Okay! The list you’ve been waiting for! At last! Best Philosophy Books of 2016
Nigel Warburton does the honors at Five Books:
Philosophy raises fundamental questions about the world around us and how we should live our lives. Fortunately, a range of popular books now available mean you too can grapple with some of these issues. Philosopher and author Nigel Warburton picks his favourite philosophy books of 2016.
What’s been going on with philosophy books in 2016? Has it been a good year?
Over the last decade there has been a huge growth in popular philosophy. The result is that you’re not just getting general introductions to philosophy, but some significant books that deal with important philosophical questions. They’re written by philosophers, but pitched at a general public, so don’t use highly technical language or too many footnotes. This year has been a good year for this sort of book.
Let’s look at what those important philosophical questions might be by talking about the books that you’ve chosen. So of the best philosophy books of 2016, the first to make your list is about the philosophy known as ‘existentialism.’ It’s by Sarah Bakewell and it’s called At the Existentialist Café.
This is the best philosophy book that I’ve read this year. It is exceptional. Sarah Bakewell wrote a brilliant book about Montaigne, several years ago, which won a number of prizes. I think, in some ways, this book is even better. She explains the philosophy and situates it in the time, but she does this with a very light touch.
What she’s managed to do is combine the story of predominantly French existentialism (focusing on Sartre and de Beauvoir as well as Merleau-Ponty) with digressions about Heidegger and others. She’s combined that with some autobiographical elements and a real passion for the subject.
She is a very skilful writer, and draws you in through anecdote and small glimpses of the lives of these philosophers, blending it all together in a way that makes it seem very easy. But I know, as a writer, just how difficult that is to pull off, and only a truly exceptional writer could combine that many biographies, that many different, sometimes quite complex, philosophical positions, and still tell a plausible and engaging story. She’s done that, which is quite remarkable.
In doing this she is resurrecting Sartre and the existentialism of the 1940s, which, in some ways, is considered passé, particularly in France. The result is empowering for people to read. So I think this is a superb book. Everyone should read it.
It’s very readable, isn’t it? It’s quite chatty in tone, which you wouldn’t expect in a book about a very heavy and convoluted philosopher like Martin Heidegger, say. I like the way she describes him always going off into the Black Forest, near where he lives, and arguing that his philosophy is a bit like the paths that go through it.
There’s a particular kind of novelistic touch that she has when she observes things. The start of the book is the famous story about Sartre being inspired by the idea that he could philosophise about an apricot cocktail. This was part of the phenomenological movement—as he understood it—coming from Husserl: the idea that part of what it is to do philosophy is to describe accurately your perceptions and experiences, and that will somehow reveal the essence of things. Accurate description is as at the heart of philosophy and you can set aside any question of what exists and big metaphysical questions like that. That idea also inspired some of Sartre’s most brilliant passages in his book, Being and Nothingness.
Sarah Bakewell has picked that up quietly and is herself very adept at this sort of description.
I should add that Sarah Bakewell has also done an interview on Five Books. For people wanting to understand the basics of existentialism, that might also be quite a useful read. I think that’s the first interview you did for our site, back in 2013.
That was a really interesting interview to do. I hadn’t read the book at that point, because she was still writing it, and in a sense, that’s some of the working of the book revealed there. But the book is much more complex than that interview as it weaves together the various elements.
In the book, she deals seriously with the dark story of Heidegger’s Nazism, and particularly what’s emerged in his Black Notebooks, which reveal him as even more anti-Semitic and anti-humanistic than we’d imagined. Sarah Bakewell manages to acknowledge that with appropriate disgust, and yet recognise the good qualities that some of Heidegger’s philosophy has, something I find hard to do myself.
Sarah started a PhD on Heidegger, so she does know a lot about him, but she wears her scholarship very lightly. I know, because I’ve spoken to her about a number of the figures in this book, that what’s in the book is the surface. The research beneath it goes very, very deep, and she is completely on top of her subject.
You said existentialism is a bit passé. Why should it be relevant today?