henri @ 1; still, Kierkegaard’s standards for coffee were ridiculous.


NomadUK 06.30.09 at 5:05 pm

A hot, steaming cup o’ joe needs a nice slice of cherry pie to go with it, I think.


Scott 06.30.09 at 5:19 pm

If French philosophy students understand “absurd” in Camus’ technical sense–which I’d guess they do–then it follows pretty much by definition that it’s absurd to desire the impossible. In this context, “absurd” doesn’t mean “logically contradictory” or anything like that. It’s Camus’ term for the mismatch precisely between what we desire and the way the world really is, totally indifferent to our desires.


Matt 06.30.09 at 5:32 pm

Wishing is free
I’m not at all sure this is true. Wishing for one thing often keeps you from acting on other things, for example, or from accurately assessing your actual situation. Sometimes your situation is so bad, and so little can be done, that wishing is, all things considered, a positive. Or, sometimes things are generally good and you don’t _really_ want to change them- any change would take too much energy. Then, too, wishing might essentially be free. But it’s often enough not, and often bad for people.


nnyhav 06.30.09 at 5:34 pm

“Marketing: Where the rubber meets the sky.”


ben 06.30.09 at 5:38 pm

“The primitive form of wanting is trying to get” is Anscombe; is she echoing W there? (Wouldn’t be surprising but she’s not an epigone by any means, so.)


roac 06.30.09 at 5:40 pm

It is well known that a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness (Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a ham sandwich is better than nothing; therefore Q.E.D.), so why not a cup of coffee?

Is wishing the same thing as imagining? If so, was John Lennon right or wrong?


ben 06.30.09 at 5:41 pm

Primitive SIGN of wanting; excuse me.

Wishing is manifestly not the same as imagining. I imagine things I decidedly do not wish frequently.


Patrick S. O'Donnell 06.30.09 at 5:41 pm

Ernst Bloch, at least the Bloch of The Principle of Hope (1986 English tr.), is smiling.


tony 06.30.09 at 5:43 pm

I was disappointed John didn’t cite to one of the more notable discussions of the pony principle in his post.


Bloix 06.30.09 at 5:43 pm

But she expects more than the most! She expects the mostest!


Bloix 06.30.09 at 5:44 pm

Tony, he’s being modest. I do love the pony principle. I use it all the time.


Joe 06.30.09 at 5:56 pm

>>I don’t think it is absurd to want coffee that would be better than life itself could possibly be.

What does that even mean? It might not be meaningless the same way that colorless green ideas sleeping furiously are meaningless, but isn’t it close?


ben 06.30.09 at 6:03 pm

A life that contained only that coffee would be better than a life that contained that coffee, and anything else.


magistra 06.30.09 at 6:08 pm

I’m not sure it’s even meaningful to desire the inconceiveable

But can’t you desire ‘something that isn’t this’, where ‘this’ is the current situation you live in, without any real idea of what positively it is you’re looking for? Longing for the unknown unknowns?


Keith 06.30.09 at 6:23 pm

Matt @ 9: Wishing for one thing often keeps you from acting on other things, for example, or from accurately assessing your actual situation.

More precisely, wishing is a free action, as in D&D. It doesn’t cost anything to wish. But if you then add expectation, that’s an action that costs. You have to roll for initiative and run the numbers against your stats.

As John was syaing, you can idly wish for whatever you want to and a pony, because it doesn’t effect anything.

But if you expect your wish to create action and that this action will also deliver a pony, then you have become a Neocon, and will most likely invade a middle eastern country because they’re hoarding all the ponies, the bastards.


Getty L 06.30.09 at 6:25 pm


How are you defining rational? By one not having control over them? Because it would depend on how you are utilizing the term in this context when you dub desire “a-rational”. I have tended to take a view (coming from Sartre and Solomon) that such desires are indeed rational as a result of them performing a function or manifesting ones’ attitudes towards their state in-the-world. So, again, they are rational in a contextual sense, by displaying ones’ predispositions towards “reality”, rather than things that “happen” to us, having no correlation with anything at all.

It wouldn’t be Kierkegaardian if we were talking about “wishing” either, because the true Knight of Faith gives up hope of ever attaining that coffee in this world. Instead they are to simply exist in this world, yet put no stock in its existence. Of course, like Matt pointed out, this could potentially be a problem.

Either way, I think that everyone expects their coffee to be a little better than their life is at least some of the time. I do.


Rumblegumption 06.30.09 at 6:29 pm

Didn’t Aristotle settle the question ages ago? EN III.2 (tr. Ross), on prohairesis (choice/decision) v/s boulesis (wish):

But neither is [choice] wish, though it seems near to it; for choice cannot relate to impossibles, and if any one said he chose them he would be thought silly; but there may be a wish even for impossibles, e.g. for immortality. And wish may relate to things that could in no way be brought about by one’s own efforts, e.g. that a particular actor or athlete should win in a competition; but no one chooses such things, but only the things that he thinks could be brought about by his own efforts.


