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

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.

The Importance of Bodily Autonomy: Nurse Gives Patients Saline Instead of Vaccine

On Thursday 12th August, BBC News reported that a nurse in Germany had been giving patients an injection of saline (a harmless mixture of water and salt) instead of the Covid vaccination. She defended herself by arguing that she only did it to six patients due to dropping a number of vials needed to give them the vaccine. However, she is under suspicion for doing the same to over 8000 patients. Hence, it is suspected that the motive was a political one: the nurse is accused of being an anti-vaxer. For some, the case may not appear too bad. Saline is a harmless solution. However, the immorality of the case cuts deeply into philosophical issues around bodily autonomy.

‘Bodily autonomy is an individuals’ ability to make decisions about actions that will impact their body from a complete foundation of knowledge.’

What is bodily autonomy? It is an individuals’ ability to make decisions about actions that will impact their body from a complete foundation of knowledge. It is an individual’s right to decide how their own body should be treated. For instance, when someone denies a surgery to remove a tumor from their body, the decision is respected as the decision due to the individuals’ bodily autonomy. If someone then proceeded to carry out the surgery, then that would defy their bodily autonomy and would be morally wrong.

Bodily autonomy has a significant baring on multiple questions within philosophy. It is most obvious within the Pro-Choice movement, which argues women should be allowed to choose whether they have an abortion. Part of this argument arises from bodily autonomy; women should be able to have control of their own bodies and decide what is the right thing for it. It also plays a part in the Philosophy of Sex around consent. Individuals must be able to decide what they do with their bodies and whether they have sex.

Some argue that violations of bodily autonomy are far stronger than any other moral crime that can be committed. The violation of bodily autonomy is a special kind of wrong that hits us differently. This is why things such as rape or grievous bodily harm tend to carry higher prison sentences. (However, this can be a debatable premise. Instances of mental or verbal bullying can carry more scars than any other kind of physical harm. )

‘The nurse decided to undermine this bodily autonomy.’

This is the crux of the immorality of the case above; the individuals who wanted to get the vaccine had reviewed the pros and cons around getting the vaccine. They had made an informed choice with the information they had been given about how their body should be treated. However, the nurse decided to undermine this bodily autonomy. She defied their decision and gave them saline instead. Thus, her action was deeply immoral.

Some individuals may argue that the breaking of bodily autonomy is overemphasized within this article. There are some instances where bodily autonomy should be undermined. Breaking it does not necessarily lead to immorality:

Imagine that the nurse is on her way to the vaccination room when she overhears a conversation among the doctors. They comment that the injection isn’t a vaccine at all, but poison that will kill a person over two years. The nurse then proceeds to the vaccination room where she gives the person saline instead of the vaccination.

Philosopher Ad Absurdum

In the case above, bodily autonomy would not matter. The individuals may have made the decision to receive the vaccination and exercised their right to bodily autonomy. However, the nurse still did the right thing in denying them the vaccine. Thus, for some, the breaking of bodily autonomy in the original case would not have significant moral sway.

There is no doubt that there will be some individuals that would go as far as to argue that the nurse did indeed do the right thing and there is no difference between the original case and the adapted case. However, there are clearly significant moral differences that should be accounted for between the two examples.

Firstly, there is the question of knowledge. In the adapted case, there was something that the nurse new but those who were being vaccinated didn’t; that the injection was a poison rather than a vaccine. In this instance, it would be denied that the individual had actually exercised bodily autonomy. For bodily autonomy to be present, a decision must be made based on accurate information and the capacity for reasoning must be present. If there was something the individual didn’t know, then the individual would not have bodily autonomy. Thus, in the adapted case the nurse would be doing the right thing because there is no breaking of bodily autonomy. However, in the original instance, it is unclear that the nurse had any piece of knowledge that the individuals being vaccinated did not have. The individuals were well informed and thus were in a position to make a decision for their body. Thus, the nurse broke the bodily autonomy of the individuals she refused to vaccinate and her action was still morally wrong.

‘Surely there would be some situations where there is full bodily autonomy but that autonomy should be broken?’

Some may challenge this argument. Surely there would be situations where there is full bodily autonomy but that autonomy should be broken? There must be some situations where an individual makes a fully informed decision but we would still be morally obliged to stop them from making that decision.

The rejection of this argument can be illustrated through the example of smoking.

One of your friends is a smoker while you are not. Both of you know the risks that come with smoking; lung cancer, emphysema, strokes. However, your friend still makes the choice to smoke.

Philosopher Ad Absurdum

Despite knowing this is the wrong decision to make, you wouldn’t do anything to stop your friend from smoking. The reason for this is because they would have exercised full bodily autonomy. They were in full possession of the facts and made the decision still to smoke. Thus, the consequences of them choosing to smoke has no bearing on the morality of the situation for you. You still have to respect their bodily autonomy.

Thus in the case of the nurse, it may be true that she thought that the individuals were making the wrong decision in getting vaccinated. However, it does not alter the fact that she should not have prevented them from getting the vaccine. If they were capable of making rational decisions and were in full possession of the facts, the nurse had no right to make a decision for them about their own bodies, even if it was a harmless saline solution.

~o~

If you are still unvaccinated, you can find your local vaccination center here.

#FREEBRITNEY and the Philosophy of Psychiatry: What questions does it raise?

In 2008, after a series of public mental breakdowns, Britney Spears was placed into a conservatorship. This conservatorship prevented Spears from making any of her own decisions, from whether she could get married to how often she could see her children. Over a decade later, it has come to the public’s attention through the #FREEBRITNEY movement that this conservatorship is abusive. Conservatorships are reserved for those who have significant limited cognitive capacity. However, clearly Spears does not come under this description, as she still able to work. The high profile court case around the removal of Jamie Spears’ from the conservatorship has brought public awareness to issues within the philosophy of psychiatry that are not normally considered by the public.

‘Women have traditionally been forced to submit to men within societal structure.’

The most prominent problem that has arisen from the case is sexism. Women have traditionally been forced to submit to men within societal structure. Woman experience most sexism within medicine and the music industry. When seeking help for their ailments, women are often dismissed as doctors believe they are overexaggerating. Mental illness has also often been used as a tool to enforce certain behaviors in women rather than as a tool to help them. In the music industry, women have often been exposed to sexual harassment and have struggled with a harsher critique from media. Part of these criticisms often involve the fact the star is a women and calls into question their mental illness.

‘A more complex understanding of sexism and societal structure is needed.’

The pressing question around sexism is whether Britney would have been placed within a conservatorship if she was a Brian instead. Individuals have argued that this is a clear instance of sexism by drawing comparisons to Kayne West. West has experienced mental health problems yet there has been little intervention. However, It should be noted that there are other female stars who have had high profile mental health problems (Miley Cyrus) and have not been placed within conservatorships. Others thus suggest the complexity of Spears’ conservatorship may not be reducible to an instance of sexism. However, it can be, but a more complex understanding of sexism and societal structure is needed.

There are questions over the ethicalness of a conservatorship. Initially, conservatorships were introduced in order to protect those who had limited cognitive capacity. For instance, those with severe dementia. There have been instances where vulnerable people have been persuaded to marry individuals they do not know and the individual runs off with all of the money. Conservatorships prevent this by having a conservator who has to approve such decisions.

‘Some individuals argue that conservatorships should not be used due to the abuse that can arise from them. ‘

However, for some, conservatorships have no place. The evidence they provide for this is the ability to abuse the system, which is evident in the case of Spears. The reason for the attention around the case is the controversy of how Spears’ father, Jamie Spears’, has been running it. He is accused of using Britney as a ‘cash cow’, where he forces her to work but is the primary beneficiary of the money earnt by being the conservator of the Britney’s estate. Britney has not been able to challenge this arrangement due to the idea that she is not mentally stable enough to make her own decisions. She has no right to access legal representation nor have a choice about whether her father should remain in charge of the estate. Thus, her father has managed to get away with stealing Britney’s money via this inappropriately placed conservatorship. While the most popular example, Spears cannot be the only example of an individual being trapped for the benefits of others through the use of a conservatorship. Hence, some individuals argue that conservatorships should not be used due to the abuse that can arise from them.

‘The price of ignoring an individual’s suffering is worse.’

Some anti-psychiatrists have used similar examples to argue that mental illnesses do not exist. This can vary from claiming that mental illness is dependent on values only, to arguing that mental illness and physical illness do not depend in the same paradigm to mental illness being reducible to a reference to the same struggle inherent within life that everyone experiences. However, this is a difficult stance to maintain. A broken system does not necessarily mean that the problem it is trying to fix isn’t real. Further, for some, to challenge the existence of mental illness does even more harm than the abuse that arises from acknowledging its existence. The price of ignoring an individuals suffering is worse.

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.

Book Club: At The Existentialist Café By Sarah Bakewell Chapter One *Spoilers*

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

~o~

On the first day out with a few friends to Winchester after the lockdown, it rained. Excellent. With all of us loving books, we decided to hide within a Waterstones until the weather had passed. We were approached by the book keeper, who was clearly deeply passionate about his job and began a discussion with me about the books within the philosophy section. There, a white book caught my eye with the title, At the Existentialist Café; Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I had no clue that such a thing as apricot cocktails existed, so I purchased the book.

The author of the book, Sarah Bakewell, is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the university of Oxford, with other works, such as How to Live A Life: The Life of Montagne. She has had a fascination with philosophy, particularly the existentialists, since a young age but has rejected studying it in a formal setting. Part of the reasoning for this choice is founded from the Existentialists (the topic of the book) who focused partially on phenomenology and what it means to be alive. Overall, her approach to philosophy is unique and is reflected by this book.

