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"At the Existentialist Café", by Sarah Bakewell

Sarah Bakewell has written “At the Existentialist Café”, a biography of existentialist philosophers intertwined with an overview of their thought.

The author imagines them like this (her emphasis):

These philosophers [Heidegger and Sartre], together with Simone de Beauvoir, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others, seem to me to have participated in a multilingual, multisided conversation that ran from one end of the last century to the other. Many of them never met. Still, I like to imagine them in a big, busy café of the mind, probably a Parisian one, full of life and movement, noisy with talk and thought, and definitely an inhabited café.

Bakewell makes the jargon palatable and this is probably the book where I’ve taken the largest number of notes on my Kindle so far. I found the book gripping and couldn’t put it down. That was helped by the fact that the story takes placed during the first half of the 20th century and we follow the protagonists around as they cope with the catastrophies of those times.

And these philosophers came up with beautiful metaphors for the mind: For Heidegger, it’s a clearing in a forest. And more:

When he [Merlau-Ponty] looks for his own metaphor to describe how he sees consciousness, he comes up with a beautiful one: consciousness, he suggests, is like a ‘fold’ in the world, as though someone had crumpled a piece of cloth to make a little nest or hollow. It stays for a while, before eventually being unfolded and smoothed away. There is something seductive, even erotic, in this idea of my conscious self as an improvised pouch in the cloth of the world. I still have my privacy — my withdrawing room. But I am part of the world’s fabric, and I remain formed out of it for as long as I am here.

Her last chapter “The imponderable bloom” is a great piece in itself. She synthesizes the phenomenologists’ and existentialists’ theories and explains how their arguments entered our view of the world and our search for “authenticity”. We take pleasure in learning how irrational we are as piles of biases and preferences that can be quantified and predicted. Yet fundamentally our minds are free and constraining ourselves to anything else would be Sartre’s “bad faith”, she writes.

Bakewell finishes with this:

When I first read Sartre and Heidegger, I didn’t think the details of a philosopher’s personality or biography were important. This was the orthodox belief in the field at the time, but it also came from my being too young myself to have much sense of history. I intoxicated myself with concepts, without taking account of their relationship to events and to all the odd data of their inventors’ lives. Never mind lives; ideas were the thing. Thirty years later, I have come to the opposite conclusion. Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.