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Philosophy on the Boulevard

Manus Charleton
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails, by Sarah Bakewell, Chatto & Windus, 448 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0701186586 When Sarah Bakewell first read Sartre’s novel Nausea and Camus’s The Outsider as a teenager in the early eighties, she identified with the spirit of “freedom and meaninglessness pushed to their limits”. As a teenager in the sixties, I also identified with Roquentin, Sartre’s disaffected anti-hero, and with Camus’s alienated and estranged Meursault. In Dublin then a sense of freedom was much needed to brighten the lives of those in sullen rebellion against the strictures of Roman Catholicism. When I went to UCD in 1968 to study philosophy, the tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas was still the mainstay of the department. Yet change was in the air, not least from Existentialist winds drifting in from the Continent and from paperbacks on Existentialism in the big window of Grafton Street’s Eblana bookshop. Beckett was classed as an Existentialist playwright, though he always eschewed philosophical or other labels, and Existentialist ideas were on stage in plays which were dubbed “the theatre of the absurd”. This air of change helped rouse UCD’s philosophy students to protest against the department’s lack of commitment to teaching the value of other traditions, a protest that took place within the wider protest at the time against the lack of democracy in the university. In her very readable and entertaining book, Bakewell brings out how fashionable Existentialism was. This was not just in intellectual circles in postwar Paris: its popularity spread elsewhere and it influenced especially the free-spirited culture of the young generation in the sixties. As she writes: “Every fashionable person wanted to learn about it, every Establishment institution fretted about it, and almost every journalist seemed to be using it to make a living.” But in the more hard-edged seventies its appeal went into sharp decline. It was criticised for being self-indulgent and lacking intellectual rigour. More sober and academically based philosophies replaced it, such as structuralism and the deconstructionism associated with Jacques Derrida. Yet they too soon went out of fashion. And philosophy itself seemed to disappear from public view, acquiring a reputation for being confined largely to academic research and publishing on specialised topics and problems. But philosophers now regularly take their ideas into the marketplace with books of general interest. And Bakewell catches the atmosphere of intellectual excitement around Existentialism by writing, not an academic exposition and…

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