The premise for the book is centred around a meeting between John-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Raymond Aron at the Bec-de-Gaz bar in Paris in 1932. This is identified by Bakewell as a pinnacle point within the existentialist movement. She claims that it is the key moment where Sartre began to establish himself as one of the most influential philosophers of his time and as the founder of Existentialism. He proceeded to go on to travel the country, filling lecture theatres and halls with all those who wanted to listen to his philosophy. All of this motivation arose through Aron’s use of an apricot cocktail as a metaphor to illustrate ideas around being. It creates an intriguing basis for an exploration of Existentialism and the key figures within it.

The introduction of the book is lively, making you feel that you are thrown into the streets of Paris and the cafes that these philosophers would regularly frequent. It makes you engage with the strong philosophical tradition that can be traced back to Socrates of discussing pressing philosophical questions in public settings. This feeling illustrates perfectly the strengths of Bakewell’s untraditional approach to philosophy; she does not merely cover the facts but absorbs into an animated world that she is creating. Not only can you feel the philosophy culture of the time, but it gives a feeling of excitement and anticipation and that something exciting is about to happen. It is the perfect writing style for an introduction that motivates you to read the rest of the book. However, the most impressive thing is it matches the style of the existentialists. You get the feeling on being on the edge of what it is to be alive and a sense of the ‘Rock and Roll lifestyle’ that Sartre and Beauvoir led. Bakewell’s approach not only serves as an opening to make you read more, but also to emphasise the message of the existentialism. It is nothing short of genius.

My favourite part of the introduction is the examination of why existentialism became so prominent within culture. Sartre became the equivalent of today’s celebrities, selling out theatres and having to yell out over crowds in order to give his lectures. When compared to the image of philosophers today (old men with beards sat among dusty books) the fame of Sartre would be unrecognisable. However, Bakewell smoothly puts this popularity within the pressing context of the time. At the time of the development of Sartre’s writing, the world had seen two wars which had resulted in a suffering that the world had never seen before. Death was prominent throughout society, lingering around the corner, particularly for those who developed PTSD as a result. Such suffering left people questioning the existence of God. People wanted to abandon God as no loving God would have allowed the horrors of the wars. However, the Church had traditionally provided the guidance on how people should live. It created a new society with a vacuum in the middle. However, Sartre’s philosophy provided a new way of living and coping in a world that saw tragedy. Existentialism provided promising grounds for finding a way to cope with the belief that there was no God.

This part of the introduction makes the book one that could have significant impact on our society. We too have experienced a horrific tragedy. The pandemic has taken the lives of many in the worst way possible. For some, they will no longer be able to believe in a loving God when faced with the natural evil that is persisting within society. Revisiting the philosophy of the Existentialists may provide answers for many who feel the same vacuum as those who lived through the horrors of the wars. Bakewell’s book, as a book that is accessible to those who have no foundation within philosophy, may be able to provide this guidance.

The introduction of this book is thus excellent. However, this does not mean it doesn’t present any problems. I would have liked to have received more information about Beauvoir throughout the introduction. She was an excellent philosopher in her own right and Bakewell acknowledges that Beauvoir played an important role in Sartre’s life, both philosophically and romantically; they corresponded every day to discuss the ideas that they had come across and had an open relationship where both were the other’s primary partner. However, she is portrayed throughout the introduction as mostly a love interest or a spectator to the greatness of Sartre. She was a great philosopher in her own right, and I feel Bakewell could have emphasised that point better. The book could have been used to help erode the mostly male canon but Beauvoir was sidelined. However, this issue may be dealt with at a later point within the book.

The most prevalent problem with the introduction is the organisation. It is 35 pages long compared to all the others which are 25 pages long. This directly challenges the fast-paced tempo that Bakewell was attempting to build. It also jumps back and forth between bibliography, context and philosophy. I feel this could have been sharpened and streamlined in order to provide a more dynamic chapter. The study of philosophy is partially about condensing things into their simplest form and making them clear. Bakewell could have done more to ensure this. For instance, at the end of the chapter she attempts to define existentialism. This is not needed. As Bakewell acknowledges herself, there is no one definition of existentialism or phenomenology that can be provided, despite Bakewell’s attempt. A rough definition can also be inferred from the chapter and there are many other chapters that can be used to build up the picture of existentialism. Thus, certain areas of the introduction, like the end section, could have been reduced to make it more streamline.

With that being said, however, the genius outweighs the lack of organisation. As someone who has not read any Existentialism, it makes it engaging and fun to read. I am looking forward to seeing what the rest of the book holds and whether Bakewell can keep the same passion throughout the book?

Comment below how you found the introduction of the book. Do you agree with us that the introduction was excellent? Or do you think we missed something in our review?

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

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