There are times in every person’s life when one desires to know the essence of things. It often happens when we are young, and if it does, it may hang around in the back of our minds all our lives, breaking through into real questioning and investigation at different stages, when we need to know how to understand events, either personal or public. Sarah Bakewell makes the argument that the ideas of the European phenomenologist and existentialist philosophers of the twentieth century have so pervaded our world view that we have incorporated their philosophies into our art, literature, rebellion, and social movements, often without knowing exactly where those ideas have come from.
Bakewell makes the point that we need to revisit the genesis and development of those philosophies again, not because they were necessarily right, but because they make us think. At a time when people are questioning the notion of “freedom” to act, of whether we have any agency in the direction of the world or whether we are cast about by forces against which we can only react, Bakewell believes that revisiting the record of the lives, friendships, and scholarship of the existentialists will show us the ways in which they were both acting and reacting to the world around them.
“…freedom may prove to be the great puzzle for the early twenty-first century…Science books and magazines bombard us with the news that we are out of control: that we amount to a mass of irrational but statistically predictable responses, veiled by the mere illusion of a conscious, governing mind...Reading such accounts, one gets the impression that we actually take pleasure in this idea of ourselves as out-of-control mechanical dupes of our own biology and environment. We claim to find it disturbing, but we might actually be taking a kind of reassurance from it—for such an idea lets us off the hook. They save us from the existential anxiety that comes with considering ourselves free agents who are responsible for what we do. Sartre would call that bad faith. Moreover, recent research suggests that those who have been encouraged to think they are unfree are inclined to behave less ethically, again suggesting that we take it as an alibi.”
Bakewell looks at an impressive list of writers and philosophers, some of whom are Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Husserl, and Heidegger. Bakewell calls them “hopelessly flawed.” Heidegger removed himself from public life after his support of the Nazi regime made him reexamine phenomenology. Sartre in later years recanted his support of violence, and his support of the Soviet state. Beauvoir in her autobiography writes in wonder, “I might not have met Sartre; anything at all might have happened.”
But Bakewell makes another look at the existentialists and phenomenologists relevant and interesting. We need to think about these things, she suggests, because it has been a long time since anyone has come up with ideas which attempt to define and shape our presence and interactions in the world. Her extraordinary lucidity in explaining the nub of the phenomenology and existentialism, and her vast research into the lives of the philosophers who brought these ideas into consciousness allow her to describe, even illustrate, “character” and “goodness,” two traits towards which we strive. Bakewell makes us think again about our responsibility in the world, and where the use of technology fits in with our lives as authentic, ethical beings. “Computers are bad phenomenologists.”
This is no dusty, boring tome filled with outdated ideas. Bakewell packs the book with details of the lives and conversations of some of the most charismatic and influential thinkers of the twentieth century. This is philosophy lived, not just talked about. If you have not taken your brain out for a run lately, this fascinating discussion of philosophical principles and principals is a terrific trail in the woods.
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