Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings

Review: Heidegger’s Basic Writings
Basic Writings

Basic Writings by Martin Heidegger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every valuing, even where it values positively, is a subjectivizing. It does not let things: be.

A Gentle Warning

In matters philosophical, it is wise to be skeptical of interpretations. An interpretation can be reasonable or unreasonable, interesting or uninteresting, compelling or uncompelling; but an interpretation, by its very nature, can never be false or true. Thus, we must be very careful when relying on secondary literature; for what is secondary literature but a collection of interpretations? Personally, I don’t like anybody to come between me and a philosopher. When a philosopher’s views are being explained to me, I feel as if I’m on the wrong end of a long game of telephone. Even if an interpreter is excellent—quoting extensively and making qualified assertions—his interpretation is, like all interpretations, an argument from authority; to interpret a text is to assert that one is an authority on the text, and thus should be believed.

Over generations, these interpretations can harden into dogmas; we are taught the “received interpretation” of a philosopher, and not the philosopher himself. This is dangerous; for, what makes a classic book classic, is that it can be read repeatedly—not just in one lifetime, but down the centuries—while continuing to yield new and interesting interpretations. In other words, a philosophical classic is a book that can be validly and compelling interpreted a huge number of ways. So if you subscribe to another person’s interpretation you are depriving the world of something invaluable: your own take on the matter.

In matters philosophical, I say that it is better to be stupid with one’s own stupidity, than smart with another’s smarts. To put the matter another way, to read a great book of philosophy is not, I think, like reading a science textbook; the goal is not simply to assimilate a certain body of knowledge, but to have a genuine encounter with the thinker. In this way, reading a great work of philosophy is much more like travelling someplace new: what matters is the experience of having been there, and not the snapshots you bring back from the trip. Even if you go someplace where you can’t speak the language, where you are continually baffled the whole time by strange customs and incomprehensible speech, it is more valuable than just sitting at home and reading guide books. So go and be baffled, I say!

This is all just a way of warning you not to take what I will say too seriously, for what I will offer is my own interpretation, my own guide-book, so to speak. I will make some assertions, but I’d like you to be very skeptical. After all, I’m just some dude on the internet.


An Attempt at a Way In

The best advice I’ve ever gotten in regard to Heidegger was in my previous job. My boss was a professor from Europe, a very well educated man, who naturally liked to talk about books with me. At around this time, I was reading Being and Time, and floundering. When I complained of the book’s difficulty, this is what he said:

“In the Anglophone tradition, they think of language as a tool for communication. But in the European tradition, they think of language as a tool to explore the world.” He said this last statement as he reached out his arm in front of him, as if grabbing at something far away, to make it clear what he meant.

Open one of Heidegger’s books, and you will be confronted with something strange. First is the language. He invents new words; and, more frustratingly, he uses old words in unfamiliar ways, often relying on obscure etymological connections and German puns. Even more frustrating is the way Heidegger does philosophy: he doesn’t make logical arguments, and he doesn’t give straightforward definitions for his terms. Why does he write like this? And how can a philosopher do philosophy without attempting to persuade the reader with arguments? You’re right to be skeptical; but, in this review, I will try to provide you with a way into Heidegger’s philosophy, so at least his compositional and intellectual decisions make sense, even if you disagree with them. Since Heidegger’s frustrating and exasperating language is extremely conspicuous, let us start there.

Imagine a continuum of attitudes towards language. On the far end, towards the left, is the scientific attitude. There, we find linguists talking of phonemes, morphemes, syntax; we find analytic philosophers talking about theories of meaning and reference. We see sentences being diagrammed; we hear researchers making logical arguments. Now, follow me to the middle of this continuum. Here is where most speech takes place. Here, language is totally transparent. We don’t think about it, we simply use it in our day to day lives. We argue, we order pizzas, we make excuses to our bosses, we tell jokes; and sometimes we write book reviews. Then, we get to the other end of the spectrum. This is the place where lyric poetry resides. Language is not here being used to catalogue knowledge, nor is it transparent; here, in fact, language is somehow mysterious, foreign, strange: we hear familiar words used in unfamiliar ways; rules of syntax and semantics are broken here; nothing is as it seems.

