The 1990s sitcom Seinfeld was loudly proclaimed to be the show about “nothing”. The very term “nothing” is somewhat paradoxical. Nothing denotes the complete absence of an essence or form. Technically it is herculean task to fixate any concept around the word. Logically some attribute is bound to invalidate the notion of complete absence of any form or detail. Hence, why the show really wasn’t about nothing. It was really an unapologetic slice-of-life comedy. Focused on four 30-something NYC residents and their day to day lives. Lives typically punctuated by social faux pas and outlandish situations. Generally spurred by their own errors or impulses. It the television program doesn’t fixate on nothing. It merely lacks an overt, cohesive and reoccurring theme. In contrast to the modern fables portrayed in a sappy coming-of-age drama.
At first glance, it would appear the odds of obtaining any profound philosophical insights from Seinfeld would be unlikely. However, some philosophers would disagree. Back in 2000, William Irwin edited a collection of essays drawing philosophical themes from the sitcom. To think philosophical insights from a show where the characters quibble over breakfast cereals and superheroes. Seinfeld and Philosophy is a brilliant attempt to infer the unthinkable from the show about “nothing”. The unthinkable being is logical and moral parables.
Out of the four main characters of Seinfeld Cosmo Kramer is certainly noteworthy. A slender and cloddish man with a mop of wild hair upon his. His rangy frame often silhouetted by a thick hazy of smoke from a burning Cuban cigar. Frequently barging into Jerry’s apartment and rifling through his refrigerator for food. He never holds a steady job. Often is hopping from one fleeting interest to the next. Whether it be some harebrained business scheme or new absurd fixation. For example, in season nine when Kramer discovers the furniture from the old Merv Griffin Show in a dumpsters. He then decides to assemble the set in his own apartment and pose as if he was a late-night talk show host. Kramer mirrors Peter Pan. Stuck in a perpetual state of adolescences. He is fickle with is commitments and interests. Making his life a revolving-door of collective fads. Giving some credence to Elaine one time insulting Kramer by calling him a “hipster doofus“.Yes kids, this episode did predate the American Spirits smoking, fake glasses wearing, Pabst Blue Ribbon drinking hipsters of the 2000’s.
How could any sizable moral lesson ever be derived from a character that lives such a shallow life? Philosopher William Irvin found some insights in Kramer’s disregard for commitment. Detailed in his essay Kramer and Kierkegaard: Stages on Life’s Way. Where Irvin parallels Kramer’s life to that of the Aesthetic Stage of Life. In terms of stages of moral development that would appear to be Kierkegaard’s most rudimentary stage. It is important to note that this starts with and ends with despair. Is distinguished by a flight from boredom. Fully illustrated by Kramer’s ever-changing agenda. Spirited, but short-lived enthusiasm. Such as the time Kramer pitched his idea of a cologne that smells like the beach or a pizzeria where you can “bake your own pie” (Irvin, 2000). This only dovetails to possessing a lack of commitment another defining feature of this stage. Exemplified by Kramer referring marriage has a man-made “prison” (Irvin, 2000) Clearly illustrating his distaste for committed romantic relationships.
Cosmo Kramer operates as a moral allegory of what not to be. Unprincipled and pleasure seeking. To characteristics of hedonism that run contrary personal responsibility. One of the conceptual cornerstones of Existential philosophy. The philosophical movement Kierkegaard was a pioneer of. Can an individual float through life as a middle-aged or even elderly “hipster doofus”? Constantly raiding your neighbor’s refrigerator. Hatching various get-rich-quick schemes that invariably fail with in a short duration of time. Finding novel oddball hobbies to occupy your decades of scant employment. It is no wonder many of these interests fade fast. There isn’t any substance to them. They are merely temporary distractions for a man lacking conviction. If Kramer was truly committed to any of his business ventures he would abort them within a matter of days. He would fight for his business to success. He isn’t the type to want to exert such effort on what is difficult. Kramer would rather feed the perpetual cycle of fleeting interests and wavering commitment. Making him a prime example of what we should avoid being in real life.
