At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, by Sarah Bakewell, Chatto & Windus, 448 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0701186586
When Sarah Bakewell first read Sartre’s novel Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider as a teenager in the early eighties, she identified with the spirit of “freedom and meaninglessness pushed to their limits”. As a teenager in the sixties, I also identified with Roquentin, Sartre’s disaffected anti-hero, and with Camus’s alienated and estranged Meursault. In Dublin then a sense of freedom was much needed to brighten the lives of those in sullen rebellion against the strictures of Roman Catholicism. When I went to UCD in 1968 to study philosophy, the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas was still the mainstay of the department. Yet change was in the air, not least from Existentialist winds drifting in from the Continent and from paperbacks on Existentialism in the big window of Grafton Street’s Eblana bookshop. Beckett was classed as an Existentialist playwright, though he always eschewed philosophical or other labels, and Existentialist ideas were on stage in plays which were dubbed “the theatre of the absurd”. This air of change helped rouse UCD’s philosophy students to protest against the department’s lack of commitment to teaching the value of other traditions, a protest that took place within the wider protest at the time against the lack of democracy in the university.
In her very readable and entertaining book, Bakewell brings out how fashionable Existentialism was. This was not just in intellectual circles in postwar Paris: its popularity spread elsewhere and it influenced especially the free-spirited culture of the young generation in the sixties. As she writes: “Every fashionable person wanted to learn about it, every Establishment institution fretted about it, and almost every journalist seemed to be using it to make a living.” But in the more hard-edged seventies its appeal went into sharp decline. It was criticised for being self-indulgent and lacking intellectual rigour. More sober and academically based philosophies replaced it, such as structuralism and the deconstructionism associated with Jacques Derrida. Yet they too soon went out of fashion. And philosophy itself seemed to disappear from public view, acquiring a reputation for being confined largely to academic research and publishing on specialised topics and problems. But philosophers now regularly take their ideas into the marketplace with books of general interest. And Bakewell catches the atmosphere of intellectual excitement around Existentialism by writing, not an academic exposition and critique, but the story of its emergence and development through its “cast of characters”.
When her teenage enthusiasm for Existentialism led her to study philosophy at Essex University, ideas alone interested her. Over thirty years later she believes that philosophers’ ideas should be understood in the light of their characters and the events that engaged them. In support of this view she might have cited Nietzsche’s observation that every great philosophy is “a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography”. It’s an approach which provides her with rich pickings. The French contingent – Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Merleau-Ponty, Aron and others – knew each other. They were friends with shared views whose friendships in some cases broke down in disagreement over issues. And from roughly the 1930s to the seventies they were caught up in turbulent times. Major events included the rise of communism and fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and de-colonisation (especially in French Algeria), the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Their ideas about freedom also helped inspire political activism, notably in Czechoslovakia through Jan Patocka and Vaclav Havel. They also fed into the women’s liberation movement and the student protests in Paris and elsewhere, including on some US campuses.
Existentialism is difficult to sum up. There are as many versions of it as there are Existentialist philosophers, and Bakewell includes a number who gained prominence. In general, it’s a philosophy which describes the human condition as a lived relationship to ourselves, others and social and political life based on our sense of personal freedom. It places personal experience centre stage. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are regarded as early (nineteenth century) Existentialists. Both were singular, awkward figures who thought for themselves in opposition to conventional ideas and beliefs. Little understood in his lifetime, Nietzsche opened the way with his proclamation on the death of God, a dramatic overturning of the old order that took time to work its way into the culture of the twentieth century. Not all Existentialists were atheists, but most were. And it led those such as Kierkegaard, who remained a theist, to struggle radically with their faith. Kierkegaard also expressed the central thrust of Existentialism with the observation: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
Existentialism’s philosophical roots lie especially in Husserl’s Phenomenology. He called for “a return to the things themselves” which are immediately present to consciousness as it reaches towards them in a movement of intentionality. This was a turn away from centuries-long preoccupation with conceptual system-building through logical reasoning to the direct description of things as they are first and foremost in our experience. His idea was to start afresh by leaving aside, or putting in brackets, acquired knowledge and problems. It then involved assessing a thing’s various appearances or aspects to eliminate its non-essential qualities and arrive at a description of its essence. Bakewell gives the simple example of tasting coffee or wine to discover their essential flavour, but this is more like how Husserl’s method was taken up by Existentialists. It opened the way for them to set aside accepted understanding and directly describe how the world or existence appeared to them.
