At the Existentialist Cafe

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bakewell_attheexistentialistcafe_final“At the Existentialist Cafe” by Sarah Bakewell is a wonderful biography-focused book about existentialism. “Ideas are interesting,” Bakewell writes, “but people are vastly more so.” She presents an entertaining cast of characters such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Levinas, Jaspers and many more. Bakewell follows the development of existentialist philosophy starting with it’s birth during an inspirational meeting in the early 1930s, during which Aron introduced Sartre and de Beauvoir to phenomenology. By 1945, their “existence precedes essence” philosophy highlighting human independence and freedom was amazingly appealing to a war-torn world in which economic and social structures, political institutions, physical infrastructure and assumptions of human morality lay in shambles. The Holocaust and Hiroshima revealed what humans could do to one another and destroyed assumptions of the existence of a fixed human nature. Existentialism took human capability for self-destruction as a given and stressed the need to take responsibility and accept free will. “There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation;” Sartre articulated, “he must constantly invent his own path. But to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.” It’s oddly a timely and pertinent book as I’m sure I’m not the only reader to imagine a neo-existentialist movement is right around the corner.

Nicole Charbonnet

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