Now, what if I ask you, what attitude gets to the real essence, the real fundamentals of language? If you’re like me, you’d say the first attitude: the scientific attitude. It seems commonsensical to think that you understand language more deeply the more you rigorously study it; and one studies language by setting up abstract categories, such as ‘syntax’ and ‘phoneme’. But this is where Heidegger is in fundamental disagreement; for Heidegger believes that poetry reveals the essence of language. In his words: “Language itself is poetry in the essential sense.”

But isn’t this odd? Isn’t poetry a second or third level phenomenon? Doesn’t poetry presuppose the usual use of language, which itself presupposes the factual underpinning of language investigated by science? In trying to understand why Heidegger might think this, we are led to his conception of truth.

If you are like me, you have a commonsense understanding of what makes a statement true or false. A statement is “true” if it corresponds to something in reality; if I say “the glass is on the table,” it is only true if the glass really is on the table. Heidegger thinks this is entirely wrong; and in place of this conception of truth, Heidegger proposes the Greek word “aletheia,” which he defines as “unconcealment,” or “letting things reveal themselves as themselves.”

It’s hard to describe what this means abstractly, so let me give you an example. Let’s say you are a peasant, and a rich nobleman just invited you to his house. You get lost, and wander into a room. It is filled with strange objects that you’ve never seen before. You pick something up from a table. You hold it in your hands, entranced by the strange shape, the odd colors, the weird noises it omits. You are totally lost in contemplation of the object, when suddenly the nobleman waltzes into the room and says “Oh, I see you’ve found my watch.” According to Heidegger, what the nobleman just did was to cover up the watch in a kind of veneer of obviousness. It is simply a watch, he says, just one among many of its kind, and therefore obvious. The peasant, meanwhile, was experiencing the object as an object, and letting it reveal itself to him.

This kind of patina of familiarity is, for Heidegger, what prevents us from engaging in serious thinking. This is why Heidegger spends so much time talking about the dangers of conformity, and also why he is ambivalent about the scientific project: for what is science but the attempt to make what is not obvious, obvious? To bring the unfamiliar into the realm of familiarity? Heidegger thinks that this feeling of unfamiliarity is, on the contrary, the really valuable thing; and this is why Heidegger talks about moods—such as anxiety, which, he says, discloses the “Nothing.” Now, it is a favorite criticism of some philosophers to dismiss Heidegger as foolish by treating “Nothing” as something; but this misses his point. When Heidegger is talking of anxiety as the mood that discloses the “Nothing” to us, he means that our mood of anxiety is the subrational realization of the bizarreness of existence. That is, our anxiety is the way that the question faces us: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This leads us quite naturally to Heidegger’s most emblematic question, the question of Being: what does it mean to be? Heidegger contends that this question has been lost to history. But has it? Philosophers have been discussing metaphysics for millennia. We have idealism, materialism, monism, monadism—aren’t these answers to the question of Being? No, Heidegger says, and for the following reason. When one asserts, for example, that everything is matter, one is asserting that everything is, at base, one type of thing. But the question of Being cannot be answered by pointing to a specific type of being; so we can’t answer the question, “what does it mean to be?” by saying “everything is mind,” or “everything is matter,” since that misses the point. What does it mean to be at all?

So now we have to circle back to Heidegger’s conception of truth. If you are operating with the commonsense idea of truth as correspondence, you will quite naturally say: “The question of ‘Being’ is meaningless; ‘Being’ is the most empty of categories; you can’t give any further analysis to what it ‘means’ to exist.” In terms of correspondence, this is quite true; for how can any statement correspond with the answer to that question? A statement can only correspond to a state of affairs; it cannot correspond to the “stateness” of affairs: that’s meaningless. However, if you are thinking of truth along Heidegger’s lines, the question becomes more sensible; for what Heidegger is really asking is “How can we have an original encounter with Being? How can I experience what it means to exist? How can I let the truth of existence open itself up to me?”

To do this, Heidegger attempts to peel back the layers of familiarity that, he feels, prevents this genuine encounter from happening. He tries to strip away our most basic commonsense notions: true vs. false, subject vs. object, opinion vs. fact, and virtually any other you can name. In so doing, Heidegger tries to come up with ways of speaking that do not presuppose these categories. So in struggling through his works, you are undergoing a kind of therapy to rid yourself of your preconceptions, in order to look at the world anew. In his words: “What is strange in the thinking of Being is its simplicity. Precisely this keeps us from it. For we look for thinking—which has its world-historical prestige under the name “philosophy”—in the form of the unusual, which is accessible only to initiates.”

What on earth are we to make of all this? Is this philosophy or mystical poetry? Is it nonsense? That’s a tough question. If by “philosophy” we mean the examination of certain traditional questions, such as those of metaphysics and epistemology, then it might be fair to say that Heidegger wasn’t a philosopher—at least, not exactly. But if by “philosophy” we mean thinking for the sake of thinking, then Heidegger is a consummate philosopher; for, in a sense, this is the point of his whole project: to get us to question everything we take for granted, and to rethink the world with fresh minds.

So should we accept Heidegger’s philosophy? Should we believe him? And what does it even mean to “believe” somebody who purposely doesn’t make assertions or construct arguments? Is this acceptable in a thinker? Well, I can’t speak for you, but I don’t accept his picture of the world. To sum up my disagreement with Heidegger as pithily as possible, I disagree with him when he says: “Ontology is only possible as phenomenology.” On the contrary, I do not think that ontology necessarily has anything to do with phenomenology; in other words, I don’t think that our experiences of the world necessarily disclose the world in a fundamental way. For example, Heidegger thinks that everyday sounds are more basic than abstract acoustical signals, and he argues this position like so:

We never really first perceive a throng of sensations, e.g., tones and noises, in the appearance of things—as this thing-concept alleges; rather we hear the storm whistling in the chimney, we hear the three-motored plane, we hear the Mercedes in immediate distinction from the Volkswagen. Much closer to us than all sensations are the things themselves. We hear the door shut in the house and never hear acoustical sensations or even mere sounds. In order to hear a bare sound we have to listen away from things, divert our ear from them, i.e., listen abstractly.

To Heidegger, the very fact that we perceive sounds this way implies that this is more fundamental. But I cannot accept this. Hearing “first” the door shut is only a fact of our perception; it does not tell us anything about how our brains process auditory signals, nor what sound is, for that matter. This is why I am a firm believer in science, because it seems that the universe doesn’t give up its secrets lightly, but must be probed and prodded! When we leave nature to reveal itself to us, we aren’t left with much.

And it was clear that I’m not a Heideggerian from my introduction. As the opening quote shows, he was partly remonstrating against our dichotomy of subjective opinion vs. objective fact; whereas this notion is the very one I began my review with. You’ve been hoodwinked from the start, dear reader; for by acknowledging that this is just one opinion among many, you have, willingly or unwillingly, disagreed with Heidegger.

So was reading Heidegger a waste of time for me? If I disagree with him on almost everything, what did I gain from reading him? Well, for one thing, as a phenomenologist pure and simple, Heidegger is excellent; he gets to the bottom of our experience of the world in a way way few thinkers can. What’s more, even if we reject his ontology, many of Heidegger’s points are interesting as pure cultural criticism; by digging down deep into many of our preconceptions, Heidegger manages to reveal some major biases and assumptions we make in our daily lives. But the most valuable part of Heidegger is that he makes you think: agree or disagree, if you decide he is a loony or a genius, he will make you think, and that is invaluable.

So, to bring this review around to this volume, I warmly push it into your hands. Here is an excellent introduction to the work and thought of an original mind—much less imposing than Being and Time. I must confess that I was pummeled by Heidegger’s first book—I was beaten senseless. This book was, by contrast, often pleasant reading. It seems that Heidegger jettisoned a lot of his jargon later in life; he even occasionally comes close to being lucid and graceful. I especially admire “The Origin of the Work of Art.” I think it’s easily one of the greatest reflections on art that I’ve had the good fortune to read.

I think it’s only fair to give Heidegger the last word:

… if man is to find his way once again into the nearness of Being he must first learn to exist in the nameless. In the same way he must recognize the seductions of the public realm as well as the impotence of the private. Before he speaks man must first let himself be claimed again by Being, taking the risk that under this claim he will seldom have much to say.