Bakewell attributes the catalyst for Existentialism to a meeting between Raymond Aron and his friends Sartre and de Beauvoir in a Paris bar at the end of 1932. Aron had learned about Husserl’s Phenomenology in Berlin and he told them that philosophy could now be about any aspect of life such as sex, moods, or apricot cocktails, which they happened to be drinking at the time. An excited Sartre took himself off to Berlin as soon as he could to learn more about this new philosophy, which he then developed in an Existentialist direction.
The main focus is on Sartre and de Beauvoir as the leading lights in the Existentialist café. And perhaps Sartre’s version of freedom has had most influence on the public’s perception of Existentialism. Sartre doesn’t deny the limiting influence on our freedom of biological, psychological, and social and political conditions. But consciousness itself is a rupture or break in an otherwise opaque external world. Consciousness is not any thing; it is precisely the opposite of a thing, a no-thing or nothingness. And things in the world, when stripped of their features, of their particular colours and properties, come across in one viscous or gloopy mass or Being. Consciousness then is like “a hole at the heart of Being”. At the same time, it is always projected outwards in a relation to the world, or inwards to thoughts, feelings and moods. Consciousness is always consciousness of something. As such, it is inextricably involved in the practicalities of the world, in what he called “facticity”. Despite consciousness being affected by practical limitations, he still regarded it as a radical freedom, one that is very much “for itself” in stark contrast to the world of things, which lacks all freedom and is simply “in itself”.
Also, neither the existence of the world nor ourselves have any inherent meaning apart from the cultural meanings they have acquired. And so it is up to us to give them their meaning. Sartre summed this up in the sentence: “Freedom is existence, and in its existence precedes essence.” This means there is no requirement to believe we have a preordained nature, or to follow the values and beliefs of past generations. But he also recognised that we live in the real world of needs, desires and social and cultural circumstances where experiences are given to us already freighted with meaning. Our radical openness on the world doesn’t mean we are left with having to give the world, or give particular situations, their meaning from scratch. Whether it’s a religion or philosophy or film or news report or scene in a park, we relate to it through some particular already given context of meaning. At the same time we can draw from our condition of radical freedom in how we respond.
Sartre recognised that ultimately existence could be understood as absurd. While it has no meaning in itself, we are, as it were, condemned to give it some meaning, and the meaning we give will always be arbitrary. Hence his oft-quoted: “Man is a useless passion.” Yet he didn’t view freedom as laissez-faire or devil may care. It comes heavy with the responsibility to live authentically. This involves staying true to the reality of the human condition of being born at random into a world which has no inherent meaning. It challenges us to give meaning and value to our lives, without compromising our freedom. And we are tempted to hide from the responsibility that comes with freedom by taking the easier option of propping up our existence with unjustifiable beliefs, such as that God exists, or by linking our identity to our social or work roles. But to do any of these things is to live in “bad faith”.
However, we don’t live in isolation. Our being includes “being-for-others”. And Sartre believed we should make purposeful choices bearing in mind that they will have an effect, not just on ourselves, but on humanity at large and on the kind of world we would like to bring about. For Sartre this involved writing and acting in support of left-wing causes. For a long time he was a fellow traveller of the French Communist Party, and he chose to live in accordance with a Marxist analysis that practical freedom for the masses required liberation from oppressive structures inherent in the way capitalism works. But he had difficulty reconciling existential freedom with Marxism.
Sartre also saw our experience of events as contingent, that is, as random or lacking necessity in the way they occur. Our birth to particular parents of a particular nationality and economic and social class is a chance event, and there is no inevitability about what happens to us in our lives or about what we may be able to do for ourselves. But through art we can experience some necessity. In Nausea, Roquentin hears a record of a woman (probably Sophie Tucker) singing “Some of these Days” in a café and is drawn into the groove of the song unfolding with a necessary inner connectedness. Listening to it sets aright his broken and alienated relation to the world, at least temporarily. And for Sartre and de Beauvoir this kind of necessity can come from writing in the phenomenological vein of describing directly the essential element in their experiences. Bakewell tells us that Sartre found writing to be both a means of expressing necessity and liberating. No wonder then that he and de Beauvoir led a writing life. They were continually writing, in cafés, while travelling, as well as in their apartment and often together.
