“There Are No Existentialists Here”

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. 

5 thoughts on ““There Are No Existentialists Here”

  1. Couldn’t help but be reminded of a passage from Schweitzer’s Philosophy of Civilization:

    “How completely this want of thinking power has become a second nature in men today is shown by the kind of sociability which it produces. When two of them meet for a conversation each is careful to see that their talk does not go beyond generalities or develop into a real exchange of ideas. No one has anything of his own to give out, and everyone is haunted by a sort of terror lest anything original should be demanded from him. …In ourselves, as in others, we look for nothing but vigor in productive work, and resign ourselves to the abandonment of any higher ideal.”

    And this was written about Europe between the world wars. Apart from some exhilarating but short-lived existential freedom experienced by young people in the 60s and 70s (for memories of which I will be forever grateful), American society has fit perfectly within the descriptions given by the author of this blog and the good doctor.

    Is existentialism the opposite of consumerism?

    • Yeah, that sounds like what I am currently experiencing here. And then I have to point out the fact that there are some who use big words and try to sound all “educated” when, in reality, they hardly know what they’re talking about. So you have two kinds of dumb: (1) the dumb who don’t care about their dumbness; and (2) the dumb who pretend to be smart. Of course, there’s probably the third category of “the dumb who don’t even know it.” Anyhow, however you look at it, the problem persists. One of the great things about being human is our ability to think about thinking; to reflect upon reflecting; to self-reflect on ourselves, etc. It’s something we should value and cherish about our being human, but it seems that this has been abandoned by a lot of us. Take a look at the modern philosophy departments. It’s a great example of “really educated” people who don’t really produce anything meaningful. They’re no longer “philosophers” in the Platonic sense of the word–those who think about existential issues for themselves–they are actually just good scholars. I remember listening to–or was it reading?–John Searle, a noted philosopher, discuss modern philosophy. He said bluntly: “I don’t read modern philosophy. It has too many footnotes and nothing original in it.” That’s pretty much a good summary regarding where most philosophers are right now. They produce works that are histories of philosophy or “philosophical books” that are mere appendices to another real philosopher’s work. We have become a generation of scholars who regurgitate information without having the ability to come with anything on our own. Even our educational system encourages this. I’m at Emory and everything is expected to be “cited.” Cite your sources is the mantra. What if I’m so original no one has thought of this before? (That’s something they never seem to consider.) It’s like we’re training people to rely on other people for everything. It’s great to be indebted to others. But there’s more to life than just that. It’s also nice to be able to write stuff without footnotes.

  2. Generally we don’t wait until we have perfect knowledge before we act; we are probabilistic machines. Most of the time the error rate is low enough to make language useful. How important is it to have an absolute definition for a word? Isn’t that Essentialism? If I understand Godel, it’s probably not possible to have a perfect self-consistent language.

    • I think you’re right, Alex Korchemniy, I don’t think it’s possible for language to be precise. I think we can speculate that if we were to take this seriously (i.e., an acute awareness that language is inadequate and incomplete) we’d be very tolerant of others’ beliefs and agnostic, to an extent. For example, when a fundamentalist, with fists pounding on the Bible, screams, “We must be Christ-like!” you could react to that by saying, “What a zealot”–or you could recognize that “Christ-like” is to be identified with “living a moral life,” which would then simply be a plea for human beings to treat one another with dignity. And who could disagree with that? I, personally, find this sort of approach towards language and human beings to be quite satisfactory. I think it’s made me a much better person.

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