Oddly enough it has been 10 years since I first ever ventured into blogging. I had a humanities class back in Community College that required we maintain a blog. Adding a modern twist to the old assignment of familiar college essay. The course was fixated on life and death. Taught by two instructors. The professor that led the death portion of the class Dr. A. Keith Carreiro left a real impression upon me. He certainly had a “Dead Poet Society” kind of vibe about him. I would also say that he was a little darker and more intense version of Robin Williams character in the 1989 film. He often was irked and perplexed by the disinterest and ignorance of the students in the class. As a now 31-year old University graduate, I can understand his frustration. A man who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge was basically speaking to the wall. The insouciance of 18-24 year-olds at times can be astounding. However, Dr. Carreiro I was listening. 10-years later I can truly say that you have impacted my life.
He really demonstrated to me the interconnected nature of life and death. Oftentimes our lifestyle determines our manner of death. One salient example being choosing to smoke. On an even deeper life, if we live a moral life we can leave behind a legacy of pride versus memories of regret. In sense, he posited an indirect form of existential thought. Taking responsibility your life on this Earth will make coming to terms with your mortality slightly easier. Beyond these insights I was also indirectly learned to avoid apathy. To not become Nietzsche’s archetypal “last man”. Content with the status quo and unwilling to grapple with the bigger questions of life. To have our lives revolve around menial tasks and distractions. Especially in a comfortable society that has an endless cornucopia of “bread-and-circus” veering us away from the pursuit of genuine truth. His class was a jolting and jarring wake up call for me. I would attribute his influence to why I blog about economics and philosophy today.
I vividly recall anxiously working on assignments for Dr. C’s course. Overcome by worry I step outside of my basement to my backyard. Greeted by the brisk and stinging wind of New England winter. I pull a crudely made hand-rolled tobacco cigarette from my pocket. Bracing from the wintry gales as I attempt to lit it. Taking my first drag I inhale with consternation. Questioning my own intellectual abilities. I was advised against going to college by my high School guidance counselor. Should I even be attempting transferring to a state school? Then subsequently exhaling figuratively and literally releasing my trepidation of the unknown. In a sense mirroring ontological confrontation. Aside from smoking being a well known cause of death, for the record I quit 7 years ago. Death is unknown. Much like the further. The uncertainty fuels our fear.
Ten years older, ten years wiser I know understand that both the future and death are immutable fixtures of life. They are unpleasant truths that we must reluctantly embrace. Neither can be dispensed with. Uncertainty doesn’t excuse us from responsibility. Three years later I took responsibility for my health by quitting smoking. All because death in inevitable doesn’t mean we can try to live well while on this planet. That is a sentiment that I know Dr. C. could agree with. Lets live well emotionally, physically, intellectually, and spiritually. After all, time waits for no man. This isn’t a dress rehearsal, life is happening now!
I would be the first to say that I am far from being totally enlightened. There is still a lot of learning that I have to do. I still fall prey to certain distractions in life. I do enjoy moderate consumption of craft beer, whisk(e)y, and martinis. I do watch NFL football. Self-improvement is a work in progress. However, I do read a lot more and get plenty of cardiovascular exercise in these days. All we can do is strive for better. Once we settle for resting on our laurels that is when we run into the danger of becoming the “last man”. We should always be aiming to be the better version of ourselves. Perfection is unattainable therefore all we can do is try.
Here is the link to my blog for the course. Certainly not my best work. I was a far cry from a young Mark Twain or H.L. Mencken. However, it was my first sincere attempt at exploring one of the major mysteries of life. Considering we in contemporary American society don’t have much of a context for addressing such inquires, I think I did okay.
It could be argued that the concept of “nothing” is something of a misnomer. Nothing is interestingly enough quite easy to quantify but difficult to characterize. It mirroring its conceptual reciprocal infinity. In colloquial speech, we tend to often misuse the word “nothing”. If our mailbox is empty we are tempted to say “There is nothing in the mailbox”. However, is this actually true? Not technically. While there may not be any mail inside the mailbox it does contain other things. Such as the air, microorganisms, and even the atoms comprising the internal structure of the mailbox. From more of a finetuned perspective saying that the mailbox contains nothing is grossly inaccurate.
