Lives of the Philosophers

Here is an article written by Amanda Vaill for The American Scholar in which she focuses on the postwar thinkers who stripped the world of preconceptions To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

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“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a troubled dropout struggling with questions of responsibility, to his best friend. Even by the Elizabethan era, it seems, a discipline that had begun in classical times as a practical method for discerning how best to live life had devolved into something increasingly hermetic. Wind the clock forward, to the late 19th century, and philosophy had become an exclusively academic profession, focused on seemingly arcane questions of aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics.

The 20th century, improbably, changed all that. The Great War, the sweeping away of imperial dynasties, waves of technological revolutions, a worldwide economic collapse, the rise of global totalitarianism, World War II, the atom bomb, the Cold War—all these events destroyed cultural certainties and introduced bewilderment and anxiety. And it was philosophy—as a means of understanding who we are, why the world is as it is, what we ought to do—that came to the rescue.

Or at least that’s the message of At the Existentialist Café the sprightly, elegant, occasionally unsatisfying new book by Sarah Bakewell, author of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an AnswerIt was the existentialists, among them Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and their cousins and precursors the phenomenologists, led by the seminal Czech thinker Edmund Husserl, who abandoned preconceptions to look at things—all things—exactly as they are. In doing so, they showed us that although “there is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation,” as Sartre would put it, this absence of models frees us to invent ourselves, and our world, every day. Such thinking transformed the post–World War II era, says Bakewell, opening dialogue about race, gender, and exploitation; and although “the story of existentialism is [that] … of a whole European century,” it’s also the story of the individuals who “inhabited their historical and personal world, as they inhabited their ideas.”

Taking her cue from Iris Murdoch, the philosopher-novelist who wrote the first book-length study of Sartre, Bakewell announces in her first chapter that she wants to tell this story by combining philosophical exegesis and biography: to “look in through the windows of a philosophy”—existentialism and phenomenology—“and see how people occupy it.” She begins her tale promisingly, with three philosophers walking into a bar on the rue du Montparnasse in Paris: the elegant, well-born Beauvoir; “her boyfriend, Jean-Paul Sartre, a round-shouldered twenty-seven-year-old with downturned grouper lips, a dented complexion, prominent ears, and eyes that pointed in different directions”; and “Sartre’s debonair old school friend Raymond Aron.” (Bakewell has a gift for vivid thumbnail sketches.) Aron describes to the others a new way of thinking, fashionable in Berlin, called phenomenology. “If you are a phenomenologist,” he says, “you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it.”

And Sartre—and Bakewell—are off and running to Germany, where after a lightning flashback to discuss proto-existentialists Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the author introduces us to Husserl, his student and surrogate son Martin Heidegger (“shy, tiny, black-eyed, with a pinched little mouth … [and] a mysterious power over others”), Heidegger’s student and sometime lover Hannah Arendt, his rival Ernst Cassirer, and his friend Karl Jaspers. Then it’s back to France, to focus on Sartre and Beauvoir, their charming and urbane comrade Maurice Merleau-Ponty, their protégé and frenemy Albert Camus, and a host of others, from the jazz existentialist Boris Vian to the American novelist (and one-time candidate for mayor of New York on an “existentialist” ticket) Norman Mailer—all of whom are limned in a series of deft portraits and sparkling anecdotes enlivened by apposite illustrations studded through the text.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Amanda Vaill is the author, most recently, of  Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War. She is working on a biography of sisters Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Angelica Schuyler Church.

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails With Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others was published by Other Press,

The American Scholar is the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932. In recent years the magazine has won five National Magazine Awards, the industry’s highest honor, and been nominated for awards sixteen times. Many of its essays and articles have been selected for the yearly Best American anthologies.

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