At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell

Other Press, March 2016

Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal


Bakewell_AttheExistentialistCafe_Final-260x390What is it, to think? Should we try to find out what the human mind is, as if it were some kind of substance, or should we consider what it does, and how it grasps its experiences? Can a mind that is experiencing nothing, imagining nothing, or speculating about nothing said to be a mind at all? Is integrity more valuable than freedom, or is freedom even possible without integrity? What is the difference between Being and being? If a person can exactly describe what he or she experiences, does that mean they can also exert some control over those experiences? That is, does clear thinking make us free? Or does philosophy do anything for us at all? Can we find liberty in surrendering to fate and circumstance, or is freedom found in struggle? Can we move definitively from ignorance to certainty, or will the thread of inquiry continually lead us back to ignorance again? Should we aim to understand existence, or remain in astonishment of it?

These are the questions of existentialism and the philosophy it grew out of, phenomenology. Despite what I thought as a teenager, existentialism is not really about whether life is worth living, or how to have a happy death. It’s much more intricate and nuanced than that, as Sarah Bakewell shows in her new book At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails.


In At the Existentialist Café, Bakewell traces the history of existentialism, telling its story through the lives and ideas of its principal actors: the philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with a supporting cast of other artists and thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt and Richard Wright.

Bakewell does an impressive job of summarizing the complex contributions of each philosopher. But since she’s more interested in people than ideas, the deepest impression is made by the personalities of the philosophers, rather than the specifics of what they thought. I get a sense of Sartre’s strong work ethic and commitment to what he feels is the ultimate good, even if that meant supporting violent and oppressive regimes; Beauvoir’s ability to expose myths and her sharp insight into crucial factors that others miss, namely the role gender plays in our existence; Camus’s courage to honor the freedom of the individual over an ideal; Heidegger’s lack of heart and humanity despite his ability to dig deeply into the complexities of thought; and Merleau-Ponty’s pleasant disposition and talent for dancing.

It’s difficult to imagine that at one time these philosophers were international celebrities, since most of us today would be hard pressed to name a single contemporary philosopher. Bakewell’s book also reminds me that a philosophical movement, like a religious movement, is a product of its historical circumstance. Modern existentialism could only have grown out of devastation of World War II, and flourished under the Cold War’s ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Because above all, existentialism was a brave call for total responsibility, without which there is no freedom. As Bakewell writes, “In existentialism, there are no excuses.”

History has turned, and existentialism has had its day. Many dismiss it as adolescent, but its ideas pervade our culture, from the films of Woody Allen to the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet the twenty-first century’s retreat toward delusion and irresponsibility might call for a different kind of philosophy. Or perhaps we’re beyond the time when philosophy can even have an impact. We’re losing the capacity to reason, and our technology thinks for us. Maybe the next generation will find it strange we once valued thinking at all.

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