SOME OF the greatest masterpieces of modern French philosophy were written in cafes. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the whole of Being and Nothingness in a window seat in the Cafe de Flore in Paris. I think about this every time I go to a Cafe Rouge. If you've ever tried to do anything more strenuous than read a newspaper in a cafe, you'll appreciate the immensity of the achievement. The bustle of waiters, the hiss of cappuccino machines, and existential phenomenology.
But Sartre didn't shut out the world around him. In a famous passage in Being and Nothingness, he based one of the central ideas of his philosophy around the waiter who brought him his coffee. He was typical of his sort, the efficient but brusque waiter of which central Paris is full. Indeed, Sartre found him so typical that he came to describe him as a caricature of an archetype he called "The Parisian Waiter".
The waiter was for Sartre only an extreme example of a process he thought we were all guilty of, and which he found deeply objectionable; that is, moulding ourselves into social roles, playing at being certain types, like "The Businessman" or "The Schoolteacher" or "The Grocer". We take on the mannerisms and facial and verbal expressions associated with our jobs, and stop being ourselves.
For Sartre, our great problem is that we are born with infinite possibilities, then grow up into one-dimensional cut-outs. The social order conspires to put us in these straitjackets. As Sartre puts it: "A grocer who dreams is offensive to the buyer, because such a grocer is not wholly a grocer. Society demands that he limit himself to his function as a grocer."
When we flatten ourselves in this way, when we say we are "just" a waiter or a grocer or an Internet entrepreneur, Sartre accuses us of a cardinal sin in existential philosophy: bad faith, or mauvaise foi. We are guilty of bad faith whenever we deny our basic freedom as human beings and instead slip subserviently into narrow, socially fashioned roles. For Sartre, the man who blames the fact that he does not dream or think on his occupation as a grocer is displaying appalling bad faith.
It is naturally a bit exaggerated to say that we have infinite freedom to be anything and anyone. And yet, as so often when philosophers exaggerate an appealing point, it's nice to hear from Sartre that we are more complex than we are usually allowed to be. So much of modern philosophy stresses the extent to which we are determined by our past, our class position and our bodies, and it's helpful to redress the balance with a reminder that we still have some room for manoeuvre.
It is also rather nice to see a philosopher pegging a major thought on a humdrum situation like being in a cafe. It should encourage us to think we are free to do more than just read the paper the next time we're in a Cafe Rouge.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies