Tag Archives: Friedrich Nietzsche

Sartre & Co.

Richard Ashcroft is a philosopher and ethicist. He is Professor of Bioethics in the School of Law at Queen Mary University of London. Here he reviews Sarah Bakewell’s book  At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails (Chatto & Windus, 2016) for the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog.

As a teenager I began to take an interest in philosophy for some of the usual reasons: uncertainty about the existence of God, doubt about the sort of person I was or wanted to be, puzzlement about my studies, utter confusion about sexuality. I took myself fairly regularly to the public library in search of enlightenment.

emmet-coverAfter getting bored by E. R. Emmet’s Pelican paperback, Learning to Philosophise – I really wasn’t that bothered by the existence of tables, but I was bothered that people might bother about that – I had fun with A. J. Ayer’s punk rock classic, Language, Truth and Logic, and then fell off the deep end into Nietzsche’s abyss through R. J. Hollingdale’s biography. Yet there was something a bit too challenging about Nietzsche. He was too elusive. Even the greatest hits (“God is dead…”) slipped through my fingers when I tried to pick them up and examine them. What Nietzsche did give you was a sort of borrowed dangerousness. Sticking a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra in your pocket gave you instantly the air of an Intellectual, even if you didn’t know what it was on about, in part because no one else did either, but it gave everyone something to react to. Nietzsche would have something to say about this, no doubt.

Yet it was only when I encountered the Existentialists that I began to get a sense of what philosophy might really be and how one might practically do – indeed, live – it. My route into Existentialism was through Beckett, but I quickly moved into the main writings of Camus, Sartre, de Beauvoir and eventually Heidegger as I passed through my late teens and into my twenties. By the time I began to study philosophy (as part of History and Philosophy of Science) I had become aware that the Existentialists were rather out of fashion. Derrida and Foucault were now the names to drop, though of course they had their own debts to Existentialism. The professional philosophers I was taught by largely, though not exclusively, scorned this stuff (analytic rigour or Fenland parochialism? You decide). But in the wider circle of people who were interested in philosophy, who stuck paperbacks in their pockets and got into passionate and futile arguments in pubs and parties and over endless chocolate biscuits, the Existentialists were still current.

My reason for this excursion through memoir is to underline a thing which Sarah Bakewell’s study of the lives of the Existentialists highlights: the cultural importance of Sartre and company, and the autobiographical importance of these thinkers in the lives of many readers who grew up in the post-war period. Philosophy was current. People talked about it. People had fannish relations with philosophers; if you liked Sartre, you weren’t supposed to like Camus. For men particularly Simone de Beauvoir was the Yoko Ono of thought. The pop analogy is deliberate; for much of this coincides with the rise of pop and rock culture, and the emergence of the Teenager.



Much of the language of teenage self-fashioning and evaluation of pop trends is drawn directly from Existentialism – either directly or through writers such as Colin Wilson. Consider the lyrics of The Who, for instance, which are deeply engaged with questions of authenticity, honesty and truth in a very Sartrean vein; the same can be said of the Sex Pistols in a more refracted and distilled form.

Existentialism mediates between the ordinary developmental crisis of trying to become an adult person in one’s own right and the more specific crisis of doing so in a consumer society which both prioritises and pathologises individualism. Another feature of the postwar teenage experience is that “the kids” know something the adults don’t, that real invention and innovation come from youth and inexperience, and that the world as we find it is corrupt and needs to be overcome through youthful energy. Again, these are very Existentialist notions about finding one’s authentic project in world into which we are thrown, but which we can remake on our own terms, not accepting the rules as given as being binding upon us morally, but only as constraints to be overcome.

at-the-existentialist-cafe-uk-coverBakewell’s book is terrific – beautifully written, and elegant in its precise and concise portraits of the leading figures in the European Existentialist movement, their engagements – with thought and with each other – and the historical circumstances through which they moved. She is very fair to her cast, but does admit to her preferences. She is acute and tough-minded when it comes to her appraisals of their various political engagements (she’s especially good on Heidegger, but the arguments between Camus, Merleau-Ponty and Sartre are also well treated). One thing which appeals to Bakewell (and to me) is the relative prominence of women as Existentialist philosophers, and arguably the most abiding influence of Existentialist philosophy as such is in feminism, and I must admit that the only work of the Existentialists I would now want to go back to re-read is The Second Sex.

Writing and publishing a popular book about philosophers who were (are?) popular calls for comment in its own right. Bakewell’s book sits alongside Andy Martin’s The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus as a popular exposition of the ideas and lives of the Existentialists. It also sits alongside Bakewell’s study of Montaigne, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. Stuart Jeffries has just published a group biography of German humourists The Frankfurt School (The Grand Hotel Abyss). And of course any visit to a bookshop will find a section on philosophy, much of which is devoted to a few Penguin classics, some popularisations of particular philosophers’ works, and books from the ever expanding “School of Life” books and the omnipresent Alain de Botton.

The standard philosopher’s view of all this might be that most of these are not “real” philosophy, being neither rigorous academic texts nor much connected to current research in the field. The standard non-philosopher’s view of that would be that that’s so much the worse for academic philosophy. I think reading Bakewell allows a more nuanced view to emerge. It shows that the “academic” and the “popular”, and indeed the “text” and the “life” can come together, but that it takes a rather specific historical conjuncture to occur for this to happen. Crudely put: while popularisation succeeds because there is a felt want for some kinds of “teaching” about life and its meanings and purposes which is never wholly out of fashion, it takes a lot more for work in professional philosophy (inside the academy or elsewhere) to become popular in its own right.


In the case of Sartre and company, they achieved a certain level of “cool” at a time when “being cool” was coming into focus; they danced, they drank, they published, they fought, and, in due course, they became so current and recognisable that Tony Hancock could make a film satirising and admiring them and their fans and Monty Python could do a skit in which two of their redoubtable Pepperpot ladies called on Sartre in Paris to ask him about a point of metaphysics, and millions of viewers would be in on the joke.

Some of this is probably mere historical happenstance. But the hook which enables this popularity is the engagement of this philosophy with the things of life itself – you don’t just philosophise and then go dancing. You philosophise about the dancing. And you dance philosophically.

Follow RIchard Ashcroft on Twitter: @qmulbioethics

Read more about Existentialism on the Cultural History of Philosophy Blog


Edward Caddy took the ‘Philosophical Britain‘ module at Queen Mary in 2016. In this post he writes about ‘existentialism’ – one of the most widely used of all philosophical keywords.

Benedict Cumberbatch performs in Director Lyndsey Turner’s production of Hamlet at the Barbican, in London. Johan Persson / Reuters

“To be, or not to be: that is the question…” As a youth, sitting in class on a hazy summer afternoon, I didn’t wholly understand the question. In fact, I very much doubt anyone in that class did, no offence meant, Mr Williams. Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy must surely be the Western world’s most well known expression of an individual in existential crisis. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, published in 1927 was the first philosophical work to point to the fact that ‘the essence of what it means to be human’. For Heidegger, as for Prince Hamlet, the only question a human must answer, is whether they choose to a live an authentic life, or not – what it means to be human is evidenced by our every day existence. Fortunately for most of us, Hamlet’s reservation remains one to be tackled in fiction and fantasy. Existentialist philosophers however, share a common concern with Hamlet, asking questions such as; Why am I here? What does it mean to be human? How should I best live my life?

‘Existential’ is recorded as having first entered the English language in 1656. The term was drawn from 4th century post-classical Latin – existentialis – meaning, coming into being. Up until the mid-20th century, ‘existential’ was used primarily to refer to existence; it held no philosophical definition as such. Unsurprisingly, the term found its roots outside the relatively modern field of existential philosophy. For instance, in the field of psychology, ‘existentialist’ found use as early as 1929 to describe an advocate of an approach to the study of consciousness based on the introspective analysis of experience into its elements. It was not until the mid-1940s that French Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel coined the term ‘existentialism’ to refer to the emerging philosophical approach.[1]

Clearly defining existentialism has proven difficult, not least because of profound doctrinal differences between existentialism’s principle philosophers. The general consensus has been to consider existentialism not as a philosophical system or rigid set of doctrines, but rather as a philosophical movement, which focuses primarily on the analysis of human existence. The primary interest of those in the movement is the problem of human existence.

Despite rising to prominence in the mid-20th century, it was two thinkers from the 19th century that are considered the founding fathers of the movement. Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, though they never used the term ‘existentialist’, were the first to focus on the subjective human experience and the apparent meaningless of life. It was in the context of the emerging sense that science, which had made the world a mechanism governed by irrefutable, natural laws, and had drained any external or transcendent source of meaning, purpose or value from the universe, that Kierkegaard and Nietzsche began to look again at what it meant to be human, and how being human can be something valuable and useful. To overcome this dilemma, Kierkegaard’s knight of faith and Nietzsche’s Übermensch defined the nature of their own existence. In this way, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche can be considered the precursors to the philosophies that would define the movement.

“Shadow Play” 1961

It was in the years following the Second World War that existentialism became a significant philosophical and cultural movement, with influential existentialists such as Albert Camus, Simone de BeauvoirMartin HeideggerMaurice Merleau-Ponty and perhaps, most notably, Jean-Paul Sartre. The Second World War focused attention on the kind of moral dilemma that you’re faced with if you don’t have any absolutes to rest on – in a sense, the war presented individuals with a sharper form of perennial dilemmas. This period was pivotal for the transmission of existential philosophy to the public sphere; Beauvoir wrote that “not a week passed without the newspapers discussing us”;[2] existentialism became “the first media craze of the postwar era.”[3]

“[Existentialism] is an attitude that recognises the unresolvable confusion of the human world, yet resists the all-too-human temptation to resolve the confusion by grasping toward whatever appears or can be made to appear firm or familiar… The existential attitude begins with a disoriented individual facing a confused world that he cannot accept.” (From Hegel to Existentialism, Robert Solomon)

Solomon’s explanation goes some way to expressing the existentialist’s concern with the ‘human condition’ and the questions they sought to answer. Existential thinkers have differed widely on their evaluation of the ‘human condition’ which only adds to the difficulty in defining the keyword, let alone the movement.

Although existentialist thinking became more apparent, it managed to retain, or indeed entrench further, its fluidity as a term. As Solomon noted, the individuals starting point begins with “the existential attitude”, that is, disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless world; for many, this only served to reinforce pre-existing, all-encompassing systems or theories that purported to provide answers to the meaning and purpose of human life. That is, religious and philosophical systems that remove the massive burden you are faced with if you try to create meaning and purpose for yourself in a unique and personal manner. Existential thinking is not fixed thinking.

The lack of clearly defined parameters has served to increase the
accessibility, and appeal of existentialism – in the wider realm of literature, theatre and film and television, ideals can be picked and chosen at will. Fyodor Dostoyevsky was the first to use literature to describe the existential condition in his Notes from Underground. Dostoyevsky describes the underground man, confronting an awful solitude and the lack of meaning and value in the universe. The protagonist, confronted with a confused world, has to look to himself to find meaning.

Dostoyevsky’s novels spawned influence in the world of film and television, art, literature and theatre. Jean Genet’s 1950 fantasy erotic Un chant d’amour attempts to convey the bleakness of human existence in a godless universe. More recently, The Matrix, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and even Toy Story, although not explicitly existentialist, tackle ideas of self, identity, freedom and authenticity. Whilst this creates difficulty in assessing the history of existentialism as a keyword, it goes some way to note the importance of existentialism in areas that it is not traditionally acknowledged. Existential philosophy will effect almost everybody at some point in their lives, whether they are conscious of it or not.


Much like myself growing up in the 21st century, young people right across the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were influenced greatly by existentialism, not immediately by the novels and writings of Sartre or Camus, but by a series of popularisations that were extraordinarily well read – books by John Macquarrie, Lynne Olson, and Walter Kauffman. The Spectator Archive reflects the increase of existentialism in the public sphere from the 1960s onwards. The works of the aforementioned prolific authors served to distill and impress upon these adolescents, the essence of the existential outlook. Sarah Bakewell’s recent article, highlights how existential thinking is still relevant to us today, going so far as to say that it offers a number of unique benefits in the realms of personal life, relationships and productivity. In an ever increasingly definition-rejecting age that seeks to define itself upon ones self rather than external measures or values, the ideals of existentialism that are distilled through theatre, film and literature are more important than ever.