Many of you are probably thinking “who cares”! I am being too pedantic. How we speak is generally figurative anyhow. Some may even believe that such inquiries are a hair above semantics rather than true philosophic discourse. I recently read an essay published in Philosophy Now that has inspired this blog entry. The essay in question is entitled An Essay on Nothing by Sophia Gottfried. Gottfried details how existence is often addressed in philosophical discourse and absence of existence is generally not. Sure nihilism addresses the absence of moral values, but few philosophical schools examine “nothingness” in its totality.
She touches upon an excellent point, we have profound difficulty comprehending the concept of “nothing”. Even for the nihilist, the proclamation of an absence of moral convicts is still moral convictions. Even for the anarchist, advocating for the absence of a formal government is still a policy prescription. We encounter the paradox of nothing actually being something. Gottfried explains how to some extent we do have some ontological apprehension of thoroughly thinking about a pure state of “nothing”. As she states :
Death, the ultimate void for humans, makes people uneasy for obvious reasons: all that they are will be forever reduced to a blank space felt only by loved ones… and even that absence will someday be forgotten. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) .
Throughout human history, religion has attempted to provide answers to the mystery of the afterlife. Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Are we reincarnated? Even atheists have expressed discomfort with the potential of their human essence dissipating into oblivion. Death is unsettling because it is a conspicuous reminder of our potential for nonexistence. No frontier is more unchartered as the other side of the slivery brook. It is difficult to fathom nonexistence when existence is all that we have known. Just about every thought we have cannot adequately reflect a pure conception of nil. Because our thoughts are still something, they are still concepts, constructs, assumptions, language, etc.
The problem extends beyond the human mind having the faculties to properly understand the pure absence of everything. How can we ponder the enigmatic truths of death if we can’t even cope with awkward silence? In social situations, people are distressed by the absence of conversation. Mind you not the absence of sound (background noise), but the lack of verbal communication. When compared to the concern of the end of existence is much more trivial. This fact would further substantiate the point that humans are fundamentally uncomfortable with the concept of nothing. Both intellectually and emotionally. The absence of something has been allotted a myriad of negative adjectives. It is synonymous with awkwardness, loss, misfortune, death, immorality, chaos, ineptitude, etc. Rather shouldn’t “nothing” be viewed as value-neutral? After all, the numeric expression of nothing operates as neither a positive or negative integer. If “pure nothing” is actually neutral, we are merely projecting our own negative perceptions on the phrase/ state of being. In a pure state of nothing, there aren’t any negative characteristics to make attributions of.
It would be reasonable to question how we as a species have ended up engaging in this fallacy. Thankfully, Gottfried has provided some insight into the potential reason for our potential misconceptions about the idea of “nothing”. She divides nothingness into “perceptive nothingness” and “pure nothingness”. Outside of an astrophysicist who studies black holes the vast majority of us have a very weak understanding of “pure nothingness”. At least they would possess the foundational knowledge required to expound upon such a concept. When the average person uses the term “nothing” it is more from the standpoint of “perceptive nothingness”. Which is defined as:
The nothingness is a negotiation of expectation: expecting something and being denied the expectation by reality. It is constructed by the individual mind, frequently through the comparison with a socially constructed concept. (Gottfried, 2020, P. 24) .
This explanation sheds some light on how we tend to misapply the concept of “nothing”. It is an attempt to reconcile aspects of reality that depart from our expectations. Let’s say that you reach for your wallet and that you have no money in your wallet. Colloquially we say ” I have nothing in my wallet”. This is a severe overgeneralization. Even if we avoid distilling it down to the hyper granular level of the molecular, there isn’t truly nothing in your wallet. You are ignoring all of the receipts, coupons, etc. that are physically in your wallet. Nevermind the air and the constituent molecules that comprise the leather that lines the interior of your wallet.
In my opinion, “perceptive nothingness” is merely a heuristic to help us better navigate the mental complexities of our world. It is quicker and easier to perceive the mailbox as empty rather than further dissect the actual contents down to the molecular level. The mailbox isn’t truly empty. It would be efficient or cognitively adaptive for every person finding it necessary to get that specific. Especially when odds are you have concerns that are of higher priority than whether or not your mailbox is truly empty.