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At The Existentialist Café

Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails

By Sarah Bakewell
16-minute read
Audio available
At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

At the Existentialist Café (2016) recounts the birth of existentialism in the early twentieth century. Both a biography and a philosophical text, it tells the stories of individual philosophers as well as their ideas. Above all, it explores how big philosophical questions can illuminate our lives and the way we live them.

  • Philosophers who feel that philosophy has lost touch with everyday life
  • Francophiles looking for insight on their national treasures
  • Curious observers who want to learn how to look more closely at the world around them

Sarah Bakewell is a writer from Bournemouth, England. She spent her childhood traveling and living in Australia with her parents, before eventually returning to the UK. There, she studied philosophy at the University of Essex and worked as a cataloger and curator of early printed books at London’s Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine. She is the author of four books including The Smart, The English Dane and How To Live: A Life of Montaigne.

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At The Existentialist Café

Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails

By Sarah Bakewell
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell
Synopsis

At the Existentialist Café (2016) recounts the birth of existentialism in the early twentieth century. Both a biography and a philosophical text, it tells the stories of individual philosophers as well as their ideas. Above all, it explores how big philosophical questions can illuminate our lives and the way we live them.

Key idea 1 of 10

An apricot cocktail started Jean-Paul Sartre on the road to existentialism.

For a lot of us, existentialism is a murky term, one that suggests gloomy ideas about the futility of life. But existentialism started with something a lot more cheerful: an apricot cocktail.

Around the end of 1932, Jean-Paul Sartre, his girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir and his friend Raymond Aron sat in the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris, sipping cocktails and catching up. The three had studied philosophy together at École normale supérieure in Paris, and had graduated restless and unsatisfied. The school’s curriculum was dominated by the same questions that philosophers had been asking since Plato’s time, like “How can I know that things are real?” and “How can I be sure that I know anything for certain?” It was hard to see the point in any of it, and the three friends were hungry for a new kind of philosophy, something that spoke to their dissatisfaction with the stale old questions that had bored them in school.

But what other ways of philosophizing could there be? Sartre and Beauvoir had been teaching in the French provinces since they’d graduated, and neither had any new ideas to report. Aron, though, thought he had found an answer. Studying in Berlin after graduation, he had encountered a new and different philosophy that had originated in Germany: phenomenology. What made phenomenology so exciting was that it put stale metaphysical questions like the ones they’d studied at the École normale supérieure to one side in order to look at the stuff of real, everyday life. With phenomenology, Aron said, he could even use his apricot cocktail to philosophize!

His friends were astounded.

Sartre lit up, and went straight to a bookstore. Hungry to know more about phenomenology, he asked for every book on the topic that the shop had. Unfortunately, that only meant a single book. Though Sartre tore through it, he was desperate to know more; soon he was making arrangements to study in Berlin for a year, just as Aron had. There, Sartre created something entirely new, blending the phenomenology books that he read with other philosophers’ ideas and his own literary style and personality. By the time he returned to Paris in 1934, he was ready to found a new philosophy of his own: existentialism.

Sartre’s year in Berlin had been fruitful. But ironically, a different city in Germany was actually the heart of phenomenology: Freiburg.

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