Despite the apparent morbidity of existentialism, there is an optimism. The first response to questioning the purpose or value of a life that holds no external absolutes, is of despair. However, when the existential thinker is confronted with an absurd or confused world, and asks ‘Why am I here?’, the answer is one of positivity and, almost, enlightenment. The essence of existentialism is that human beings are able to transcend the futility of life through honesty and bravery in the face of an absurd world, advocating freedom, individuality and responsibility. To be ones self, is to be authentic, is to be an authentic human being.

“Rashomon” 1950

[1] Thomas R. Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 89.

[2] Simone de Beauvoir, Force of Circumstance, quoted in Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre (University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 48.

[3] Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre (University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 48.

Why philosophy needs cultural history

Thomas AkehurstDr Thomas Akehurst teaches history and politics at the University of Sussex and the Open University. He is the author of The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe

In this blog post, he makes the case for the value of approaching philosophy through cultural history.

One of the problems facing academic philosophy in the 20th century was that it became, well, more and more academic – specialised, cut off from the interests of the rest of humanity, and it seems not able, or not willing to address our concerns.

This disconnect between academic philosophy and human life, called the “existential gap” has been seen as a particular feature of analytic philosophy – the dominant tradition in British and American universities.[1] Philosophers’ attitudes to this gap have varied tremendously. In the 1950s, many of those practising the discipline in its then powerhouse, Oxford, seemed to revel in its abstruse irrelevance. The philosopher G. J. Warnock reflects back on the period:

I did not believe that it was likely to contribute to the solution of the problems of the post war world; I did not believe it would contribute, certainly or necessarily, to the solution of any philosophical problem. But it was enormously enjoyable; it was not easy, it exercised the wits; and those who think it can never be valuably instructive have simply never tried, or perhaps are no good at it.[2]

And perhaps many academic philosophers and aspiring academic philosophers continue to share something like this view. It’s enjoyable, it pays the bills. There are excellent opportunities to travel. However the 21st century has also seen the revival of attempts to reconnect analytic philosophy with the rest of us. Popular philosophy, applied philosophy, now practical philosophy and philosophy therapy have all become swelling areas of output. Texts in these genres now dominate the two shelves reserved for philosophy books in some larger branches of Waterstones. This desire to speak to a wider audience can only be a good thing if we believe that life, on balance, is worth thinking about.

Unfortunately, this desire for outward-looking communication on the part of philosophers, hasn’t yet been equalled by the willingness for inward looking disciplinary self-scrutiny. Philosophy arises from its culture and context. It carries the assumptions of its time and place and of its historical development. Sometimes this baggage is in plain sight, more commonly it’s hidden from philosopher and reader alike: contraband at the bottom of a suitcase the philosophers didn’t pack themselves.

Contemporary British analytic philosophy has shown very little interest in examining the cultural and political ideas and attitudes it has been moulded and formed by over the years. And this is why the cultural history of philosophy is such an important field. The history of philosophy is shaped by many factors. Philosophical arguments, for sure, have an impact on the direction of the discipline. But a much broader range of issues also help shape and form apparently abstract philosophical positions and developments. And it’s here that cultural-political histories, as well as institutional histories, become very important if we want to understand the philosophical thought that’s presented for our edification.

Cultural history of philosophy is not (yet) the thriving cottage industry it might be. Yet some work has been done. John McCumber has explored how McCarthyism in the US put powerful external pressure on philosophers to abandon certain fields of study, or tailor their conclusions in a safe political direction. Those who did not could expect stymied or terminated careers. George Reisch explores a similar dynamic in the philosophy of science. [3]

Cultural politics coverMy own work points to the way that British philosophers drew conclusions about the wars against Germany in the first half of the twentieth century – and how these conclusions fed through into their philosophical work.[4] They identified a tradition of German philosophy they believed resulted in German aggression, and ultimately in National Socialism. These attitudes and assumptions on the part of the British were poorly defended in their written work, but nevertheless contributed to a purging of the canon of philosophy after 1945. A swathe of European philosophy from Hegel onwards was subject to dismissal and mockery followed by an “active process of forgetting and exclusion”.[5] This exclusionary process marks a crucial moment in the creation of the rift between analytic and continental philosophy that continues to dominate European and American thought.[6]

