Amanda Vaill at The American Scholar:
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a troubled dropout struggling with questions of responsibility, to his best friend. Even by the Elizabethan era, it seems, a discipline that had begun in classical times as a practical method for discerning how best to live life had devolved into something increasingly hermetic. Wind the clock forward, to the late 19th century, and philosophy had become an exclusively academic profession, focused on seemingly arcane questions of aesthetics, epistemology, and ethics.
The 20th century, improbably, changed all that. The Great War, the sweeping away of imperial dynasties, waves of technological revolutions, a worldwide economic collapse, the rise of global totalitarianism, World War II, the atom bomb, the Cold War—all these events destroyed cultural certainties and introduced bewilderment and anxiety. And it was philosophy—as a means of understanding who we are, why the world is as it is, what we ought to do—that came to the rescue.
Or at least that’s the message of At the Existentialist Café, the sprightly, elegant, occasionally unsatisfying new book by Sarah Bakewell, author of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award–winning How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.