In contrast to Sartre, Camus took to heart the absurdity of human existence. With memories of the First World War still raw, the nihilism of the Second World War made the absurdity of life especially evident. Not alone did the war wipe away hopes and plans, in an instant you could be dead from a bullet or bomb. And yet after the war, if you survived, you were expected to start over again. So what was the point of it all? In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus likens human existence to the condemnation Sisyphus suffers at the hands of the gods. He has to keep pushing a boulder to the top of a hill only to watch it roll down to the bottom. And though there is no sense to it, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.” After the war Camus adopted a liberal humanist philosophy, opposing suffering, including capital punishment, and the struggle for social and political change by violent means.
Compared to Paris, Existentialism was a more reclusive preoccupation in Freiburg, where Heidegger wrote. He regarded himself as a Swabian peasant, even dressing in traditional garb, which included knee breeches, and he thought and wrote in an isolated hut near the Black Forest. For all that, his philosophy had a profound effect in intellectual circles among those who could relate to it. And he didn’t make it easy. His descriptions of what it means to be in the world at the deepest level demand close attention to unfamiliar terms. His main work, Being and Time, comes across as laboured. And yet for some people his philosophy had – and still has – the force of an awakening to an experience of the very foundation of presence to the world and ourselves. He was known to be able to enthral listeners. Bakewell recounts that after his lecture on “What is Metaphysics” in 1929, one listener at least, Heinrich Wiegand Petzer, was on the verge of falling to the ground in an ecstatic faint. “The things of the world lay open and manifest in an almost aching brilliance. For a brief moment I felt I had had a glimpse into the ground and foundation of the world.”
Heidegger had this effect because he was describing nothing less than Being, or what existence itself is and what it means insofar as we can allow awareness of it imbue our lives. But at the first mention of Being difficulties begin. This is primarily because we have forgotten what Being is (Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Heraclitus, were aware of it), and there is a millennia-long history of neglect to overcome. And yet Being is all around in our everyday life. Our fundamental and prolific use of the verb “to be” refers to it, albeit incompletely. Incompletely, because Being (with a capital B) is not any one particular existing thing, nor is it the totality of everything. There is an “ontological difference” between essents, or particular beings (lower case “b”) and Being itself. Being inhabits beings without ever being reducible to them. It evades identification with any particular thing and is indefinable. It lies in the bare presence of existence itself. And we can get close to it by asking “why is there something rather than nothing?” It’s not a question we ask of physicists or cosmologists (their investigations are part of the world of things). We ask it to bring before us the presence of existence and to let ourselves be affected by it.
To recover Being we can also ponder our awareness that, uniquely among beings, our own being is in question for us as to what it means. He describes our existence using the term Dasein, which is usually translated as “being there” in the world. And we are in the world, or as Existentialists often put it, “thrown into” it, in two fundamental ways. One is where things are “ready-to-hand”. This is our instrumental relation to things, to hammers and to knives and forks and jobs and bank accounts et cetera. This is us in the world of everyday living and getting by. But breaks or lacunae can occur in this utilitarian relationship whereby we experience the world as “present-to-hand”. This is to experience in a deep way the existence of things shading into awareness of existence itself, into an awareness of Being. This might happen when we come up against the obduracy of the world and are brought to a halt, for example when the nail we are hammering bends and we remain staring at the bent nail in the wood and are drawn, dumbfounded, into a deeper and wider awareness of existence.