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Review: Being and Nothingness

Review: Being and Nothingness
Being and Nothingness

Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Slime is the agony of water.

I first heard of this book from my dad. “I had to read this in college,” he told me. “We looked at every type of being. Being-in-myself, being-for-myself, being-of-myself, being-across-myself, being-by-myself. I went crazy trying to read that thing.” Ever since that memorable description, this book has held a special allure for me. It has everything to attract a self-styled intellectual: a reputation for difficulty, a hefty bulk, a pompous title, and the imprimatur of a famous name. Clearly I had to read it.

Jean-Paul Sartre was the defining intellectual of his time, at least on the European continent. He did everything: writing novels and plays, founding and editing a journal, engaging in political activism, and pioneering a philosophical school: existentialism. This book is the defining monument of that school. An eight-hundred-page treatise on ontology which, somehow, became widely read—or at least widely talked about. Nearly eighty years later, we are still talking about this book. In 2016 Sarah Bakewell released a best-selling book about Sartre’s movement; and a new translation of Being and Nothingness will be released next year. Interest in existentialism has not abated.

Yet what is existentialism? And how has it weathered the passing years? This is what I set out to determine, and this review will show whether my attempt bore fruit.

One should begin by examining the subtitle of this book: “A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology.” Already we have a contradiction. Phenomenology is a philosophical school founded by Edmund Husserl, which attempted to direct philosophers’ attention back “to the things themselves”—that is, to their own experience of the world. One of Husserl’s most insistent commandments was that the philosopher should “bracket,” or set aside, the old Cartesian question of the reality of these experiences (is the world truly as I perceive it?); rather, the philosopher should simply examine the qualities of the experience itself. Thus, Sartre’s promise of a phenomenological ontology (ontology being the investigation of the fundamental nature of reality) is a flagrant violation of Husserl’s principles.

Still, it does have a lot to tell us about Sartre’s method. This book is an attempt to deduce the fundamental categories of being from everyday experience. And this attempt leads Sartre to the two most basic categories of all: being and nothingness. Being is all around us; it is manifest in every object we experience. Sartre defines existing objects as those which are self-identical—that is, objects which simply are what they are—and he dubs this type of being the “in-itself.” Humans, by contrast, cannot be so defined; they are constantly shifting, projecting themselves into an uncertain future. Rather than simply existing, they observe their own existence. Sartre calls this type of human existence the “for-itself.”

Already we see the old Cartesian dualism reappearing in these categories. Are we not confronted, once again, with the paradoxes of matter and mind? Not exactly. For Sartre does not consider the in-itself and the for-itself to be two different types of substances. In fact, the for-itself has no existence at all: it is a nothingness. To use Sartre’s expressions, human consciousness can be compared to “little pools of non-being that we encounter in the heart of being,” or elsewhere he says that the for-itself “is like a hole in being at the heart of Being.” The for-itself (a consciousness) is a particular privation of a specific in-itself (a human body), which functions as a nihilation that makes the world appear: for there would not be a “world” as we know it without perception, and perception is, for Sartre, a type of nihilation.

Putting aside all of the difficulties with this view, we can examine the consequences which Sartre draws from these two sorts of being. If the for-itself is a nothingness, then it is forever removed from the world around it. That is, it cannot be determined, either by its past or by its environment. In short, it is free—inescapably free. Human behavior can thus never be adequately explained or even excused, since all explanations or excuses presuppose that humans are not fundamentally self-determining. But of course we explain and excuse all the time. We point to economic class, occupation, culture, gender, race, sexuality, upbringing, genetic background, mood—to a thousand different factors in order to understand why people act the way they do.

This attempt to treat humans as things rather than free beings Sartre calls “bad faith.” This constitutes the fundamental sin of existentialism. He gives the example of a waiter who so embraces his role as a waiter that his motions become calculated and mechanical; the waiter tries to embody himself in his role to the extent that he gives up his individual freedom and becomes a kind of automaton whose every movement is predictable. But of course life is full of examples of bad faith. I excuse my mistake by saying I hadn’t had my coffee yet; my friend cheats on his girlfriend, but it was because his father cheated on his mother; and so on.

This is the basic situation of the for-itself. Yet there is another type of being which Sartre later introduces us to: the for-others. Sartre introduces this category with a characteristically vivid example: Imagine a peeping Tom is looking through a keyhole into a room. His attention is completely fixed on what he sees. Then, suddenly, he hears footsteps coming down the hall; and he immediately becomes aware of himself as a body, as a thing. Sartre considers experiences like this to prove that we cannot doubt the existence of others, since being perceived by others totally changes how we experience ourselves.

This allows Sartre to launch into an analysis of human interaction, and particularly into love and sexuality. This analysis bears the obvious influence of Hegel’s famous Master-Slave dialectic, and it centers on the same sorts of paradoxes: the contradictory urges to subjugate and be subjugated, to be embodied and desired, to be free and to be freely chosen, and so on. However, Sartre’s best writing in this vein is not to be found here, but in his great play No Exit, where each character exhibits a particular type of bad faith. All three of the characters wish to be looked at in a particular way, yet each of them is stuck with others whose own particular sort of bad faith renders them unable to look in the “right” way.

Sartre concludes from all this that our most fervent desire, and the reason we so often slip into bad faith, is that we wish to be an impossible combination of the in-itself and the for-itself. We want to be the foundation of our own being, a perfect self-identical creature, and yet absolutely free. We want to become gods. But, for Sartre, this is self-contradictory: the in-itself and the for-itself can never coexist. Thus, the idea of God arises as a sort of wish-fulfillment; but God is impossible by definition. As a result, human life “is a useless passion”—a relentless striving to be something which cannot exist.

All this may be clearer if we avoid Sartre’s terminology and, instead, compare his philosophy to that of Buddhism (at least, the type of Western Buddhism I’m acquainted with). The mind is constantly searching for a sense of permanent identity. Though the mind is, by nature, groundless, we are uncomfortable with this; we want put ground under our feet. So we seek to identify ourselves with our jobs, our families, our marriages, our hobbies, our success, our money—with any external good that lets us forget that our consciousness is constantly shifting and flowing, and that our identities can never be absolutely determined. So far, Buddhism and Sartrean existentialism have similar diagnoses of our problems. But Buddhism prescribes detachment, while Sartre prescribes the embrace of absolute freedom and the adoption of complete responsibility of our actions.

No summary of the book would be complete without Sartre’s critique of Freud. Sartre was clearly intrigued by Freud’s theories and wanted to use them in some way. However, Freud’s unconscious motivations and superconscious censorship is clearly incompatible with Sartre’s philosophy of freedom. In particular, Sartre found it self-contradictory to say that there could be a part of the mind which “wants” without us knowing it, or a part that is able to hide information from our awareness. For Sartre, all consciousness is self-consciousness, and it therefore does not make sense to “want” or “know” something unconsciously.

In place of Freud’s psychoanalysis, then, Sartre proposes an existential psychoanalysis. For Sartre, every person is defined by a sort of fundamental choice that determines their stance towards the world (though, strangely, it seems that most people are not aware of having made this choice). It is the task of the existential psychoanalyst is to uncover this fundamental choice by a close examination of everyday actions. Indeed, Sartre believes that everything from one’s preference for onions to one’s aversion to cold water is a consequence of this fundamental choice. Sartre even goes so far as to insist that some things, by virtue of being so clearly suggestive of metaphor, have a universal meaning for the for-itself. As an example of this, he gives “slime”—viscous liquid which Sartre thinks inspires a universal horror of the weight of existence.

This fairly well rounds out a summary of the book. So what are we to make of this?

The comparison with Heidegger is unavoidable. Sartre himself seems to have encouraged the comparison by giving his metaphysical tome a title redolent of the German professor’s magnum opus. The influence is clear: Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness after reading Being and Time during his brief imprisonment in a prisoner-of-war camp; and Heidegger is referenced throughout the book. Nevertheless, I think it would be inaccurate to describe Sartre as a follower of Heidegger, or his philosophy merely as an interpretation of Heidegger’s. Indeed, I think that the superficial similarities between the two thinkers (stylistic obscurity, disregard of religion and ethics, a focus on human experience, a concern with “being”) mask far more important differences.

Heidegger’s project, insofar as I understand it, is radically anti-Cartesian. He sought to replace the thinking and observing ego with the Dasein, a being thrown into the world, a being fundamentally ensconced in a community and surrounded by tools ready-to-hand. For Heidegger, the Cartesian perspective—of withdrawing from the world and deliberately reflecting and reasoning—is derivative of, and inferior to, this far more fundamental relationship to being. Sartre could not be further from this. Sartre’s perspective, to the contrary, is insistently Cartesian and subjectivist; it is the philosophy of a single mind urgently investigating its experience. Further, the concept of “freedom” plays almost no role in Heidegger’s philosophy; indeed, I believe he would criticize the very idea of free choice as enmeshed in the Cartesian framework he hoped to destroy.

In method, then, Sartre is far closer to Husserl—another professed Cartesian—than to Heidegger. However, as we observed above, Sartre breaks Husserl’s most fundamental tenet by using subjective experiences to investigate being; and this was done clearly under the influence of Heidegger. These two, along with Freud, and Hegel, constitute the major intellectual influences on Sartre.

It should be no surprise, then, that Sartre’s style often verges on the obscure. Many passages in this book are comparable in ugliness and density to those German masters of opacity (Freud excluded). Heidegger is the most obvious influence here: for Sartre, like Heidegger, enjoys using clunky hyphenated terms and repurposing quotidian words in order to give them a special meaning. There is an important difference, however. When I did decipher Sartre’s more difficult passages, I usually found that the inky murkiness was rather unnecessary.

Believe me when I say that I am no lover of Heidegger’s writing. Nevertheless, I think Heidegger’s tortured locutions are more justifiable than Sartre’s, for Heidegger was attempting to express something that is truly counter-intuitive, at least in the Western philosophical tradition; whereas Sartre’s philosophy, whatever novelties it possesses, is far more clearly in the mainline of Cartesian thinking. As a result, Sartre’s adventures in jargon come across as mere displays of pomp—a bejewelled robe he dons in order to appear more weighty—and, occasionally, as mere abuses of language, concealing simple points in false paradoxes.

This is a shame, for when Sartre wished he could be quite a powerful writer. And, indeed, the best sections of this book are when Sartre switches from his psuedo-Heideggerian tone to that of the French novelist. The most memorable passages in this book are Sartre’s illustrations of his theories: the aforementioned waiter, or the Peeping Tom, or the passage on skiing. Whatever merit Sartre had as a philosopher, he was undoubtedly a genius in capturing the intricacies of subjective experience—the turns of thought and twinges of emotion that rush through the mind in everyday situations.

But what are we to make of his system? To my mind, the most immediately objectionable aspect is his idea of nothingness. Nothing is just that—nothing: a complete lack of qualities, attributes, or activity of any kind. Indeed, if a nothingness can be defined at all, it must be via elimination: by excluding every existing thing. It seems incoherent, then, to say that the human mind is a nothingness, and is therefore condemned to be free. Consciousness has many definite qualities and, besides that, is constantly active and (in Sartre’s opinion at least) able to choose itself and change the world. How can a nothingness do that? And this is putting to the side the striking question of how the human brain can produce a complete absence of being. Maybe I am taking Sartre’s point too literally; but it is fair to say that he provides no account of how this nothingness came into being.

Once this idea of nothingness is called into question, the rest of Sartre’s conclusions are on extremely shaky ground. Sartre’s idea of freedom is especially suspect. If human consciousness is not separated from the world and from its past by a nothingness, then Sartre’s grand pronouncements of total freedom and total responsibility become dubious. To me it seems unlikely to the highest degree that, of all the known objects in the universe, including all of the animals (some of which are closely related to us), humans are the only things that are exempt from the chain of causality that binds everything together.

Besides finding it implausible, I also cannot help finding Sartre’s idea of total freedom and responsibility to be morally dubious. He himself, so far as I know, never managed to make his system compatible with a system of ethics. In any case, an emphasis on total responsibility can easily lead to a punitive mentality. According to Sartre, everyone deserves their fate.

