Book Club: The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails Chapter Two *Spoilers*

If you would like to read along with us, you can purchase a copy of The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails from here.

The second chapter of the book takes us to the university town of Freiburg in Germany, which Emmanuel Levinas (a student of Husserl) dubbed the ‘City of Phenomenology.’ It focuses on the meticulous Husserl, who took up a teaching position at the university and developed a group of students to research into phenomenology. While not all Existentialists were Phenomenologists, Husserl and his development of phenomenology was a foundation for the Existentialists to grow from.

In essence, phenomenology is attempting to describing the objects in our awareness. Husserl used to use the example of coffee: imagine we are perceiving a cup of coffee and are asked to describe the nature of the coffee. The coffee cannot be defined by facts about coffee. Nor can it be defined from our past experiences of coffee. Neither of these would be able to describe the particular coffee within our perception. If we remove these aspects from the cup of coffee, then we are looking directly at the being of the cup of coffee. This allows us to skip over the question of whether an object ‘exists.’ We do not need to know whether the object we are viewing exists beyond our mind. In fact, as Bakewell points out, Husserl changed his mind on this. The only thing that matters is describing what appears in our conscience.

This has philosophical implications for how we study the mind. Husserl and those who succeeded him focused on the intentionality of the mind. If we stopped thinking about other things, we would have ceased to exist. If we try and not think about anything, our mind immediately races to other things, such as how our partner is doing or what we are going to have for lunch. The mind must always be referring to something else. Thus, for Husserl, intentionality is a key part of the mind. This inspired Sartre and was emphasised within his own philosophy.

Part of the joys of this book is how Bakewell presents a version of philosophy that is not often viewed by the public. Bakewell highlights the points of Husserl’s life where he did not follow a path approved by modern day society. When Husserl was in university, he would fall asleep in classes that were not maths. Before he took up the post of a paid university lecture, he did many years of work with the university unpaid and tried to make end’s meet through freelance work. Today’s society has a set idea of how to be ‘successful.’ If you don’t go on to university and then onto a stable job, you have failed. If you don’t continuously work hard, then you won’t get anywhere in life. However, the truth is there are many stumbles along the way and alternative paths to take. Husserl did not even start by studying philosophy. Yet, he became one of the world’s greatest philosophers. The fact that Bakewell highlights these facts is refreshing and, for those reading this in the pandemic, a much needed truth to hear.

Bakewell’s explanation of the philosophy within this section is excellent. She begins by focusing on a quote Husserl would say in the morning when a student would bring him a cup of coffee:

Give me my coffee so that I can make phenomenology out of it.

Husserl

She then proceeds to expand on this statement, using the cup of coffee to explain the entire idea behind phenomenology. It’s an excellent approach to take, making the philosophy easily understandable but also engaging. It makes philosophy relevant and highlights how philosophy is constantly around us. This fights the view that philosophy is outdated and something to only be found in dusty books.

Overall, an excellent chapter. A bit short for my liking, but the quality is high.

If you would like to read along with us, you can purchase a copy of The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails from here.

Published by Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Student studying MA Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science at the University of Birmingham; First Class BA Philosophy and History from the University of Southampton.

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