It’s a Friday night and I’m stuck at a twenty-four hour Starbuck’s drinking coffee with a crowd of young earthlings between the ages of sixteen and thirty. I had recently moved “down South” from Washington state to Atlanta, Georgia. Here I was a thoroughbred northerner stuck in the self-deprecating, yes-ma’am-ing, door-opening, deep-fried South.
I moved here to attend graduate school at Emory University. Rumor had it that Emory was a good place to be, especially considering the fact that, relative to the south, it was a darn good school. So there I was—young, energetic, and full of life—aching to discuss “the big questions.” I was, after all, obtaining a master’s in “theological studies.” That is, I was essentially studying God (whatever the hell that meant).
But my youthful naiveté would soon meet its life-sucking Count Dracula. I would soon come to discover that the people in the South, as a general rule, didn’t really care about the big questions. In fact, they were permanently disinterested in thinking about them. I even suspect that they don’t even know that such questions exist. Take one such question—what is the meaning of your life?—for brief consideration. I asked this youthful bunch to think about that while they sipped their almost-deep-fried, double-shot Crème brûlée latte. I then waited like a cat hunting a mouse for a response. But it never came.
Somewhere amidst all of the important topics filling the discussion like hot air balloons at a two-year-olds birthday party, my mere mention of “meaning” got lost. It was never heard amongst all of the bells and whistles.
You see, being the generous soul that I am, I, quite naturally, assumed that my question must have never tickled a single soul’s eardrum. So I sputtered out the dying remains of this existentially unnerving question. Like its previous contender, the question fell on deaf ears.
Having said all that, I think the people here are quite happy-go-lucky. I mean, they are so enamored of themselves that they never ask big questions. Or, maybe, they are so thoroughly enjoying life that they don’t have time for such petty things as “meaning.” Come on, who cares about “meaning” (what’s that?) when you’re having the best time of your life?
Well, that was somewhere around “month one” in Atlanta. I had something like two years to spend here, so I decided that, contrary to my subjective opinion, Atlanta might prove me wrong. There was, after all, still time.
The months turned into seasons—summer came and went—and I failed to meet a person who thinks about thinking. (I ended up meeting one such soul, contrary to my previous sentence, but he was originally from Boston. And to which, in due time, his soul returned happily again.)
His name was Andrei. He was a philosopher at heart. He studied cognitive psychology at Penn State; prior to that, he did his undergraduate work in classical piano. We talked about a lot of things—music, people, public opinion, etc.—and then we came upon that most touché of subjects: the meaning of it all.
Andrei brought up a funny anecdote that stuck. We were having dinner together—I was sipping a Moscato and he was drinking chardonnay—when we began discussing the philosophy of language (it’s practically impossible to find people in the South, amidst the general public, who would be familiar with the subject, much less able to hold a discussion). As I told Andrei my views on God and His/Her/Its ability to communicate meaningfully to us, Andrei related his own concerns. “When I was at Penn State, all of the psychology graduate students used to wonder how philosophers and theologians would speak and write about God. We’d sit together and discuss in utter amazement how these guys could imagine that they knew what they were talking about. Here we were trying to figure out how the human mind was able to perceive a ‘cup’ as a ‘cup,’ and these guys were writing dissertations on God!” “Look at this cup,” he continued, as he pointed at a cup in front of him. “It’s different from this other cup here. This one doesn’t have a handle on it. It’s a different color. It’s made from a different material. How does our mind still classify both of these very different objects as belonging to the category of ‘cup’?”
I understood Andrei’s point because I, too, wondered; I, too, lived asking similar questions. How do we know—almost intuitively—that something is a cup? Here I was trying to speak about a Being I’ve never met, using words I never did understand (infinite, omnipresent, omniscient, etc.)—and yet, I never even got past grade school; I never solved the problem of cup-ness.
How could we speak of “meaning” when we have a hard time understanding cup-ness? How could we use such abstract nouns, when even basic nouns still evaded us? We could pretend to discuss “the meaning of life”—and use such abstract nouns no one has access to like “morality,” “goodness,” and “end-goal”—but we’ll only go as far as cup-ness will take us. And that’s really not that far.
Let’s go back to the cup dilemma for a second. The problem with the cup—as we seen it—has far-reaching implications. If one were to set out to define what it means for an object to be a “cup,” one would have to demarcate certain lines, that is, create certain criteria that would have to be met when someone would be defining a cup. For example, one might say that a cup must be able to hold a liquid and be circular. What about cups that are square? One might qualify the statement and add that cups may not necessarily be circular/round. What about cups that don’t hold liquids well? For example, what if the ceramic cup is cracked? Is it still a cup? If not, what is it?…
We never were able to define “cup” in such a way that would enable us to include every cup that had ever existed—and would exist—in all human history. We were unable to come up with a definition for “cup-ness.” In other words, when asked to define “cup,” us educated folk were left stuttering…
Like a session during a smoke and mirrors magic show, the whole idea of a “cup” kept evading us. It was here for a second, there for a second—then it was completely gone. Like an illusive term in a Wittgensteinian language-game, the cup never materialized enough for us to grasp it, for us to drink from its waters.
Empty we came, and thirsty we left.
“There are no cups here.”
But on a more serious note, when Andrei moved—and I realized I hadn’t had dinner with a friend in months—I wrote my professor-friend from undergrad. He was glad to hear that I was alive and well. He was glad to hear that I was reading Kierkegaard. But then something tragic happened. After he asked me to tell him how I was doing—and I had texted him a summary of my experience in Atlanta—I made the following concluding remark in my text message: “This place lacks existentialists.”
He replied: “Easily one of the best lines I’ve ever read in a text.”
It’s a heart-breaking moment when your professor-friend tells you that noticing the fact that existentialists are missing is important. It’s a good thing to read that someone still tracks existentialists—for it suggests that there is still someone existential enough to notice!
The situation, in retrospect, is much more dire than initially observed. This place doesn’t just lack existentialists: they have gone extinct.
Somewhere along the journey to Hell, I bet there’s a post that reads:
“There are no existentialists here.”
Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev
I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language.