Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

What does it mean to live an authentic, fully human life? What distinguishes us from other animals? Are we truly set apart in some way?  How should we think of ourselves? What are we? What should we do?

If these questions have ever concerned you then you could do no worse than read Sarah Bakewell’s fascinating book, At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, in which she takes us on a wonderful journey through the lives, loves, and sometimes tortured existence of the existentialists, who not only struggled to answer these questions and find the meaning of life, but also had to contend with the political chaos that Europe was in during the 20th century.

Bakewell, S. (2016). At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. Chatto & Windus.

In this book, we are introduced to many philosophers (not all of them existentialists), but when I go back through the notes  I made to accompany my reading, I see that Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger and Albert Camus are the ones that stood out for me.

Last year I read Sartre’s philosophical novel ‘Nausea’ for the first time and it really would have helped to have read Sarah Bakewell’s book first. Bakewell describes Sartre as an ugly, loud-mouthed uncompromising extremist who despite this was a magnet for women, not least Simone de Beauvoir, with whom he had an ‘open’ relationship for more than 50 years. For Sartre, the big question was ‘What does it mean to be free?’ Seeking the answer to this question was his life’s work and indeed his life as he attempted to live by the philosophy he espoused (in Iris Murdoch’s terms he inhabited his philosophy). For him denying this freedom was to act in ‘bad faith’, although by this he did not equate freedom with ‘anything goes’, rather that ‘only with context, meaning, facticity, situation and a general direction in our lives can we be free’.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Source of image: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/did-sartre-and-de-beauvoir-groom-high-school-girls/

Bakewell describes Simone de Beauvoir as the most transformative existentialist. de Beauvoir dedicated her work to applied existentialism; she was interested in the power lines of desire, observation, jealousy and control that connect people, and how constraints and freedom work together, particularly in relation to the oppression of women. She investigated the female experience and wrote of the alienation of women, who see themselves as ‘other’, living most of their lives in ‘bad faith’. Bakewell points out that the problem of how to be a woman is an existentialist problem par excellence; we are profoundly gendered beings. She writes of de Beauvoir’s book ‘The Second Sex’ as the single most influential work ever to come out of the existential movement.

Sartre and de Beauvoir’s work was influenced by many others, including Heidegger, Camus and Merleau-Ponty, with whom they had love/hate relationships. All these philosophers followed each other’s work and seemed to openly insult each other on a regular basis. Had Twitter existed in their time, they would have had a field day, although I think Heidegger would have hated Twitter. Heidegger thought that saying the first un-thought out thing that came to mind, which is called ‘discussion’ today, was empty ‘chit-chat’ and chided his students saying ‘We do not Heideggerize here! Let’s move on to the matter in hand.’ Hannah Arendt, who was one of his students and for a time his lover, claimed that what she learned from Heidegger was how to think.

Source of image: http://www.phillwebb.net/history/Twentieth/Continental/Phenomenology/Heidegger/Heidegger.htm

Heidegger’s life-long concern was the beautiful, intense, terrifying mystery of human existence, the reason things exist and ‘Being’ (das Sein); what does it mean to ‘be’, what does it mean to live an authentic life? For Heidegger living an authentic life is being fully aware that our life is surrounded by death. Heidegger wanted us to avoid wasting time on the endless superficial ‘chatter’ of everyday life, which robs us of the freedom to think for ourselves. He wanted us to resist falling under its sway and become answerable to the call of our own voice, our authentic self. He calls on us to wake up and be ourselves and recognise that we are surrounded by nothingness (death), and that human existence is temporary and has an inbuilt expiry date. Heidegger recognised that we are not hovering above the world, we are in it, and everything is connected. Bakewell writes (p.148) that Heidegger thought that we are ‘not made of spiritual nothingness; we are part of Being, but we also bring something unique with us.’

Despite Bakewell’s wonderfully easy narrative style, Heidegger’s ideas are difficult to grasp and require ‘letting-go’ of one’s own usual critical ways of thinking. He comes across as a complex, solitary, unpopular figure, despite the widely recognised importance of his legacy, particularly because he never did apologize for his temporary support of the Nazi party.

Camus and Merleau-Ponty, were also key characters during this time. Both ultimately fell-out with Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Albert Camus

Source of image: http://www.port-magazine.com/literature/remembering-albert-camus/

The question Camus tried to answer was ‘If life is revealed to be as futile as the labour of Sisyphus, how should we respond?’ In other words, Is life worth living? Most of the time we don’t stop to think about this, but occasionally a dramatic turn of events forces us to ask why exactly do we go on living. For Camus there is no ultimate meaning to what we do. For him life is absurd. Sartre and de Beauvoir could not agree with this, even though Camus pointed out that if life is absurd, then we are impelled to live life more intensely.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Source of image: https://grupoautentica.com.br/autentica/autor/maurice-merleau-ponty/1396

Of all the philosophers Sarah Bakewell discusses, Merleau-Ponty comes out as the ‘good guy’. She dedicates a whole chapter to him, bearing the title ‘The Dancing Philosopher’, because he was the only one of the group of existentialists, who, in their regular visits to cafes and night clubs, would ask a girl to dance and take to the floor. (Bakewell’s chapters all bear wonderful titles). Merleau-Ponty was not an existentialist, but a phenomenologist (Camus was neither). Bakewell describes Merleau-Ponty as the most revolutionary thinker of them all and his book The Phenomenology of Perception’ as a masterwork. Merleau-Ponty was not interested in anguish and authenticity, but in the mystery of existence and how experience comes through perception (all the senses working together holistically) in an embodied way. His focus was  embodied cognition, studying consciousness as a holistic social and sensory phenomenon, rather than a sequence of abstract processes. He reminded us of the central position that the body, perception, childhood and sociality occupy in real life. Bakewell tells us that a phenomenologist must put into words what is ordinarily not put into words, what is ordinarily considered inexpressible and how experience comes to us as a whole rather than separate parts. She took this quote below from The Phenomenology of Perception to sum up Merleau Ponty’s vision of human life.

“I am a psychological and historical structure. Along with existence, I received a way of existing, or a style. All of my actions and thoughts are related to this structure, and even a philosopher’s thought is merely a way of making explicit his hold upon the world, which is all he is. And Yet, I am free, not in spite of or beneath these motivations, but rather by their means. For that meaningful life, that particular signification of nature and history that I am, does not restrict my access to the world; it is rather my means of communication with it.”

Bakewell’s book is a delight to read. She brings these philosophers, and many more, to life, sharing her knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses. She clearly shows us how they interacted with each other and how they influenced each other. She also discusses them in the context of their time, describing a war torn Europe, which influenced each of them differently and determined who they would meet, when and where, and how they would communicate, both during and after the war.

In chapter 3 (p.32) Bakewell writes:

“The existentialists lived in times of extreme ideology and extreme suffering, and they became engaged with events in the world whether they wanted to or not – and usually they did. The story of existentialism is therefore a political and a historical one: to some extent, it is the story of a whole European century.”

In her final chapter (p.245) Bakewell urges us to reread the existentialists and writes:

‘They remind us that human existence is difficult and that people often behave appallingly, yet they also show how great our possibilities are.’

8 thoughts on “Human Existence is Difficult. Existentialism and Phenomenology.

  1. the-wolfe-review May 14, 2018 / 7:02 pm

    I read this book a couple of months ago, it really is fantastic. You’ve really done it justice here!

  2. jennymackness May 14, 2018 / 8:34 pm

    Thank you. It wasn’t hard to read or write about, because it was so entertaining and yet Sarah Bakewell was still able to engage with the existentialists’ profound ideas. As you say – a great book!

  3. SheriO May 15, 2018 / 1:54 pm

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I came across these thinkers in university as a young adult, but now maybe this book will add more of the historical, political and cultural context for me.

  4. jennymackness May 16, 2018 / 7:59 pm

    I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did, and judging by the reviews, many others did too. It is extremely well written in an easy style which nevertheless doesn’t dodge the key contributions that each philosopher made. It is an introduction to existentialism which invites the reader to dig deeper.

  5. Lisa M Lane May 17, 2018 / 4:58 am

    This is a fantastic post, because it helped me review the philosophers and is, as always, so beautifully written and thought out.

    But I won’t read the book.

    I can recall a time when reading philosophy meant reading and analyzing the works of the philosophers, without a lot of help from interpreters like Bakewell. In fact, I think the first secondary work I read about philosophy was Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers. To this day I think of Adam Smith wandering around falling into potholes because he was so distracted.

    In the 1970s, Fawn Brodie’s book on Thomas Jefferson caused a furor because it emphasized his sexual relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave. It became a huge thing among history students and teachers, soiling Jefferson’s reputation and causing a dismissal of many of his writings about slavery – it was easier to call him a racist than analyze the complexities of his thought. Later I learned about Rousseau’s life, in particular how he abandoned his own child despite promoting breast-feeding and child-centered education. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that we must separate the philosopher from the philosophy. The philosopher is mortal – his/her life is just a blip. The ideas can be universal, and should be subject to ongoing discussion and reassessment.

    Knowing that Brodie considered Jefferson to be a sexual predator, or that Bakewell considers Sartre to be ugly and boorish, doesn’t seem to do any service to the significance of their philosophies. We’re relying on the authorial interpretation of someone’s life, based on sources of course, but still an interpretation that is very much tied to the concerns of the time in which the authors are writing. Brodie’s work was from a time of feminism and anti-racism. Bakewell’s comes at a time when it is trendy to engage in “creative non-fiction” and other “fact-based” retellings of the past.

    We hunger for human stories, but the ideas, if I understand them correctly, try to rise above daily life and analyze universals, such as why we live, how we live. That seems so much more important than the details of the dancing, sexual, and pedagogical predilections of the philosophers themselves. Or whether they fell into potholes.

  6. jennymackness May 18, 2018 / 6:14 pm

    Hi Lisa – thank you so much for this thoughtful comment and alternative perspective.

    I have to say though that I am somewhat dismayed that my post has had the effect of making you decide not to read Sarah Bakewell’s book, and makes me think that I must have done her a disservice, misinterpreted her, or even more likely, unwittingly presented my own interpretation in an unjustifiably biased way.

    I agree when you write: >> “Knowing that Brodie considered Jefferson to be a sexual predator, or that Bakewell considers Sartre to be ugly and boorish, doesn’t seem to do any service to the significance of their philosophies” <<

    … but of course Sarah Bakewell had a lot more to say about Sartre and the other philosophers than I was able to, or chose to, write in this short post. To be fair to Sarah Bakewell, I probably should have been clear about this, but hopefully my post did make it clear how much I enjoyed the book.

    I’m not sure that it is possible to …. "separate the philosopher from the philosophy" …. and interestingly I think this comes down to a personal philosophy, i.e. whether or not you believe that ideas can be separated from their context and history. From Bakewell’s book, Sartre and his ideas, for example, would seem to be very much a product of his geographical and historical context, and his personal relationships. This information helped me to think about the importance of his ideas and whether or not they can be applied universally. From my understanding I don’t think Sartre wanted to rise above daily life. I think he wanted to live his philosophy, which is why I think Sarah Bakewell’s book is so helpful. She not only discussed his ideas, but also how he lived his life.

    I definitely agree that …. “We’re relying on the authorial interpretation of someone’s life, based on sources of course, but still an interpretation that is very much tied to the concerns of the time in which the authors are writing” …. but for me that was the point of her book 🙂

  7. Lisa M Lane May 18, 2018 / 7:18 pm

    Hi Jenny – you are quite right! What your post did was help me articulate my own philosophy, which is definitely on the side of attempting to separate the philosophy from the philosopher. So we differ there, which is natural (western philosophy would get nowhere without disagreements).

    I did not feel that your post did a disservice to the book – rather I chose to focus on the elements of the philosophers’ lives and personalities (and the authors’ interpretation of those) that you mentioned. Sartre did, indeed, try to live his philosophy, although some might differ with him as to whether he achieved that. It’s just that, to me, the significance of his work isn’t his life and how he lived it, but rather how it influenced people to think about their own lives and the meaning of life in general.

    I also don’t believe you misinterpreted anything – this is the way that biography and history (not just popular works, but also professional works) are written these days. There is a great emphasis on personalities and stories, an interest in feelings and emotions and perceptions, and fewer deep dives into ideas. So I don’t mean to be unfair to Bakewell or other authors either – I am simply disappointed in the current scholarly trends. Your post may not have made me want to read her book, but it certainly made me want to read Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and de Beauvoir!

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