Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell is a 2016 book by Sarah Bakewell that delves into the philosophy and history of the 20th-century movement existentialism. The book provides an account of modern-day existentialists who emerged before and during the Second World War. Bakewell focuses on the lives and works of prominent existentialist thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Hannah Arendt.
The main themes of the book revolve around radical freedom, authentic being, and political activism. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of the individual, choice, anxiety regarding life and death, meaning and absurdity, authenticity, social criticism, personal relations, and atheism and religion. The book explores how these philosophers lived their philosophies and philosophized their lives, with a particular focus on Sartre and de Beauvoir as the leaders of existentialism.
Bakewell also examines the relationship between existentialism and the political and historical currents that shaped it, such as the question of whether Heidegger’s philosophy could have led in any other direction than Nazism. She addresses Sartre and de Beauvoir’s commitment to communism in the 1940s and 50s, showing how they attempted to reconcile their idealistic dedication to Marxism with the ruthlessness this entailed.
What I Liked
I’m fascinated by the history of philosophy (I did an almost double-minor in Philosophy and Religion at college), so this book was right up my alley. Unlike most of these philosopher’s works, this book is actually readable with lots of anecdotes and color to bring all these philosophers out as people living in a time and place. I also like how the book provides historical context for what these people were grappling with at their point in history.
I also liked how the book takes all these seemingly obscure, jargon-filled concepts and turns them into root questions and conversations that we can still have today – even though times have changed (i.e., at what point are you, as an individual complicit in evil? what kind of daily habits bring joy to you and others? – that kind of thing).
What I Did Not Like
Ok, here’s the thing. Among all the schools of philosophy, existentialism is sort of like beets (yes, the vegetable). It occasionally makes a burst on the scene of pop culture…but more in a funny way (i.e., Dwight Schrute), professionals swear that it’s underrated and useful, even people who aren’t into it have heard of it…and nobody really knows what it is or how to use it. This book goes a long way towards simplifying the school, but it’s still dense, confusing, and requires a lot of context. I skipped several sections. It’s not like Stoicism or Buddhism that are great for simple, quotable, and understandable ideas. I don’t think I’d recommend the book in general, unless you find that era interesting on its own.