At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell Review

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In the past year or so, I’ve really began looking into philosophical texts whenever it struck my fancy to do so, and one of those times led me to reading Albert Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus”. I’ve also read his “The Human Crisis”, and it led me to wanting to read more on existentialism. Thus, when I heard about this book: “At the Existentialist Café” by Sarah Bakewell, I knew I had to read it eventually, and so I did!

This book is great for those seeking to learn more about the existentialist philosophers’ personal lives and how their lives have helped to shape their philosophies throughout their lifetime. The book’s readability is fair and a decent intro to those looking into diving into existentialism. It also introduced me to the broader topic of phenomenology. However, as Bakewell tries to explain phenomenology and existentialism through her texts, there doesn’t seem to be an exact definition, which is fair enough as the philosophy itself comprises of different philosophers who had different ideas on what that particular philosophy is.

Learning about the personal lives of the phenomenologist and existentialist philosophers and the way their philosophy influenced their personal lives was fascinating. Reading about Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship and how philosophy influenced their decisions and thoughts was unnerving at times, but freeing at others. I don’t think I could ever personally choose to live the way they do, but I can certainly respect them for living that way especially with their emphasis on freedom and voluntary choice.

Sartre and Beauvoir lived under German-occupied France and knows what it’s like to live under the oppression by a foreign nation, and it hardened and changed them. World War II changed the way people viewed the world as millions of lives were lost. Sartre and Beauvoir developed tougher stances on human life while others like Albert Camus refused to even tolerate capital punishment even for convicted murderers.

One of the things that stood out to me was when Baker brought up the gloomy stereotype that Americans have of existentialism and contrasted it with Europe’s idea of it being exciting and sexy. As an American, I, too, had the preconceived notion of the gloomy stereotype but as I read on, it was interesting to see a different side to existentialism that I didn’t know existed.

Thanks to Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, I hope to read more on existentialism as Bakewell did an excellent job in getting me interested in the topic enough that I’m willing and wanting to search out the primary material. It’s also great that there’s a person list in the back that gives a little description of the people that were introduced in the text. I highlighted a lot while reading this book, but it was still advance enough that I felt that a lot of the material still flew over my head overall especially if I didn’t do something, so notetaking is often a must while reading texts such as these. I also discussed various quotations in the book with my partner, which helped to get the ideas down as I explained to him my understanding of the texts I read. In a way, I feel I have a close relationship with my partner as Simone de Beauvoir had with Jean-Paul Sartre where they helped each other grow. Although I like my Heideggerian wants of philosophizing on my own in isolation, I feel that I truly learn more and grow as a person when I’m able to discuss such deep personal values with my partner as freely and joyfully as Beauvoir and Sartre did with one another.

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