At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails

1713John Gray at Literary Review:

In 1962, Martin Heidegger went on a cruise to the Aegean. Going to Greece had not been an easy decision. Seven years earlier he had got so far as to buy train and boat tickets; when the enormity of what he was attempting dawned on him, he cancelled the trip. He tried again in 1960, and once more called the trip off. Visiting the homeland of the oracular pre-Socratics and the only truly ‘philosophical’ language apart from German was too much of a risk. When he finally screwed up the courage to take the cruise, he hated the country he found. With Olympia now a mass of ‘hotels for the American tourists’, the ancient site no longer ‘set free the Greek element of the land, of its sea and its sky’. When the boat reached Crete and Rhodes, he stayed on board reading Heraclitus.

Sarah Bakewell’s witty account of Heidegger’s journey recalls the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser’s response to the Heideggerian question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ ‘Even if there had been nothing,’ Morgenbesser is supposed to have quipped, ‘he’d still not be satisfied.’ Heidegger was a central figure in generating the loosely defined current of thought commonly known as existentialism. His own thought was in many ways derivative, but he never allowed a debt – intellectual or personal – to stand in the way of his own advancement. He owed his academic career to Edmund Husserl, who more than anyone else originated existentialist thinking with his call for the direct study of human experience – phenomenology – to be accepted as the foundation of philosophy, and whose chair at the University of Freiburg Heidegger inherited.

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