Getty L 06.30.09 at 6:31 pm


I think Matt’s point is that, like William Clifford pointed out in terms of religious belief, these things are going to, for all practical purposes, affect one another regardless of the distinction that can be made between the concepts.

I don’t know though where I stand on that being the case. I guess let us hope not, for the sake of the ponies in the rest of the world!


lemuel pitkin 06.30.09 at 7:05 pm

You are right.

Beyond the reasons mentioned here, we often don’t know ex ante where the line between the possible and impossible lies, so wanting something impossible — in the active, trying to get sense — may result in our discovering that is possible after all.

I think this is (part of) the meaning of the famous slogan from Paris 1968.


novakant 06.30.09 at 7:16 pm

Life itself can only be the sum of all experiences of any one individual. Now maybe for some people life is a continuous string of utterly pleasant experiences, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous when I claim that for most of us life tends to be rather bland and boring most of the time, interspersed with occasional moments of bliss. Since a good good cup of coffee represents such a moment (at least to me, but I’m sure there are at least about a billion other people who feel the same way, and those who don’t are not targeted here) the ad makes perfect sense to me and the irony rather lies in the fact that Nescafe is a total abomination.


lemuel pitkin 06.30.09 at 7:18 pm


That would make sense if it said “I want a wodnerful life … and even better coffee,” or something like that. It’s getting more than the most out of your coffee that’s the head-scratcher.


John 06.30.09 at 7:20 pm

Our eros may be for the impossible, and therefore may be absurd in the sense of unreasonable. That does not make it any less true or good. All kinds of true and good things are desired that may nonetheless be impossible. Things like wisdom or justice–or the possibility of philosophy. So not all things are accountable in terms of logos, but then logos while necessary is not sufficient to human being. So what if it is true that human life is in some regard absurd.


novakant 06.30.09 at 7:59 pm

It’s getting more than the most out of your coffee that’s the head-scratcher.

I’d file that under common hyperbole.


bigcity 06.30.09 at 8:01 pm

@1 I think that’s what is at issue. Can one desire that it be raining and not raining?


mart 06.30.09 at 8:13 pm

So a cup of Nescafe is better than Teh Awesome Pony in my head?


Mike C 06.30.09 at 8:18 pm

Some of this depends on how your prioritize happiness vs. achievement. Happiness, to put it very simply, comes from the realization of things we desire (or wish for). True, you can wish to make a new friend, and to discover buried treasure in your backyard, with one goal being reasonable, and the other being “just for fun”. But if you wish for something, while knowing that it is actually impossible, are you really wishing for it, or are you playing make-believe?

Similarly, you could wish to become the greatest fencer in the history of the world. Practically speaking, this is impossible, as there’s no way to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are better at fencing than someone who died before you were born. However, goals like these are the types that drive the world’s greatest athletes, inventors, writers, and in general achievers. A quick review of this group would suggest, however, that they were hardly long on happiness.

I guess the question at the center of this whole comment is, if you wish for something that you know will never come true, can you call it wishing?


rea 06.30.09 at 8:41 pm

Of course, a related question is this–how did the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans manage to found civiliztions without coffee?


Boogity 06.30.09 at 9:10 pm

I’d like to read more on Kierkegaard’s love of coffee, could someone point to where I can find some of that?


Righteous Bubba 06.30.09 at 9:43 pm

Of course, a related question is this—how did the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans manage to found civiliztions without coffee?

Most of ’em would die before massive pots of coffee became necessary.


gmoke 06.30.09 at 9:48 pm

“We must not be afraid of dreaming the seemingly impossible if we want the seemingly impossible to become a reality.”
Vaclav Havel from _The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice_

I think Gandhi, ML King Jr, and any other great organizer would agree.


Mrs Tilton 06.30.09 at 10:00 pm

John can think of a cup of coffee better than anything else that could possibly be thought of. This cup of coffee would be better if it existed both in reality and in John’s thoughts than if it existed in John’s thoughts alone. Therefore John’s cup of coffee really exists.

For him. I don’t buy it, personally, because a perfect cup of tea is always better than a perfect cup of coffee.


notsneaky 06.30.09 at 10:28 pm

“Wishing is free”

(that’s always the first thing I think of when anybody brings up this pony business)
(and btw, wishing is not free – it’s constrained, like all other choices. Constrained by the feebleness of one’s imagination. I mean, who’d want to wish for a pony anyway?)


John Quiggin 06.30.09 at 11:01 pm

“how did the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans manage to found civiliztions without coffee?”