Heidegger’s philosophy emerged in Germany in the 1930s. And in 1933 he accepted a post of rector of Freiburg university. This required him to join the Nazi party, expel Jews from the university and speak and act in support of National Socialism, all of which he did. He also distanced himself from his former mentor, Husserl, who was a Jew. He resigned as rector in 1934, but continued to show support for Nazism. Bakewell points out that Heidegger of all people should have known about the dangers of mass movements that gain popularity, since they obscure individual freedom, the freedom which is necessary to live authentically. For he had written about the commonplace cultural world of “the they” which seduces us away from facing up to our individual responsibility. Yet she also finds there are pages in Being and Time where he “sounds most fascistic”. This is where he writes about individual life as being towards its death, and where to live authentically requires, not just living in recognition of our mortality but also giving ourselves up resolutely to the demands of our historical period. She acknowledges that this could be interpreted as opposing totalitarian rule, but she has no doubt Heidegger is lending such rule philosophical support. She also quotes from one of his students who, in retrospect, recognised in Heidegger’s lectures support for a “blood and soil” mentality.
To try to understand his links to Nazism, she draws from the views of people who knew him, including Karl Jaspers, another Existentialist philosopher, who had been a friend and was horrified by his Nazi stance. Heidegger, she concludes, seemed to lack character, in particular the traits of empathy and humanity. He did refer to his Nazi past as his “stupidity”. But she doesn’t excuse him. He never properly explained why he supported Nazism nor expressed remorse for it.
Heidegger’s philosophy has always had its admirers and followers. But philosophers from other traditions, especially logical positivism and empiricism, have found it hard to take and been dismissive. It comes down to whether we can see from our own experience what he’s trying to get at, and accord real presence to the metaphysical dimension of existence or Being which he describes. If we can, then through a parting in the web of busyness and consumerism we may feel reconnected to a primordial or inaugural openness upon the world. Bakewell tells us Heidegger’s descriptive account of our home in Being appealed to her when she read it first as a student, especially after he took what is known as his “turn” towards a more poetic, quasi-mystical connection between the individual and Being in his later writings. Drawing from Hölderlin’s “Man dwells poetically on earth”, he likened consciousness to a “clearing” in a forest and wrote about the poetic disposition as a way in which we can get a palpable sense of Being’s presence.
Rereading his works after more than thirty years she finds they exert “the same gravitational pull”. However, she also finds herself “struggling to get free” of it. And she says this is for “reasons that have nothing – and everything – to do with his Nazism”. There is no inherent connection between his philosophy and fascism. But perhaps there was for Heidegger some compatibility between his all-encompassing embrace of the Being of the world and Hitler’s National Socialism with its emphasis on the unity of the people around a belief in an Aryan master race, one that would live on into the future through polices of domination and territorial expansion. In any event, for Bakewell, “Thinking should be generous and have a good appetite.” It should not stay confined to one overriding idea. Also, she finds his philosophy has the sombre coldness of the grave. It’s not for her a habitable Existentialism. In particular, the other person is unimportant. Interpersonal relations are not central to his account of our experience of the meaning of our existence. We are on our own, or alongside others, in our relation to Being.
Emmanuel Levinas was initially drawn to Heidegger’s account of Being, but turned against it and developed his own person-centred philosophy. A Lithuanian Jew, he left Germany before the war and served in the French forces. Captured, he survived five years in a brutal German prisoner-of-war camp. In Lithuania his family was murdered by German occupying forces following a round-up of Jews. Levinas came to abhor forms of all-embracing or totalising philosophy. He also saw them as false representations of the reality of human experience. It’s not Heidegger’s impersonal Being of things which lies at the ground of our existence. Instead, it’s our face-to-face encounter with another person. As Levinas describes it in Ethics as First Philosophy, people’s ordinary facial expressions of happiness, apprehension, worry etc “cover over and protect with an immediately adopted face or countenance” an existentially naked and vulnerable person. Lying behind ordinary expressions “there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness, vulnerability itself”.
Vulnerability before the fact of mortality is our central existential condition. And when we open ourselves to this vulnerability in another’s face it gives rise to an ethical response. The other’s vulnerability, though separated from me, “summons me, calls for me, begs for me”. It is as if it “were my business”. Ethics is not then, as has previously been thought, an application of some prior knowledge about human nature to our relations with others. It is the basic inherent response to being with others in the world. And, as well as bringing out in us a caring response, this experience of the other’s face enables us to see there is no totality or stereotype which he or she can be identified with or reduced to. Instead, through this awareness of another person we open into the infinite depth and mystery of Being.
One major stereotype long baked in history was the cultural conditioning of girls and women to adopt and practise an inferior position to boys and men. Women suffered from the inequality of being expected to conform to particular, supposedly feminine, ways of life that kept them as adjuncts to men in roles as sexual objects, wives and mothers, or in the workplace in menial jobs or as assistants. Both de Beauvoir and Sartre, with whom she had a non-binding, lifelong relationship to give effect to their personal freedom, couldn’t stand contemporary French bourgeois values of social respectability and conformism, which they saw as helping to maintain inequality and injustice. In particular, bourgeois values excluded the kind of personal freedom which Existentialists were talking and writing about, the freedom to create your own meaning and value and live out your projects. And, as de Beauvoir recognised early on, this kind of freedom was not in practice open to women to anything like the extent it was open to men. One telling example Bakewell gives is that until 1965 married French women were denied the freedom to open their own bank account. For Bakewell, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (first published in French in 1949) “can be considered the single most influential work ever to come out of the Existentialist movement”. She also believes it has never got its due “as one of the great re-evaluations of modern times” comparable to Darwin’s work on the origin of human life, Freud’s on unconscious influences on our behaviour, and Marx’s on the connection between capitalism and divisions in social class and wealth.
In her introduction to The Second Sex de Beauvoir makes clear she’s writing from “from the perspective of Existentialist ethics”. This is the perspective that values personal freedom above all else, but it’s not a directionless freedom. It is a freedom of “continual reaching out towards other liberties” through “exploits or projects that serve as a mode of transcendence”. And “there is no justification for present existence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future”. Drawing from Sartre’s Existentialism, she regards people who close down their freedom, or have it kept down by others, as dwelling more in the world of the in-itself rather than being for themselves.
At the core of The Second Sex is the famous (and still controversial) statement: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She draws from descriptions of the position of girls and women throughout history and in the present to show how they have been socialised into accepting feminine roles in male-dominated cultures. She grounds her account in sources such as Lévi-Strauss’s work on anthropology and myth-making, psychology and philosophy. One influential source, which Bakewell brings out, is her reading of Hegel. He had analysed relationships in terms of a basic struggle in which two opposite states of mind, identified as master and slave, emerge and become consolidated. The slave not only yields power to the master, she comes to adopt the master’s perspective or gaze on herself. In effect, she sees herself as an other, objectified in the role the master expects her to play.
Bakewell tells us that de Beauvoir discussed her reading of Hegel’s master-slave relationship with Sartre over a number of years. Sartre adapted it for inclusion in Being and Nothingness where he describes how we find another person’s gaze on us debilitating because it seems to fix us in some identity they assume us to have, objectifying us in some way and oppressing our subjective sense of freedom. But, as Bakewell points out, “Sartre had neglected the different existential conditions of men and women.” For de Beauvoir it is very clear that from ancient times to the present women have been the victims of men in the master-slave struggle in all sorts of ways. It denies them their subjective sense of freedom, and she saw the liberation of women as the overriding existential challenge.
Bakewell regards Merleau-Ponty as “the most revolutionary” of Existentialists. It’s a big claim, and a case can certainly be made for it once Nietzsche is left out of the reckoning. Alone of the Existentialists she gives him a (short) chapter on his own. But perhaps she needed to give more details about his ideas and their influence to substantiate her claim for his revolutionary status. She makes clear he wasn’t revolutionary because of his political or social beliefs. He was a member of the French Communist Party for some years after the war, but rejected communism when news of Stalin’s gulags, purges and show-trials reached the West. His break with communism led him to fall out with Sartre. They were co-editors of the journal Les Temps modernes at the time, and Sartre continued to support the Soviet Union for longer and expressed his views in the journal. Nor was Merleau-Ponty a social outsider. Unaffected by existential angst, he was at home in conventional French society as a devoted family man who enjoyed socialising. A dapper dresser and skilful dancer, he was regarded as likeable by people who knew him. His work was also highly regarded in his lifetime and he was head of philosophy in the Collège de France when he died aged fifty-three.
His ideas were revolutionary because he brought the existential importance of the body centre-stage in philosophy. In his main work, Phenomenology of Perception, he described the primacy of our bodies and sense perception in giving us access to the world. We are embodied subjectivities first and foremost. He also described our personal freedom, not as radical, but as inherent in and limited by the situations we have to deal with. Our freedom is closely entwined with meanings that have already have been formed while still having scope to change them. He was a friend of de Beauvoir’s since their student days, and Bakewell tells us that de Beauvoir found him annoying because he was able to see different sides to an issue and didn’t hold strong convictions. She refers favourably a few times to his Existentialism in The Second Sex, and arguably it’s his account of the pivotal role of the body and of situated and limited freedom which describe the kind of closely woven existential conditions conducive to patriarchy emerging and taking hold as a cultural phenomenon. At the same time, his Existentialism also shows that there’s nothing preordained about social constructs, such as patriarchy. A phenomenological account of the essence of the patriarchal relationship would reveal the unequal levels of freedom and power between men and women.
Before Merleau-Ponty, philosophers had tended to regard the mind and body as different entities. This presented them with the problem of how they are related to enable us to acquire knowledge, with some emphasising the influence of mind or intellect and others the senses. But for Merleau-Ponty, before anything else, we are immersed in the thick of the world, a perceiving and perceptible body moving among numerous others and among a limitless spread of objects. And all are together as if formed from the same perceptual fabric, with our consciousness like a small “fold” bent back over the fabric and through which the fabric has become conscious of itself. But in exploring the fabric we don’t have a detached view of what we see. Our sense organs and body’s movements engage with, and are simultaneously engaged by, the things in perception. It’s a two-way process in which we can’t discern the contribution made to the meaning that comes from it by either our body subjectivity or by the world.
Within this close engagement our freedom operates through situations which inhere in it with their particulars. These particulars are, as it were, the material or fuel on which our freedom runs: “Far from it being the case that my freedom is always unattended, it is never without an accomplice, and its power of tearing itself away finds its fulcrum in my universal commitment to the world.” Our freedom operates through situations where it is both impacted upon by an already constituted world while at the same time we are capable of responding to it in ways that go beyond how it is given. “The world is already constituted, but also never completely constituted; in the first case we are acted upon, in the second we are open to an infinite number of possibilities.”
In his final book, The Visible and the Invisible, which was unfinished before he died, Merleau-Ponty wrote about the significance of our perceiving and perceptible bodies in relation to the domain of Being or the world in general. He also developed his account of the criss-cross relation between bodies and perceptible things, describing it as a “chiasm”, a sort of tangle of interconnections. And it’s such an intricate interlinking that, in a nod towards evolution, he writes “my body does not perceive, but it is as if it were built around the perception that dawns through it”. He also uses the term “flesh” for perceptibility itself, and he sees it as designating a new element of reality previously unrecognised in philosophy, one that’s neither mind nor matter but seems to have a life of its own through us, catching us up in itself while also radiating way beyond us. There is an inexhaustible density and depth to Being or existence itself in the way perceptibility extends among things which lie one behind the other into the horizon and beyond. And in moving through it we carry within ourselves a movement of transcendence. A sense of transcendence is immanent in us rather than coming from some other-worldly source.
Another feature of his Existentialism is his emphasis on the gap between our pre-reflective lived experience of the world, our “mute life”, and our reflection on it in philosophy. Once philosophers start to reflect they cause a “cleavage” to open up between their thought, which is “the aerial view”, and the mute pre-reflective lived experience of the world. And they have, as it were, “to step back only in order to see the world and Being, or simply put them between quotation marks as one does with the remarks of another”. But we don’t have the level of oversight needed to do this completely accurately because we are caught up in what we are trying to describe. We are not just in the world; we are of it. Our sense organs have emerged from the world and are lined with it. This limits us to a partial view of the whole which extends beyond our account of it. He does believe that “acts of ideation” signify and disclose the “brute being” of the pre-reflective world by lifting it into reflective descriptions. But they are only an “approximation of the total situation, which involves beyond what we say, the mute experience from which we draw what we say”. Also, the descriptive accounts become automatically detached or hived off from the lived reality. So, no matter how convincing they may be, a “divergence” will always reappear requiring the philosopher to try to describe again his sense of the lived experience.
