During the main library’s closing, I saw a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails staring up at me from the small branch library’s small “new books” shelf (it’s easier to see interesting things on the small shelves, because they’re not surrounded by too many other books, and because frankly, it would almost no one uses the branch library, so things are very much more often still on the shelves), and although it had sounded to me like something I wouldn’t like, I picked it up. (Bakewell has also written a kind of self-help book based on the essays of Montesquieu.) I was pleasantly surprised.
At the Existentialist Café is framed as an exploration of the writers Bakewell had been fascinated by in college, and almost got a postgraduate degree in, before leaving the academic world. The book traces the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard through to Sartre, following its fate as an inspiration for the rebels of 1968 whom Sartre championed. The text moves easily between personal reflection on the meaning of the writers’ philosophies, history and biography, and explications of the works themselves.
Bakewell’s book is very much the clearest explanation of the central parts of Heidegger’s, Husserl’s, and Kierkegaard’s philosophies that I’ve read: aimed at the general reader, not the specialist or the student who’ll need to read the originals themselves anyway. These philosophers don’t (to use the historical present, as I’ve been taught to do in these contexts) concern themselves with the traditional concerns of philosophy, as they’ve been understood in the line from Plato through to Bertrand Russell. They aren’t concerned with epistemology: how we know things, how we find out we’re wrong about them. They aren’t concerned with distinguishing reality from appearance or illusion. They aren’t concerned with determining the boundaries of true knowledge, or with deciding whether true knowledge is possible outside the borders of “science,” or what “science” is. Many philosophical texts try (especially in the cases of Husserl and Heidegger) to fit them into this tradition anyway. They focus not on what Husserl and Heidegger said about life, so much, as on what presuppositions about the nature of Knowledge Husserl and Heidegger must be making in order to say what they do. They ask the question, what is happening in the history of philosophy, that philosophers of such important are turning against (deliberately or otherwise) parts of the tradition. Primarily, they try to construct a bulwark to protect this tradition.
Bakewell ignores that, ignores the epistemological presuppositions a student of philosophy might want to consider if she were to reconcile, say, Heidegger and Kant. She focuses instead on (something that is hard even to describe from within the worldview of traditional English-language philosophy) their recommendations for life. For this reason, however, Bakewell gets across quite strongly the fact that these theorists—at least as they’ve been received—don’t worry themselves much over the ontological or moral statuses (whether they’re real, roughly, and whether they’re good, respectively) of the truths they recommend the reader grasp. The nuances of how truths are grasped—whether through reading, through social activity, scientific research, or quiet reflection—differ from theorist to theorist. Each, though—Sartre, possibly, excepted—did, she suggests, assume their nature and status would or should be obvious to the reader. Sartre makes extremely clear that the choice of project is moral and not epistemological or scientific.
Each of these writers viewed life as a kind of project in the world, a projecting outward of the self into reality, and a taking in through listening of truths compelled in the course of that projection. Bakewell traces the differences in expression and emphasis between the kinds of “listening” recommended by Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, and her other subjects, though not in so much detail as to become boring. She doesn’t ignore Heidegger’s Nazi affiliations, and indeed presents a convincing explanation of how closely his philosophy meshed with those, but these aren’t her focus. She does mention Sartre’s membership of the Communist Party, perhaps at less length than previous, more critical, writers have done; she makes rather less of Merleau-Ponty’s political sins than those writing with less distance from the events have done. She narrates the central figures’ interactions as teachers, students, colleagues, and archivists: her account of how Jesuit students saved Husserl’s papers, and his widow, from the approaching German invasion is especially interesting.
As the title suggests, the book’s center is the social world dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre, and secondarily by Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. This is told well, in a manner not at all as precious as might be suggested by some of Bakewell’s interviewers, and in a way that doesn’t assume the reader already knows material like the true identities of people from Beauvoir’s memoirs. As Bakewell tells it, existentialism spiraled finally into the social theories Sartre expounded: in its essence, first, refusing to excuse one’s own behavior as caused by external forces, and refusing to escape freedom by denying ones actions are a result of one’s own choice; and second, “tr[ying] to adopt the gaze of the outsider, turned against the privileged caste—even when that caste includes himself.” (Sartre believed this required membership in the Communist Party, or at least what was then called fellow-traveling, though as time went on other choices became more popular.)
The first part of this, particularly, was not fully agreed to by everyone in the circle. The story Bakewell tells raises the question whether Sartre’s thinking about choice and responsibility works best for someone like him—white, male, privileged, in fact the center of his social and intellectual circle—and not for everyone else. Camus, an exile, a European alien in Africa and an African, provincial foreigner in France, someone with political projects and concerns that didn’t neatly align with those of lifelong Parisians, might have found it more difficult to “choose freedom” than his friend. Beauvoir wrote an entire book explaining how and why women might find it difficult or impossible to choose as Sartre did.
Whether this has anything to do with the Heideggerian (or more generally phenomenological) project is another question. It’s not only that the ability to sit in the woods and listen for the voice of reality is an activity that demands privilege and time. It’s that some might find the revelations of that voice more congenial, more supportive of their everyday lives, than others. Camus and Beauvoir might be seen to have worked to tease out the implications of some of those difficulties (with differing levels of conflict between themselves and Sartre).
This circles back to the questions raised traditionally by philosophy. What is reality? Where do moral imperatives come from? The Kantian tradition answers in one way. Heidegger answers differently. He gestures toward a philosophy for people who work directly with physical reality—people who use, in his example, hammers, for instance—but Bakewell shows that the connection between tools and the “clearing” where imperatives appear to the thinker is murky. He famously stated that “only a god can save us”; but which God? For Heidegger, it was the god—the forced willing of the existence of a god everyone knew was not present in the world in any form—of Nazism (however much he may have disliked the reality of the Führer and his minions). For Sartre, it was the god of the people and the prophecy of the Communist International. For most of their present-day followers, it is neither of these things. Whether what the existentialists (and phenomenologists) wrote can guarantee present-day existentialists’ beliefs will remain consistent with the results of their encounter with the world, would seem to be an open one. Maybe we do need traditional philosophy after all; maybe the existentialist tradition is actually not sufficient unto itself.