In the mid-century, British philosophers emphasised the warts of the German/European tradition – Nietzsche was a megalomaniac, Hegel a deceptive state-serving nationalist, Rousseau a sort of evil seductive genius.[7] Even as they condemned German (and allied) thought for its fascist tendencies, the British philosophers held up their own tradition as one of congenital liberality – pointing to a virtuous canon of British thinkers going back to John Locke. These British philosophers were portrayed as liberal in politics, rigorous in philosophy and noble in character. They were carefully airbrushed to remove the stains of historical indiscretion: such as the sanction Locke gave to the expropriation of native American lands, or John Stuart Mill’s paternalist racism, much less the anti-Semitism of Bertrand Russell, the 20th-century hero of British analytic philosophy.[8]

Once philosophy is allied to a national cause, you get nationalist philosophies, with the virtues of “our boys” relentlessly juxtaposed to the vices of the enemy. The German philosophers of the 19th century were no more Nazis than the British philosophers of previous ages were saints. But philosophy mobilized for war resembles the nation-state mobilized for war. Nationalist philosophy is distorting, and homogenizing.

That, at times of existential threat, philosophers respond like many other people and get defensive and jingoistic is perhaps not very surprising and not especially condemnable. And there’s no doubt that for the philosophers I’ve studied, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, R.M. Hare, amongst others, the Second World War was such a threat. Perhaps the realization that philosophers were ready to draw simple nationalist distinctions and assassinate the characters of fellow philosophers might give us reason to doubt some of the more grandiose claims about philosophy’s ability to cultivate calm rationality in its practitioners. But the Nazis were a terrifying threat – and there but for the grace of God go we all.

The problem is not that these men drew hasty conclusions. The trouble is that analytic philosophy has so solidly refused to countenance the possibility of any influence beyond the narrow scope of “strictly philosophical” questions that these hasty judgements and nationalist prejudices have been left unexplored and unchallenged by contemporary analytic philosophy. Not only have these attitudes gone underground and helped to to cement the foundations of the an unhelpful rift between analytic and continental philosophy, but at times they resurface in all their mid-century glory – in the analytic philosophers’ last words on Jacques Derrida, for example.[9]

Many analytic philosophers now want to be heard. But still very few seem to want to make a serious exploration of their past and its baggage. All the time this is the case, the discipline and what it offers to the public remain weighed down by unchecked cultural assumptions, political assumptions, and uncodified traditions. This short article has explored just some of these. Much remains to be explored. Analytic philosophy needs the cultural history of philosophy to sort through this historical accretion, assess it, and hopefully discard what is no longer needed. As a result, analytic philosophy may walk a little lighter and may find itself with new and surprising things to say to the public it wishes to cultivate.


[1]          Preston, Aaron Analytic Philosophy: The History of an Illusion (Continuum, 2007) 25

[2]            Warnock, G.J. Essays on J.L. Austin (Clarendon Press, 1973) 59.

[3]            McCumber, John Time in the Ditch: American Philosophy and the Mccarthy Era (Northwestern University Press, 2001). Reisch, George A. How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic. (CUP, 2005).

[4]            Akehurst, Thomas L. The Cultural Politics of Analytic Philosophy: Britishness and the Spectre of Europe  (Continuum 2010)

[5]            West, David  “The Contribution of Continental Philosophy,” in A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, ed. Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit, Blackwell Companions to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Blackwell, 1995), 39.

[6]                   Simons, Peter. “Whose Fault? The Origins and Evitability of the Analytic Continental Rift”. International Journal of Philosophical Studies 9, no. 3 (August 2001).

[7]            Berlin, Isaiah Freedom and Its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty. Edited by H. Hardy. (Chatto and Windus, 2002). 43.  Russell, Bertrand History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin, 1946). 794.

[8]            Bracken, Harry  “Essence, Accident and Race,” Hermathena, no. 116 (1973). Mill, John Stuart On Liberty, 1859, Moorhead, Caroline Bertrand Russell: a Life (1993 Sinclair-Stevenson Ltd.).

[9]            Blackburn, Simon “Derrida May Deserve Some Credit for Trying, but Less for Succeeding,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, no. 1666 (12 November 2004).