Back To Top

Sarah Bakewell on Sartre, de Beauvoir and existential philosophy

“At the Existentialist Cafe”

By Sarah Bakewell

Other Press (439 pages, $25)

Here’s a startling thought. Consider what you are doing right now without realizing you’re doing it. For example, you are reading the English language written in the Roman alphabet, even though thousands of languages and writing systems have existed, and you would just as easily use one of them instead if you had been born in a different time or place. You are probably flipping pages of a newspaper or clicking through a website rather than, say, turning through a scroll or listening to these words spoken out loud. And there’s a good chance you are wearing pants and a shirt rather than a grass skirt, kimono, sarong or toga.

In fact, if you had been born elsewhere, everything about you might be different. Not only the language you use and clothes you wear, but also what and how you eat, the groups you identify with, the things you value, the beliefs you hold, the god you worship, and so on. There’s something strange about being human. Other animals come into the world with a fixed nature: A sparrow in New York today is pretty much like a sparrow in China 2,000 years ago. But we are different. It’s as if we come into the world as unmolded clay. The central thesis of the philosophical view known as existentialism is that there is no human nature or essence. We simply exist. Only through experience do we become one kind of person or another. (TNS)