By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Sarah Bakewell
Narrated by: Antonia Beamish
Philosophy is dead. In “At the Existentialist Café” Sarah Bakewell expertly writes about the history of phenomenological and existentialist philosophy. She writes about the lives of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, and other 19th and 20th century philosophers.
Husserl’s life begins Bakewell’s story in the 19th century. It is Husserl who focuses on the study of consciousness in human beings. To Husserl the nature of objects is determined by the experience of things in human consciousness. Husserl extends Rene Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” to “I think; therefore, it is.”
Through a succession of followers, Husserl’s concept of reality evolves. Consciousness evolves to reveal truth in some ways and despicable lies in others. Ms. de Beauvoir reveals truths about being a woman in the world while Heidegger condones, if not endorses, Nazi atrocity. Albert Camus recognizes the meaninglessness and indifference of the universe while Jean-Paul Sartre believes in an evolution of human nature that makes communism inevitable.
To a non-philosopher, Bakewell’s book holds one’s attention because of the details revealed about philosopher’s lives during and after WWII. Edmund Husserl presumes Heidegger will become his disciple but finds that the rise of Hitler means one thing to Heidegger and another to Husserl. Hitler’s rise existentially threatens the phenomenological beliefs of Husserl and the life of his Jewish wife. Heidegger chooses to become Rektor of the University of Freiburg and joins the Nazi Party in 1933. With little help from his “friend” Heidegger, Husserl accepts a sinecure to Prague in 1934 and dies in 1938.
Simone de Beauvoir, a beautiful woman, becomes a lifelong companion of an unattractive philosopher named Jean-Paul Sartre. Their conjugal relationship eventually dissolves but a deeply held friendship and correspondence lasts for the remainder of their lives. Both fervently believe in the inevitability of communism until near the end of their lives. Though early friends of Camus, they depart from friendship as Camus declines to believe in communist collectivism.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, like Camus in the beginning, becomes close friends with Sartre and de Beauvoir but their friendship cools as Ponty gravitates toward belief in art while denigrating belief in science. Ponty views science as an attempt to explain things objectively when all who practice science think subjectively. To Ponty, science is, at best, an abstraction.
There is enough information about philosophy and the lives of these philosophers to make a listener question philosophy’s value. Philosophy, like Nietzsche’s God, seems dead. This is not Bakewell’s conclusion but “At the Existentialist Café” suggests philosophers are as capable of predicting life’s meaning as political pundits and stockbrokers are at predicting elections and stock values. The truth of life’s meaning appears to be more a matter of luck than philosophical insight. Never-the-less, “At the Existentialist Café” is a highly interesting history of some very influential philosophers.