At The Existentialist Café Summary By Sarah Bakewell

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At The Existentialist Café is a fascinating look at the origins of existentialism in the early twentieth century.

This book serves as both a biography of some key philosophical figures and an exploration into their ideas that changed perspectives on life.

It’s an incredibly detailed text, packed with information about how their thinking has impacted the ways we live our lives today.

For anyone looking to gain a better understanding of philosophy or wishing to explore deeper questions about life, this book is an ideal resource.

It provides readers with a thoughtful examination of what it means to exist in this world, offering insights into the meaning (and lack there-of) that governs our lives.

At The Existentialist Café

Book Name: At The Existentialist Café (Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails)

Author(s): Sarah Bakewell

Rating: 4.6/5

Reading Time: 27 Minutes

Categories: Philosophy

Author Bio

Sarah Bakewell, the author of At The Existentialist Café, is a British writer from Bournemouth.

Growing up, she traveled around Australia with her family before settling back in the UK and attending the University of Essex for a degree in philosophy.

Later on, Sarah worked as a cataloger at London’s Wellcome Library for the History of Medicine.

In addition to At The Existentialist Cafe, Sarah is also the author of several other books including The Smart, The English Dane, and How To Live: A Life of Montaigne.

Learn Existentialism: How to Use a Philosophical Cocktail to Talk About Pain and Why Objectification Keeps Occurring


At first glance, philosophy can sometimes seem like a distant subject that doesn’t really have much to do with our everyday lives.

But that’s not the case with existentialism.

Developed by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and others in the 1930s, it was a philosophy designed to ask questions about how and why we live our lives – and use those answers to guide us through life’s ever-changing conditions.

This idea of “living life as an ongoing dialogue on reality” is what sets existentialism apart from other philosophies.

It invites us to explore our being and start actively thinking about life’s needs and possibilities rather than passively accepting them.

In At The Existentialist Café book summary you can learn how this philosophy transcends mere theory or rigid dogma – and how it can be part of your daily life by applying its ideas to real-life situations.

From learning how you can use a cocktail for philosophical conversations, talking about pain in a meaningful way, or looking at how people often objectify women; this book serves as an invitation to start thinking deeply about life and yourself.

Existentialism: How a Cocktail at a Paris Bar Led to an Entirely New Kind of Philosophy

It all started with an apricot cocktail.

Back in 1932, three friends – Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Raymond Aron – were catching up over drinks at the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris.

All three had studied philosophy together at École normale supérieure in Paris but found themselves unsatisfied with the same old questions being asked of them – “How can I know that things are real?” and “How can I be sure that I know anything for certain?” It seemed like it was time for a new kind of philosophy.

This is where Raymond stepped in.

His studies in Berlin had show him a new and different philosophy called ‘phenomenology’.

The idea of phenomenology excited them because it wasn’t content to stick to unclear metaphysical questions; instead, it focused on everyday life and experience.

With phenomenology, you could even use your apricot cocktail to philosophize!

After hearing this, Sartre was so inspired that he immediately went out to buy every book on the topic that he could find which only turned out to one book.

However, this drove him even further down the road of existentialism as his year studying in Berlin turned into what we now call the ‘founding’ of existentialism by Sartre upon his return back to Paris in 1934.

Even more interestingly though, its’ origins couldn’t have been possible without Freiburg – a city located Germany which was actually at the heart of phenomenology!

Martin Heidegger Joins the Epicenter of Phenomenology in Freiburg-im-Breisgau


At the start of the 20th century, Freiburg-im-Breisgau was a city bustling with life and intellectual inquiry.

With its location in southwest Germany, bordering both the Rhine river and Black Forest, it quickly became an epicenter for a brand new form of philosophy: phenomenology.

Joined by students eager to learn more about this revolutionary approach to understanding phenomena, Edmund Husserl, who became the university’s philosophy chair in 1916, set out to establish phenomenology as a legitimate scientific tradition through rigorous research and debate.

But what is phenomenology? It is not so much a specific theory but rather an approach that focuses on directly observing phenomena without previously-held notions obstructing or distorting what is being studied.

This means that in order to really appreciate something like an apricot cocktail for example, one must ignore any preconceived notions about it and instead focus on actually experiencing it.

