Named one of the Ten Best Books of 2016 by the New York Times, a spirited account of a major intellectual movement of the twentieth century and the revolutionary thinkers who came to shape it, by the best-selling author of How to Live Sarah Bakewell.
Paris, 1933: three contemporaries meet over apricot cocktails at the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the rue Montparnasse. They are the young Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and longtime friend Raymond Aron, a fellow philosopher who raves to them about a new conceptual framework from Berlin called Phenomenology. "You see," he says, "if you are a phenomenologist you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it!"
It was this simple phrase that would ignite a movement, inspiring Sartre to integrate Phenomenology into his own French, humanistic sensibility, thereby creating an entirely new philosophical approach inspired by themes of radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. This movement would sweep through the jazz clubs and cafés of the Left Bank before making its way across the world as Existentialism.
Featuring not only philosophers, but also playwrights, anthropologists, convicts, and revolutionaries, At the Existentialist Café follows the existentialists' story, from the first rebellious spark through the Second World War, to its role in postwar liberation movements such as anti-colonialism, feminism, and gay rights. Interweaving biography and philosophy, it is the epic account of passionate encounters--fights, love affairs, mentorships, rebellions, and long partnerships--and a vital investigation into what the existentialists have to offer us today, at a moment when we are once again confronting the major questions of freedom, global responsibility, and human authenticity in a fractious and technology-driven world.
Bakewell (How to Live) brilliantly explains 20th-century existentialism through the extraordinary careers of the philosophers who devoted their lives and work to "the task of responsible alertness" and "questions of human identity, purpose, and freedom." Through vivid characterizations and a clear distillation of dense philosophical concepts, Bakewell embeds the story of existentialism in the "story of a whole European century," dramatizing its central debates of authenticity, rebellion, freedom, and responsibility. Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty all strut and fret across the stage, with cameos from Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Iris Murdoch, among others. Casting his shadow over all is Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps existentialism's most famous face, and beside him Simone de Beauvoir, whose feminist masterpiece The Second Sex, was as "revolutionary in every sense" as Sartre's Being and Nothingness and Heidegger's Being and Time. Bakewell illustrates how existentialism contributed to "almost all the great liberation movements" of the 1950s and '60s, arguing persuasively for its continued relevance. This ambitious book bears out Bakewell's declaration that "thinking should be generous and have a good appetite," and that for philosophers and the general reader alike, "ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so." Photos.
Life, one question at a time
Though I majored in Philosophy, my professors spent little time on the Existentialist thinkers. Perhaps it was not their area of expertise, or it may have been out of fashion, or some other reason. What I missed out on is diligently surmised by Sarah Bakewell in an engaging and thought provoking journey through history and life’s greatest mysteries.
Though tiny compared to the works of the subjects covered within, Bakewell manages to present a complete compendium of the historical context of the events, culture, and relationships that shaped existentialist philosophy. Moreover, she shows how perhaps no other philosophy manage to enthrall the masses and influence fiction, film, music and more. Because no other philosophy reflects life in the moment like existentialism.
Rather than lay things out in an encyclopedic flow, the format of this account casts us as flies on the wall of the cafes these intellectual giants haunted. We are first hand witnesses to all of the interactions that impacted them and subsequently their work on philosophy. We are also shown a mirror on our life by zooming out to general qualities of existence that make these philosophers relatable and approachable for the novice and expert alike.