More precisely, given the absence of coffee, were they rightly called civilizations? And given the scarcity of decent espresso, how should the US be ranked in this regard?


herr doktor bimler 06.30.09 at 11:13 pm

how did the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans manage to found civiliztions without coffee?
See von Daniken’s next book, ‘Coffee-pots of the Gods’.


e julius drivingstorm 06.30.09 at 11:19 pm

The bestest coffee must be that Kopi Luwak stuff and a kitty cat, huh.


Jeff K 06.30.09 at 11:31 pm

Hypnotist: You will give one hundred and ten percent…
Team: That’s impossible. No one can give more than one hundred percent.
By definition that is the most anyone can give…
— “Homer at the Bat”


marcel 06.30.09 at 11:47 pm

roac at 14 wrote:

It is well known that a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness (Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a ham sandwich is better than nothing; therefore Q.E.D.), so why not a cup of coffee?

To this, I say:
“I understand that many of you Jewish people, especially Rabbis, keep kosher and, as such, don’t eat things like bacon or ham”. The Rabbi acknowledged that. “Haven’t you ever even tasted bacon or ham?”, asked the Priest.

The Rabbi explained, “Many years ago, I was a visiting Rabbi in a small town in the middle of nowhere and found myself in a diner one Sunday morning. There was no one around so I ordered a ham sandwich. It was quite good but that was the only time that ever happened.”

After some time, the Rabbi turned to the Priest and said, “Father, do you mind if you ask you a very personal question”? The Priest said OK.

“You Priests take an oath of celibacy, right”?, asked the Rabbi. “Why, yes”, answered the Priest, wondering where this was going.

“Well, haven’t you ever had sex since you’ve become as Priest”?, asked the Rabbi. The Priest looked about nervous, leaned toward the rabbi and answered very softly, “As a young parishioner I was approached by a troubled woman who was looking for my guidance. She was a beautiful, young woman and one thing led to another. So, yes, just once I had sex with a woman”.

A few moments pass and the Rabbi leans over to the Priest and says, “A lot better than a ham sandwich, isn’t it?”


marcel 06.30.09 at 11:48 pm

I butchered the above joke. It should begin with the following preface:

A Priest and a Rabbi were, by coincidence, sitting next to each other on a long flight.

About an hour passes and not a single word was exchanged by the two men. Finally, the Priest turns to the Rabbi and says, “Rabbi, do you mind if I ask you a personal question”? The Rabbi said, “Of course, you may.”


ignobility 07.01.09 at 12:05 am

A life that contained only that coffee would be better than a life that contained that coffee, and anything else.

Even a pony?


Stuart 07.01.09 at 12:24 am

#44: That reminds of something random about one of the UK The Apprentices I happened to catch flipping channels. Apparently effort is inflationary, because one of the contestants was claiming he would get it “1,000%”. Personally if I was managing someone like that I would send him off to the do the task, and when he came back I would sack him for giving at least 900% less effort than promised, which is a pretty massive failure.


Dr Zen 07.01.09 at 1:49 am

When do we get our ponies?


nona mouse 07.01.09 at 5:34 am

I don’t know if you are right.

But you’re funny as hell.


A. Y. Mous 07.01.09 at 10:36 am

There’s this billboard on my way to work that makes the confident claim “Happiness! At 3.25% per month. Go Visa.” Been there for a couple of months. Still can’t make what it means. Now, I have wrap my head around “more than most”? I thought advertising was all about “Don’t make them think.”


rich 07.01.09 at 11:25 am

But, John, it’s Nescafe GOLD.


indregard 07.01.09 at 1:11 pm

The absurd part is the expectation. Wishing for the existence of a coffee better than “the most” life has to offer is not absurd. Expecting it puts forward the metaphysical question of how you can add something and get more than the most.


Salient 07.01.09 at 1:27 pm

This all makes perfect sense to me.

“I want the most out of my life” = I want to live a long long time.

“I expect even more from my coffee” = I expect my coffee to come from coffee beans that are older than I’ll ever live to be.

This explains why she drinks Nescafe. :-)


Billiken 07.01.09 at 1:56 pm

“Still, I don’t think it is absurd to want coffee that would be better than life itself could possibly be. That would be a damn fine cup of coffee.”

And lethal!

Thank you. I never realized before that ambrosia is poison. :)


mds 07.01.09 at 2:05 pm

“Rabbi, why can’t we eat pork?”

“We can’t? Uh-oh.”

And, uh, Ms. Olsen’s expectations for “the most” from her life are informed by her awareness of how joy is inevitably tempered by sadness, in the aggregate. However, a good cup of coffee, viewed in isolation, can be a completely unadulterated pleasure.