This ‘epoché’ requires one to suspend judgment so as to obtain a true sense of what is there before him/her.

The goal of phenomenology is to clear up misunderstandings using insights drawn from direct observation.

For example doctors can make better diagnoses if their patient gives accurate account of his/her pain free of preconceptions – hence phenomenologists’ refusal to accept superficial descriptions when analyzing phenomena such as music (eg: “lovely”) which could be far more accurately understood if described as “plaintive” or “full of great dignity”.

Martin Heidegger Revolutionized Philosophy By Focusing on the Concept of Being and By Underlining the Ways We Relate to the World, But His Flawed Actions Caused His Downfall

Martin Heidegger was a figure of tremendous importance in philosophy, and his 1927 book Being and Time was nothing short of revolutionary.

Heidegger argued that Husserl and others had made a major mistake by overlooking the notion of being.

By missing this, philosophers had been putting the cart before the horse.

Heidegger also noted that philosophers tended to think of themselves as somehow separate from the world they described when, in reality, we exist in it along with the things we observe.

However, though Heidegger viewed himself as a great philosopher, he was far from perfect.

In 1933 he joined the Nazi party when accepting a position as rector at Freiburg University – enforcering draconian laws requiring anyone identified as Jewish be removed from university positions – which affected Husserl and many others who trusted him.

Furthermore, anti-Semitic and Nazi-oriented writings were revealed within his notebooks in 2014 suggesting that his party membership was not out of obligation or ignorance.

As Jean-Paul Sartre might have pointed out, Heidegger’s thoughts weren’t the issue – it was his actions that defined him, making Martin Heidegger both an acclaimed giant of philosophy and a deeply flawed man at the same time.

Existence Precedes Essence: Taking Responsibility for Our Own Lives in the Existentialist View

Responsibility for Our Own Lives

Existentialism is ultimately about the burden of freedom and responsibility.

As Sartre famously said “Existence precedes essence”, in other words, our lives begin defined by nothing more than freedom and opportunity.

Any sense of what we are, or who we become as people, is determined completely by the choices we make.

This can be very intimidating; after all when we are completely free to choose our own path there is no room for excuses if something goes wrong.

This idea was exemplified by an anecdote told by Sartre: during the German occupation a student of his asked for guidance on whether he should stay with his mother or join the resistance against Nazis.

For Sartre, it was clear that this student took himself to be bound by various external forces – morals, psychology and so on.

But he urged him to reject such notions – these were not restraints but pieces within his life’s situation that could be chosen from afresh every day.

The only real restraint was his own freedom- a power which comes with immense responsibility.

How Sartre and de Beauvoir Lived Their Existentialist Ideals

Sartre and de Beauvoir exemplified their influential philosophy of existentialism in every aspect of their lives.

It wasn’t just an academic concept, but an active principle that suffused every moment and experience.

One such example, was their relationship.

In 1929 they made a two year agreement – if things were still going well after two years they could continue, but could also split if needed.

Against society’s conventions, they chose freedom over marriage, declaring that it meant assuming confining gender roles and accumulating property.

This bold move manifested the ideas of freedom and choice that spurred the development of existentialism.

The two remained a couple for the next five decades until Sartre’s death in 1980; with many other lovers coming into play during this time period, yet with the primary connection being between the two thinkers and writers.

Moreover, as partners in life, Sarte and de Beauvoir worked together as writers— penning books as well as diaries, letters, articles and essays – pushing each other to incorporate more thought into these works of literature.

This commitment extended beyond writings too—in 1968 when student protests composed from existentialist views erupted throughout Paris; Sarte and de Beauvoir actively attended marches, picket lines and barricades–solidifying the notion that philosophical ideals can lead to actionable consequences which can bring about government reformations.

The Anxiety of Freedom: How Sartre’s Near-Death Experience Inspired His Philosophy


The events of World War II had a huge impact on the lives of the existential philosophers.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were significantly affected by this—Sartre was called to war, prison camped, and escaped, while de Beauvoir remained in occupied Paris.

Yet even thought their lives were upended by the war, it did not stop them from continuing their work.

