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. …