Ron Rolheiser, OMI listed this book as one of his top 10 best books in 2017. Here is what he said:
“This is one of the best books written on Existentialism that’s accessible to a non-professional reader. It will introduce you to the giants of Existential philosophy: Sartre, Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Husserl, and Jaspers. Bakewell believes you will understand a thinker’s philosophy much more accurately if you also have a picture of his or her life: “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.” Those without a background in philosophy will get lost occasionally but if you continue reading you will soon find yourselves again fascinated by the lives of these famous, colorful thinkers.”
This was indeed an interesting book. Sarah Bakewell teaches creative writing at Oxford University and writes in a light-hearted very informed personal style.
Sartre (1905-80) is clearly the giant among them and was a very prolific writer, thinker and famous personality. Known as an ‘anarchist’ he championed personal freedom – living an authentic life free of influences of others. Along with freedom though comes tremendous responsibility in choosing one’s actions, which causes us fear. An applied example is the fear of heights. Standing at the edge of a mountain or the roof edge of a tall building causes vertigo because claims Sartre, we fear that we might just jump off because “we are free” to do so. His opus book on all this was “Being and Nothingness” in 1943.
Sartre said we are free to be exactly the person we choose to be, which gets at his notion of freedom and authenticity. He turned down the Nobel Prize in literature because he thought it would compromise his freedom. He was an atheist but also a humanist. In deciding who is right in a discussion among competing interests, Sartre proposed why not decide by asking how it looks to ‘the eyes of the least favoured’ or to ‘those treated the most unjustly’. You just have to work out who is most oppressed and disadvantaged in a situation and then adopt their version of the events as the right one or ‘the truth’. He was coming at this from a socialist view, not a moral view. Another of his ideas which sticks in my mind, is when we are faced with a decision to act, if we act in the way that is personally not true to our authentic self, we are acting in ‘bad faith’.
Sartre had a long on again, off again lovers relationship with fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. She wrote some famous books herself including the ground breaking The Second Sex which changed women’s lives forever. Albert Camus, the Algerian born author of such books as The Stranger figures prominently in the story line. As does Martin Heidegger, a colossal thinker who refused to ever apologize for his support of the Nazis in WWII Germany. Then the there is Merleau-Ponty who was very dashing and actually pleasant who linked psychology to phenomenology in a more person centred philosophy. Edmund Husserl (established the school of phenomenology) and Karl Jaspers (we must make leap of faith and transcend life) weave in and out of the story as do many other philosophers such as the interesting Emmanuel Levinas (encounters with others are privileged subjective phenomenon).
Each of these philosophers set out to prove that all other philosophers had it wrong. There was a lot of falling out among friends in this bunch over differences of thinking and pride. They lived in some very dark times of the 20th century. Nevertheless, these philosophers have had a tremendous impact on our 21st century society. I have been somewhat taken aback several times when I hear a millennial say “I would never believe that or do that because I would not be true to myself.” This is pure Sartre. The notion of developing one’s own “personal culture” and proudly proclaiming it has become the rage of the age it seems.
As Ron R. said, Ms. Bakewell wrote the book because there was not enough written about the private lives of these thinkers. Their private lives had a direct impact on their thinking. I am new to philosophy and enjoyed this ‘introduction’. It is much easier to understand than the subject matter. Nevertheless there is a dark tone in their thinking and the notion that “man is god” which I have trouble with. However my appetite has been wetted and I might just get a copy of Being and Nothingness for further reading. 4.5 out of 5 stars – very popular read with the philosophy student crowd I imagine.