Sartre took notes and read Heidegger’s Being and Time while at the PF camp, which served as an inspiration for him during such difficult circumstances.

Meanwhile, De Beauvoir was seeking solace from philosophy too and turned to works by Hegel and Kierkegaard for consolation, which inspired aspects of her novel L’Invitée (known in English as She Came to Stay).

When Sartre escaped the POW camp it set off a chain reaction that saw his notes turn into his 1943 masterpiece, Being and Nothingness.

In this book Sartre argues that humans are literally nothing more than what they decide to be through their actions – but this amount of freedom can cause anxiety over whether or not one might impulsively make decisions that have far-reaching consequences.

How Existentialism and American Music Changed Postwar Paris Culture

When the Second World War ended in 1945, the Parisian’s were looking for something new and exiting.

Existentialism sparked their curiosity and provided a new way of thinking that was much needed after all the devastation.

Sartre had a public talk in Paris that quickly made waves throughout the city and made everyone start talking about Sartre and his philosophy.

The St-Germain-des-Prés area became the epicenter of this Existentialist scene as Sartre, de Beauvoir, artists, writers, students, and lovers all gathered here to cogitate and write.

They’d go to clubs like The Lorientais or Le Tabou to hear live American blues, jazz and ragtime music which was incredibly defiant but also offered a sense of hope during these times.

Even Juliette Gréco performed her own defiant act when she was released from Gestapo imprisonment with only wearing her light dress – singing “Over the Rainbow” is loud as possible as she walked home – celebrating being alive no matter how little she had on.

In short, postwar France embraced a new form of thinking by warmly embracing existentialism which manifested itself through literature, celebrity figures like Sartre & de Beauvoir among others, live music performances at popular outlets around Paris & an overall rejection of those who are bourgeois (wealthy).

Existentialism: Bridging the Gap between Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir

In 1943, Sartre and de Beauvoir met the French-Algerian writer Albert Camus for the first time – an event that marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Camus was not only handsome and warm personality, but also shared many existentialist elements in his philosophy and novels.

His novel The Myth of Sisyphus introduced the concept of life being absurd and Camus believed even Sisyphus must have known this truth.

While it seemed like they were on the same page ideologically at first, differences started to emerge.

In 1945 after Paris was liberated from German occupation, Simomone de Beauvoir directed her attention towards exploring another neglected topic – women’s lives which led to heated debates among them regarding the state’s actions of harm-committing as a necessary evil – a point upon which Albert Camp differed with them on.

This caused their friendship to become strained until it finally fell apart by 1950s.

Even though they parted their ways, there is no denying that Albert Camus served as an incredible figure for both Sartre and De Beauvoir during his time as their friend and later as an antagonist who challenged their views and made them think more deeply about some philosophical controversies

The Second Sex: Examining the Phenomenon of Women’s Experience in a Patriarchal Society

Second Sex

Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking work The Second Sex is hailed as one of the great works dealing with culture and it can be argued that of all existentialist works, it dealt most directly with lived experience.

Through her examination of women’s experiences in the world, de Beauvoir managed to explore how people were socialized into looking at things through the male gaze simply by virtue of their gender.

For example, she looked at how boys and girls are taught to behave differently from early childhood, placing certain expectations on them which eventually pile up and reduce a woman’s agency in the world.

She also pointed out how ideas about what is “natural” when it comes to gender roles are actually myths that need to be set aside.

Through her phenomenological framework, de Beauvoir was able to offer an important insight on this overlooked but essential aspect of life.

These days The Second Sex is finally being given the recognition it deserves as a feminist text.

It has more than fulfilled its promise of phenomenology and existentialism giving readers an incisive description of what it’s like to live life as a woman in today’s world.

Wrap Up

At The Existentialist Café reminds us that the answers to life’s difficult questions are found within ourselves, not in philosophy books.

As such, we have a responsibility to take ownership of our own lives and make choices based on what will help us become the people we want to be.

And it’s only when we accept our freedom and responsibility that we can fully live our best lives.

This message is at the heart of this book, and it’s one worth repeating: Life isn’t predetermined by centuries old ideas, as history has taught us; instead, life is whatever you make it.

Take nothing for granted and choose your own destiny.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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