This still founders on the whole “Nescafé” thing, though. Perhaps it is an unadulterated pleasure for Ms. Olsen to be reminded of the word “portmanteau.”


nnyhav 07.01.09 at 2:50 pm


Tim Wilkinson 07.01.09 at 4:32 pm

A Y Mous @ 51 – I thought advertising was all about “Don’t make them think.” Better still – force them not to think by shutting down the critical faculty with absurd or contradictory content – leaving only the nice sounding buzzwords and the big graphic. Also helps to avoid pesky trading standards – your claims are so grandiose that they are impossible or even meaningless – and you couldn’t really have made them. One step beyond Goebbels’s Big Lie. You could – not implausibly – draw a comparison with the kind of disorientation used in brainwashing. Trouble is trying to expose such things tends to sound over-analytical or mildly hysterical, and at the least a bit spoilsporty. Like Bernard Manning’s ‘can’t you take a joke?’

To the post:
I assume we are talking about the intersting case of desiring something known to be impossible but not (known to be?) absurd or contradictory.

That might be a bad strategy on scarce-cognitive-resources grounds a la Harman, Bratman – wasting the finite supply of desires, adding pointless extra processing to a decision-making process etc.

The pragmatic advisability of choosing to adopt such desires might depend on what the criterion for practical rationality is – minimising the number of unsatisfied desires, maximising the proportion of desires that are satisfied, maximising total desire-satisfaction. In the first two cases, desiring the impossible would always, cet par, frustrate the goal.

It would plausibly be absurd to desire only the impossible.

Various not very plausible postulates of practical reason such as ‘never take a course of action which will result in a situation in which one of your desires is impossible to attain’, or ‘maximise the probability of achieving all your desires’ could render a desire for the impossible irrational.

But otherwise, on a Humean desire-belief-intention model, it’s probably not in itself irrational (helping myself to irrational as a proxy for absurdity here) to desire the impossible, since presumably your beliefs would never function so as translate the desire into an (absurdly quixotic) intention.

But the propositional content of ‘coffee better than life could ever be’, might count as absurd in itself, if conceived in some way along the lines of ‘having coffee that contributes more value to life than life could ever have’. If so it’s plausible that the absurdity would remain whatever the modality/mood (desire, belief, wish, question etc).


W. Kiernan 07.01.09 at 8:38 pm

Holbo: It is absurd to expect to get more from something than you think it is possible to get from anything.

But it is far from absurd that one particularly good thing could be better than everything put together. Certainly a really good cup of coffee can be better than the best life possible. Drinking an great cup of coffee is 100.0% good from start to finish. On the other hand, any entire conscious life, no matter how free of sorrow, no matter how full of satisfaction, is invariably a mixed proposition, if for no other reason but that you’ll eventually have to drop dead in the end.


micah 07.01.09 at 10:08 pm

btw, wishing is not free – it’s constrained, like all other choices.

Wishing is free as in beer, not free as in speech.


micah 07.01.09 at 10:12 pm

Also, I’m kind of astonished that this thread has gone on for this long without anyone linking to this Girl Genius plot thread.


Jordan DeLange 07.02.09 at 12:58 am

“Wishing is Free”

This is true only if the failure of your desire to be satisfied doesn’t come with any cost. If it does – as regret, remorse or whatever – then desires for the impossible are desires that are never satisfied, and so are desires that may necessarily come with those costs.

And this doesn’t presume anything about expectations. For every year of their existence I’ve wished for the Texans to win the superbowl. For each of those years, I have never expected them to do any such thing. And yet I am always disappointed when they are inevitably eliminated from playoff contention each year.

It may be fun to wish, but not so fun when those wishes are crushed…


Henri Vieuxtemps 07.02.09 at 9:04 am

…not so fun when those wishes are crushed…

Don’t worry – it’s not so fun when they come true either! It’s all about the process, not the event.


Michael Drake 07.02.09 at 3:00 pm

I don’t think the coffee example is on-point. A person could have a really shit life with no significant prospects for improvement, and yet have really good coffee on hand. That person would want the most out of her life (which, as it turns out, won’t amount to much), and yet could (and should) expect more from her coffee.

Alternatively, maybe that person just likes coffee more than anything else in life. (I think I’ve known one or two.)


Daniel M. Laenker 07.06.09 at 7:53 pm

For what it’s worth, I believe it’s absurd to want better than life itself, perhaps not in the sense that organic chemistry defines “life”, but insofar as “life” is one’s subjective existence, anything you experience becomes part of your life.

You cannot ever be free of yourself. Any experience, even experiences that transcend all prior experience, cannot transcend the sum total of your experiences in that they exist within your experience. And instant coffee will not give that freedom to you, even the unlikeliest transcendental or transhuman instant coffee ever.

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