Book Club: ‘At The Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, And Apricot Cocktails’ By Sarah Bakewell Chapter Three *Spoilers*

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If you would like to read, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being And Apricot Cocktails along with us, you can buy a copy here.

The next chapter of the book is focused on Martin Heidegger. Born in Messkirch, Heidegger took a similar path to Husserl. He didn’t initially intend to study philosophy. However, while at university, he discovered his love for it. His initial obsession was with Franz Brentano’s doctoral thesis, but he soon began reading classics such as Aristotle. This influenced his ideas on phenomenology. After doing some unpaid work, Husserl got Heidegger a job, the seat that Husserl had retired from. Husserl saw Heidegger as the one who would inherit his work on phenomenology. Most likely, he used Heidegger as a crutch after losing his son in the war. Little did Husserl know that he would eventually be deeply disappointed and the city of Freiburg would become The City of the Two Phenomenologists.

Despite Husserl taking Heidegger under his wing, Heidegger had multiple problems with Husserl’s ideas around phenomenology. The most pressing was Husserl’s focus on removing an individual’s being from the rest of the world. This same ‘mistake’ is one that many philosophers have made over time, the most prominent example of Descartes and the Evil Demon. Heidegger argued that an object’s being cannot be separated from the world around it. If you do, you miss being entirely. Being is a network which arises from the fact that, most of the time, our own being is interacting with something rather than contemplating it. When we are interacting with a boat, we look at how useful it is to us, such as whether it can get us across the lake. Thus, Husserl misses the entire point of Being.

However, it should be noted that Heidegger did note that there are instances where this coexistence of beings fails. There are times when the boat can no longer carry us across the lake as it springs a leak half way through the journey. This failure means our being’s interactions with other beings breaks down and we directly contemplate the object at hand. This has a significant change on how our world works.

The other mistake that Husserl made in Heidegger’s eyes was to not distinguish between particular instances of being and Being (this is complicated, but bear with.) For Heidegger, Being cannot be defined. Everything within the world has being – a church, a mouse, a piece of grass, us as humans. We know all of these things must have some Being as we are experiencing them. However, if we were to ask what all of these things had in common in order to define what being is, then we would become stuck. We would be unable to describe what this essence was. Heidegger this argues that Being is not a property or a ‘kind’. It is indefinable. This has important philosophical implications, particularly when considered against Husserl’s mission to be able to define Being.

The philosophy within the chapter thus boils down to two starkly different philosophyies. On the one hand, you have Husserl with his isolated, idealist account, concerned only with how objects appear within our consciousness. On the other, you see Heidegger’s account that emphasizes an the interconnectedness of our beings with others’ and their use within their networks.

The small detail I appreciated with this chapter is the subheadings. In this chapter’s subheading, Heidegger is described as a magician who appears. While providing an overview of the chapter, it continues the beautiful descriptions of Bakewell and peaks the interest of the reader for the chapter. It’s a nice touch from Bakewell, who continues to keep the philosophy she is explaining alive. It is a mere reflection of the vividness and passion that she writes the entire chapter with. It ignites an enjoyment from anyone who reads the book.

The part which captured my imagination the most was the comment by Pitch, a student of Heidegger. He made the comment that Heidegger could be described as a stormy landscape with a tree being uprooted in the center. There is a darker side to being a philosopher. Philosophers are often at the edge of the worst moments within life. While it has eroded now a days, philosophers should be the first to be asked about the hardest parts of life, whether its life, death or suffering. These cannot solely be answered with science. This can take a toll or be a heavy weight to burden, particularly when philosophers get it wrong. I felt this weight on Heidegger shoulder’s through this quote.

How much I am enjoying this book is well documented throughout the previous chapters I have analysed. However, with this chapter, there a few things that could be improved. From a philosophical perspective, there could have been greater clarity with how the philosophy was explained. It should be noted that Heidegger is an incredibly difficult philosopher to explain, particularly with how specifically he used his terminology. From quickly skimming the next pages, I think this chapter is an impartial account and will be revisited in the next chapter. However, I still feel there is room to provide a better account.

A more subjective aspect that would have been nice to have seen is an introduction focusing on the relationship between Husserl and Heidegger. From the way she portrays it, the relationship was filled with it all; friendship, betrayal, bitterness, and drama. The heart break and the treachery in the chapter is tangible between Husserl, the father who loved, and the adopted son who wanted to carve out his own legacy. With the captivating writing style she has maintained, emphasizing this bitter battle would have been a fantastic way to start the chapter, rather than focusing on a quote from Plato.

A final, more technical point around this chapter is Bakewell’s comments on Heidegger’s use of language. While she does briefly acknowledge the philosophical importance of questions within language, she mostly sees it from a pedantic point of view, arising from Heidegger’s own ego wanting to change how philosophers saw the world of metaphysics. However, I have to mostly disagree with her on this point. Philosophy and how it is used is of vital importance within philosophy. On the surface, it may seem ridiculous. However, the use of specific words often not only carries what they are referring to, but also can portray a series of judgements and values behind them. For instance, an individual may be described as ‘fat’. On the one hand, this refers to a person of a particular size. However, it also denotes other ideas within our society. For instance, it may portray that someone shouldn’t be the size they are or that a person is lesser than others because of their size. It can hold a whole world of hurt for those who carry the shame of being ‘fat’ with them. Thus, from a philosophical point of view, it seems reasonable for Heidegger to introduce new terms in order to battle against the stereotypes that persevered within metaphysics. While I agree with Bakewell that there is some level of pedantry to this at points, she could have gone further with her acknowledgement of an important aspect of philosophy.

What do you think? Do you think Heidegger would have been proud at how we cut to the issue at hand? Or would he say we were ‘Heideggerizing’? Are there aspects that you would like the blog to explain? Let us know below?

If you would like to read, At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being And Apricot Cocktails along with us, you can buy a copy here.

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