Admittedly I do think his conception of “bad faith” is useful. Whether or not we are metaphysically “free,” we often have more power over a situation than we admit. Denying our responsibility can lead to inauthenticity and immorality. And Sartre’s embrace of freedom can be a healthy antidote to an apathetic despair. Still, I do not think an elaborate ontological system is necessary in order to make this point.

Reading Sartre nowadays, I admit that it is difficult to take his conclusions seriously. For one, the next generation of French intellectuals set to work demonstrating that our freedom is constrained by society (Bourdeiu), psychology (Lacan), language (Derrida), and history (Foucault), among other factors. (Of course, these intellectual projects were not necessarily any more solid than Sartre’s.) More importantly, Sartre’s system seems to be so completely bound up in both his times and his own psychology—two things which he denied could determine human behavior—that it ironically belies his conclusions. (As an example of the latter influence, Sartre’s revulsion and even horror of sex is apparent throughout the book, especially in the strange section on “slime.”)

In the end I was somewhat disappointed by this work. And I think my disappointment is ultimately a consequence of Sartre’s method: phenomenological ontology. It is simply incorrect to believe that we can closely interrogate our own experiences to determine the fundamental categories of being. Admittedly, Sartre is not entirely averse to making logical argument; but too many of his conclusions rest on the shaky ground of these narrations of subjective experience. Sartre is, indeed, a brilliant observer of this experience, and his descriptions are worth reading for their psychological insight alone. Nevertheless, as a system of ontology, I do not think it can stand on its own two feet.



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Review: At the Existentialist Café

Review: At the Existentialist Café
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.

Sarah Bakewell has followed her lovely book about Montaigne with an equally lovely book about the existentialist movement. Comparing the books, one can see an obvious theme emerge in Bakewell’s writing: the interest in practical philosophy. Montaigne and the existentialists share the tendency to write about their own lives and, in various ways, to attempt to live out the tenets of their philosophies. This makes Bakewell’s biographical method especially revealing and rewarding, while at the same time adding a subtle, highbrow self-help aspect to her books—life lessons with the imprimatur of big names and fine prose.

Bakewell attempts to tell the story of the existentialist movement from its twentieth-century beginnings (skipping over precursors such as Dostoyevsky and Kierkegaard) to its apparent end, with the deaths of its principle architects. The four main protagonists are Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre (who, unsurprisingly, is the dominant personality), along with shorter appearances by other thinkers: Husserl, Camus, Raymond Aron, Karl Jaspers, and Simone Weil, to name the most prominent. When you consider the sheer amount of biographical and philosophical material this list represents, you realize the magnitude of the task set before Bakewell, and the consequent skill she demonstrated in producing a readable, elegant, and stimulating book.

I am sorry to say that I have read very little of the writings of the principle actors, with the exception of Heidegger. Bakewell’s account of him mostly confirmed my own experiences with the infuriating metaphysician, especially in his disturbing lack of character and, indeed, of basic humanity. Sartre comes across as far more human, if not exactly more likable. Few people could hear of Sartre’s enormous philosophical, biographical, journalistic, and literary output, over so many years, without feeling a sense of awe. Nevertheless, Sartre’s opinions rarely struck me as measured or reasonable. Though I often mourn the decline of the public intellectual, Sartre’s example gives me pause, for his influence on contemporary politics was not necessarily salubrious. Perhaps it is true that intellectuals, seeking consistency and clarity, are naturally inclined towards extreme positions. Sartre was, in any case, and it led him into some foolish and even reprehensible positions.

By contrast to these two giants, Beauvoir and Merleau-Ponty come off rather well in this story. The former tempered her political opinions with a greater subtlety, thoroughness, and empathy; while the latter lived a quietly productive and happy life, while creating a philosophy that Bakewell argues constitutes the greatest intellectual legacy of the bunch.

Just as Bakewell argued that Montaigne’s writings are newly relevant for his sense of moderation, so she argues that the existentialists are newly relevant for exploring the questions of authenticity and freedom. Not having read most of their work, I cannot comment on this. But what I found most inspiring was their burning desire to think and to write—and to write like mad, for hours each day, in every genre, for decades on end. Though most of this writing was born today to die tomorrow, each one of them produced a magisterial tome for future readers to beat their heads against. I suppose I will have to pick them up sometime soon.



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