At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

Sarah Bakewell

Book cover

Although I really enjoyed Bakewell’s earlier book on Montaigne, and I had some interest in learning about some of the existentialist philosophers, this book ended up falling flat for me. I think there are a few reasons for that. Mainly, the book spreads itself too thin by trying to cover all of these characters. Just look at the subtitle: seven people are named, plus a generic “and others”! A couple of months after reading the book, I literally don’t remember a single thing about Karl Jaspers, even though he is named in the subtitle. My feeling is that the book would have been stronger if it had focused only on one or two of these characters, with the others in a supporting role instead of getting their own chapters. Sartre and Beauvoir are the obvious choices, but maybe Bakewell thought that was overdone. I think I can see why Bakewell wanted to include the full cast–the social aspects seem to have been an important part of the movement–but it just didn’t work for me as a self-contained book.

I guess my other complaint is that I didn’t come away from the book with a very strong understanding of existentialist philosophy, or of phenomenology, its precursor. This is probably a joint fault of the philosophy itself, Bakewell’s exposition, and my own understanding. I didn’t feel like I could understand it either as a coherent approach to describing the world (or some component of it), or as a practical outlook on how to live our lives–these to me being the two main categories of useful philosophy. I felt like I came away with a couple of core ideas that I can see as valuable, but no more than that. The first, from phenomenology, is the idea that individual lived experiences are or should be the fundamental unit of analysis, as contrasted to some abstracted universal experience or principles. I can see this as a significant departure from much of earlier philosophy (Montaigne being an obvious exception), and contributing to movements like feminism (directly via Beauvoir) and race studies (via e.g. Richard Wright, who is mentioned a few times in the book). But it seems to me more interesting to study those offspring than the original idea itself. The second, from existentialism, is the idea that we are necessarily and continuously burdened with choosing “for ourselves,” and that any attempt to act or believe otherwise is an instance of “bad faith” (for example, believing that we must be guided by the dictates of a religion or other tradition, without recognizing that we are freely choosing to believe that this tradition is worthy of following). This idea seems to be a strong influence on some books I have really liked, such as Erich Fromm’s “Escape From Freedom” and Victor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”. It also feels to me like a valuable idea to reflect on regularly in the context of one’s own life, when so much is determined (or appears to be so!) by routine, tradition, etc. However, the idea itself also seems to undercut any potential project of developing a further philosophy!

Now that I wrote those things out, they do seem more substantive that I started out thinking. Perhaps existentialism is an odd type of philosophy in that its ideas often seem better expounded through literary writing than analytical writing. (One could argue that it’s not appropriate to call it a philosophy for that reason; I’m not sure if I agree.) But anyway, my main problem with this book itself still stands, and mainly, it made me want to go back and read Montaigne again!

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars