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At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails


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I have no idea why Sarah Bakewell chose such a ridiculously long title but there it is. This is actually a history of Existentialism.

This book is clear (and concise!) and very well written, split into chapters that tell of the development of Existentialism from it's beginnings and that which influenced it to the present day. Including those who influenced and helped to develop it. In so doing the book does provide an explanation of what Existentialism is which is easy to understand.

Along the way the author takes into account the first World War and the second World War and what both of those meant to the intellectuals and philosphers who practiced Existentialism. It's also very clear all throughout the text that the author is passionate about her subject.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is filled with facts but not dry and boring and it very much describes Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as people as well as philosophers and intellectuals and how they both were at the beating heart of this fascinating philosophy. It also describes how they both made a living.

I recommend this book, long title 'n all

Edited by lunababymoonchild
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  • 1 month later...

I've been wanting to read this since I read your excellent review, Luna, and yesterday it finally arrived at my library. I'm only 60 pgs in but I have to agree with you that it is very well written, pacy, fascinating and not at all dry. And I really appreciate Bakewells passion and enthusiasm. The ideas themselves, well, that's a mixed bag for me. But I am really enjoying the book itself!

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I've been wanting to read this since I read your excellent review, Luna, and yesterday it finally arrived at my library. I'm only 60 pgs in but I have to agree with you that it is very well written, pacy, fascinating and not at all dry. And I really appreciate Bakewells passion and enthusiasm. The ideas themselves, well, that's a mixed bag for me. But I am really enjoying the book itself!

Oh good
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  • 2 weeks later...

Excellent book! The research is painstaking, the ideas lucidly expressed, and the people are very much living beings. In fact the evidence of the living of their philosophy, whichever version they ascribed to at the time, was possibly the most intriguing aspect of this book for me. And I found it particularly fascinating the way these thought systems mutated. Really wish I had taken notes or posted here as I went along. There is so much of interest in this book. I am not an existentialist by any means, but there were a lot of ideas which resonated with me. And a lot of ideas which felt like they came right up to the edge of something earthshaking, but flinched at the precipice. I have a hard time picturing any thinking person who would not be stimulated by this book. There is not a dry or stuffy page in the whole book. But, philosophy aside, there are dozens of wonderful little biographical sketches covering the major and many of the minor players in the existential, and phenomenology, movements. This felt like a very personal book, a highly appropriate approach to a thought system which celebrates the individual perception over all others.

My only criticism would be that Sartre gets too much ink. At times it felt more like his biography than a work on all the existentialists. But only at times, and it merely knocks this book from 5 to 4.5 stars.

Edited by Dan
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I also think it is an interesting commentary on the nature of fame, society, and human perception that the three most reasonable people discussed in this book, Merleau-Ponty, Camus and Husserl, don't seem to merit the discussion, nor did they garner the popularity, of the three most unreasonable people portrayed, Heidegger, Beauvoir and Sartre. Conflict and controversy sells!

Edited by Dan
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I need to modify my comment about Simone de Beauvoir. While she was certainly radical and uncompromising, she wasn't actually unreasonable. And my admiration for her remains intact, unlike the revulsion I now feel for Heidegger. As for Sartre, well, he was a very complex person, about whom I had lightly held mixed feelings before, and deeply divided mixed feelings now.

Edited by Dan
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And I should comment on a common fallacy Sarah Bakewells exhibited in the closing chapter. She said, if I remember correctly, that people who don't think their will is free make less humane choices. But the thing is, if their will is not free then they didn't make those choices anyway. And if they do have a choice, then that is probably governed by the same thought system which led them to believe they had no ability to make a choice. In other words, in these studies, the deck is rigged against the likelihood that they will make positive and humane choices. If we THINK our options are severely limited we will probably choose self interest. If our options ARE severely limited we will probably choose self interest.

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I promise this is the last thing I'll say about this book, at least until someone else posts on it One of the thoughts I kept having as I read about all the permutations and complexities of existentialism and phenomenology was that these folks apparently never felt a need to apply Ockham's Razor to trim the fat and fancy from their ideas.

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I promise this is the last thing I'll say about this book, at least until someone else posts on it One of the thoughts I kept having as I read about all the permutations and complexities of existentialism and phenomenology was that these folks apparently never felt a need to apply Ockham's Razor to trim the fat and fancy from their ideas.

I think that you should keep posting as your thoughts occur
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