At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell

A fantastic, readable and brilliantly explained history of the radical ideas of French existentialists that have shaped so much of modern thought and social change.

This wonderful book is a history of the lives and ideas of the originators of existentialism: Satre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Husserl, Camus. It’s traces the way their lives and ideas interact; or, especially, the way in which their ideas influence their and others’ lives.

From the early 1930s when they were founding their thinking, through the war, occupation and liberation of France, to the protests of 1968, Bakewell traces how their thought developed and how they put in into practice, both in artistically and academically, personally and politically.

She begins, after briefly introducing us to Satre and de Beauvoir, by talking at length about Husserl’s development of the philosophical practice of phenomenology, which so influenced Satre. The sense that the role of philosophy is to cut through the appearance of things, through the perspectives and ideologies that attach to things, and to describe the phenomena itself, in its essence, was she says, revolutionary. And it’s this sense of cutting through to the essence of what it is to be human, the being or ‘Daisen’ for Heidegger, that is central to existentialism, and it’s view that people are unencumbered by convention or history or ideology and are in fact radically free.

We get chapters on Heidegger, both because his philosophy was influential for existentialism, and because he is an interesting but flawed character because of his attraction to and refusal to denounce Nazism. And we get lots on Satre and de Beauvoir – their lives, their commitment to writing, their absolutely engagement in politics, and of course their massive influence. Bakewell is particularly good on why de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was such a revolutionary and important book for feminism and women’s liberation.

Bakewell, at a late point in the book, says she used to be naive and think what matters most in the world are ideas, that a focus on people’s lives is a distraction, but she has since come to see that people’s lives are the thing that matter. In fact, she is truly excellent at explaining the complex and highly abstract ideas of phenomenology and existentialism, and more than anything in this book she shows how lives and ideas interact.

Satre and de Beauvoir, for example, lived in ways considered quite shocking for their time – working constantly, an open relationship all their lives, childless, fervently committed to Soviet communism. Whether this radical freedom of their lives influenced their ideas or vice versa, who knows, but the connection of life and philosophy is clear.

And what’s more, Bakewell shows how their existentialist ideas were so influential in a period of social change – civil rights, student protests, anti war demonstrations, the Beat poets, sexual liberation, feminism… all of these movements were founded on ideas of personal freedom, of living consciously chosen and free lives, that were at the core of their existentialist philosophy.

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