Sarah Bakewell's delightful At the Existentialist Cafe - Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails will make you fall in love with philosophy again. She manages to (re)connect ideas and philosophical texts to living, breathing human beings - beings replete with foibles but also amazing courage. She reminds us that these ideas came into the world at a specific place and time; French existentialist philosophy could only have been invented during the German occupation of Paris where every action (or inaction) was fraught with meaning. At the center of At the Existentialist Cafe is the unique but incredibly fruitful relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Bakewell read Sartre's novel Nausea as a teenager and this sparked her lifelong interest in philosophy. Sartre, the perennial enfant terrible of postwar French letters dominated continental European thought for two generations. But, surprisingly, Bakewell singles out de Beauvoir's Le deuxième sexe - instead of Sartre's L'Être et le Néant (1943) - as THE most important work of Existentialism. I haven't looked into The Second Sex since college, but will now have to reread it through a new lens.
While Sartre and de Beauvoir play the leading roles in At the Existentialist Cafe, always in the background is Martin Heidegger. The postwar Existentialist phenomenon would never have existed without Heidegger - at least not in the way we know it. Heidegger provides the bookends to the story - he provided a framework for all the Existentialists and his influence as a philosopher (if not as cultural icon) far surpassed that of Sartre. But Heidegger as well would never have written his masterpiece Sein und Zeit without the encouragement and influence of his great mentor and academic benefactor Edmund Husserl. And it is to Sarah Bakewell's credit that she emphasizes Husserl's vital importance for 20th century western philosophy. It was Husserl and Phenomenology that drew Sartre to Berlin in 1933. It was Husserl who secured faculty appointments for Heidegger - first in Marburg and later in Freiburg. While Bakewell writes beautifully about Sartre's and Heidegger's philosophy, she struggles a bit with Husserl. Husserl was concerned with the structure of various types of experience ranging from perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and volition to bodily awareness, embodied action, and social activity, including linguistic activity. The structure of these forms of experience typically involves what Husserl called “intentionality”, that is, the directedness of experience toward things in the world, the property of consciousness that it is a consciousness of or about something. Heidegger took "intentionality" and transformed this into a consecration of Being - "Da-Sein" - which at some point devolved in Heidegger's mind into an apotheosis of the German Volk. Bakewell writes about Heidegger's deplorable treatment of his great mentor Husserl -a Jew - after 1933. And not just of Husserl - his behavior towards Karl Jaspers (who had a Jewish wife) and Ernst Cassirer was equally appalling. We now know - after the release of Heidegger's Schwarze Hefte in 2014 - that Heidegger's anti-Semitism was not just an interlude during the Nazi epoch - but a constant throughout his career as a philosopher. Husserl was appalled by the dark turn Heidegger had taken with his philosophy and with his actions in supporting the Nazis. To some degree he felt responsible for having created a monster:
"He (Husserl) now feared the worst about Heidegger: he was no longer a protégé but a monstrous progeny. Shortly afterwards, he wrote to a colleague that he felt the need to reject Heidegger's work completely. In another letter looking back eighteen months later, he wrote of this moment: "I arrived at the distressing conclusion that philosophically I have nothing to do with Heideggerian profundity." Heidegger's philosophy, Husserl decided, was of the kind that must be fought against at all costs. It was the sort of philosophy that he felt obliged to try and stamp ou, and 'render impossible forever.'
Bakewell then describes the harrowing rescue of Husserl's Nachlass from Allied bombs and/or a Nazi bonfire by a fearless Franciscan monk Herman Van Breda. The thousands of pages of Husserl's late work have yet to be fully evaluated. Maybe some day his greatness will shine brighter than that of his star pupil?
Bakewell anticipates some kind of an Existentialist revival, now that structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstuctionism, post-modernism etc. - all derivatives of Existentialism - seem to have run their course. It seems unlikely though that the days when people would sit in cafe for hours nursing apricot cocktails and arguing over ideas as if they were of life and death consequence will ever return. Would that it were so.