This would seem to make philosophy an endless task. But for Bakewell the idea that we are always led back from knowledge to ignorance and further questioning is what makes it attractive and worth doing.
Despite the decline of interest in Existentialism, the work of some of its philosophers continues to have influence in other areas. The Second Sex remains a seminal work in gender studies. Heidegger’s essay “The Question Concerning Technology” has influenced ecology studies. Also his essay “On the Origin of a Work of Art” has influenced artists as well art criticism. Merleau-Ponty’s work on body subjectivity has influenced cognitive psychology. And his essay on painting, “The Eye and the Mind”, in which he draws from Cézanne’s work especially, has influenced aesthetics with his description of our visualisation of the world out of an amorphous depth and density in perception. His later ideas too have influenced studies in Buddhist philosophy.
In his work Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre made the connection between seeking to relieve ourselves of the burden of our freedom through adopting some false understanding as if it were true and the tendency to make other people scapegoats for our denial of our freedom by regarding them as a threat. This analysis is still relevant today, especially in the context of opposition in Europe to giving refuge to migrant people who are seeking protection from war. In his 1941 book Fear of Freedom, Existentialist psychologist Eric Fromm wrote about the rise in support for fascism in terms of people’s desire to surrender the burden of their human freedom for the security of fixed ideas and strong leadership. Also, the Existentialist ethic, which locates personal freedom at the heart of the human condition, is one of a number of philosophical sources which can be called upon to justify the struggles against exploitation and oppression.
Aside from their influences in other fields, what prospect is there now for a revival of popular interest in Existentialist ideas themselves? A whiff of nostalgia pervades The Existentialist Café, but Bakewell also breathes life into Existentialist ideas, which augurs well. Also, she sees that people now are concerned about the erosion of their sense of personal freedom by sources beyond their control. She mentions technological surveillance of our private lives through our internet use, and findings in neuroscience that tell us our supposed choices are largely stimuli responses pre-programmed from evolution into our brain circuits. She might also have mentioned the threat to civil liberties from religious fundamentalism and the growth in support for ultra-right parties. She also finds that people are still interested in wanting to live a deeply meaningful life. (The turn to mindfulness would be an example.) At the same time it’s hard to foresee a revival of popular interest in Existentialist ideas and themes. Not only is it hard to discover what might be our authentic self in a much more complicated and intrusive world than the Existentialists faced, the very idea that there can be an authentic self is questioned.
Yet Existentialism lives on in a certain kind of literature. From its phenomenological roots Existentialism aims to bring us close to our lived life, without first coating it in some overall preconceived attitude or belief. This enabled Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir and others to see that Existentialism could be written in novels, stories and plays. Phenomenology’s descriptive method enabled them to see that philosophical literature didn’t have to be filled with philosophical discussion or be illustrative of big ideas. Instead, it could include Existentialist descriptions of moods such as anxiety, intimacy, jealousy and boredom and the small details of our lives in prose that evokes their closely-felt lived reality. Today Karl Ove Knausgaard’s seemingly inexhaustible novelised memoir, My Struggle, is the heir to this tradition, with its detailed precise descriptions which include the everyday minutiae of his life, such as making and drinking a cup of tea and wheeling a baby in a buggy down a street. In the recognition and assertion of the value of such mundane realities Existentialist awareness continues to be written about, whether it’s called Existentialism or not.
But for their full existential effect mundane realities would seem to need a boost of re-enchantment from what Bakewell calls life’s “imponderable bloom”, a phrase she borrows from EM Forster. And Existentialism, perhaps of all philosophies, draws our attention to an experience of this bloom. To finish, she cites examples of it from de Beauvoir’s memoirs, such as watching a red sun rise over a desert. Merleau-Ponty recognised it especially as coming from a phenomenological return to the things themselves, a return which give us “not an answer but a confirmation of our astonishment”.
Manus Charleton has been published in the recent Irish Pages Seamus Heaney Memorial Issues, and in the autumn 2016 issue of Studies. The second edition of his textbook Ethics for Social Care in Ireland: Philosophy & Practice was published by Gill & Macmillan in 2014.