At the Existentialist Cafe ~ by Sarah Bakewell

I’d been eye-balling this book and then voila – it was selected as the discussion read at All-nonfiction Group!   Okay – so I looked forward to it – I don’t read the group selections until a couple weeks prior to the discussions because I tend to forget details and some of my excitement gets lost.  It was worth the wait.

I’ve read some philosophy but not really very much outside of the excerpts for a 101 class.  I’ve read more books “about” philosophy and philosophers,  biographies,  histories,  etc.  So I come to this little tome with some background but nothing substantial.   I did fall in love with Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism,  what I read in popular media,  back in high school – 1965-66?  –  I suppose that helps a bit.


At the Existentialist Cafe:  Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
by Sarah Bakewell 2016

2016 / 328 pages  (Kindle)
rating:  10  / – history- biography- philosophy

This is  not a book about Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir alone – the main starting place is Edmund Husserl the philosopher who worked on something called phenomenology – the philosophy of phenomenon –   experiences and consciousness or how we perceive experiences (apricot cocktails for instance).  I’d heard of Husserl,  but was completely ignorant of his actual ideas.  (See The Elegance of the Hedgehog for my prior knowledge  – lol).

The book also addresses other existentialists, or thinkers closely related to them,  of the day,  Martin Heidegger,  Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty,  Raymond Aron,  Richard Wright,  Hannah Arendt,  Karl Jaspers,  Arthur Koestler,  Václav Havel,  Iris Murdoch and more.   Although I have it from good sources that the philosophy is well done,  it’s mostly a history and biographies as they relate to the philosophy.   Bottom line –  it’s fascinating.

With each philosopher Bakewell seems to take a compassionate,  but not terribly sympathetic,  view.  There is no heroizing or demonization of anyone –  not even Heidegger or Beauvoir.  As much as she can,  she’s looking at these people in their own environment.  She admits she’s most drawn to Merleau-Ponty but very much admires Sartre and Beauvoir.   She says she’s not drawn to Heidegger at all but she could have fooled me because I was very drawn to her description and analysis – (Yes,  he was a mean little person,  but Iris Murdoch liked him.)

One of the important aspects of phenomenology and existentialism is the connection between Being,  experience,  freedom and contingency.   Contingency adds the context of environment – and the way Bakewell presents the material is very,  very much in keeping with that idea.   These philosophers did not just think up their ideas in a vacuum – they were intimately affected by their world including Nazi Germany,  World Wars I and II,  as well as the atomic bomb and the Cold War.  They were affected by each other.   They were human beings living in a very complex world.   They each had experiences which changed them.

Bakewell writes clearly and is able to explain complex ideas in a very entertaining way.  She gives life and humor to what could be a very tedious subject (even if I am a history buff).  I read slowly to really be immersed and besides,   I didn’t want the book to end. Also,  I am reading in my own little  Heideggerian “forest” –    (go read the book to see what I mean).

The cafe imagery fits nicely – the history is done wonderfully well and I see the phenomenology in all of it.  I felt it.  I experienced the read.   🙂    (High praise.)