Context and sensemaking

Thinking lately about how context is so intimately central to the way we understand the world around us. Seeing the same information before and after a few key pieces of context is transformative.

When I was in college, I picked up a book on existentialism that was curated and edited by a man named Walter Kaufmann. It had excerpts of writing by several existentialist writers at the time, with introductions written by Kaufmann for each of them. I immediately recognized Sartre’s name and flipped to his section, eager to see what made him so brilliant. To my disappointment, Kaufmann spoke somewhat flippantly about Sartre, saying [paraphrase1] and [paraphrase2]. I went on to read Sartre’s excerpt – The Wall – and was somewhat amused, but largely unmoved.

The original takeaway: Sartre wasn’t actually that great, and maybe I was naive for thinking he was.

Almost a decade later, I read The Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, which followed the biographical lives of many existentialists as they moved through pre- and post-war Europe, with Sartre situated as the main character. Having had my interest re-piqued, I reached again for the book by Kaufmann.

As I read through his introduction for Sartre and Sartre’s The wall, I experienced whiplash after whiplash of new insights, caused by the new context I held after 10 years.

Context 1: I noticed this time that Kaufmann was writing in 1950. Given the biography, I realized he was actually Sartre’s contemporary.

Context 2: A quick google told me Kaufmann was a traditional philosopher, having served as a professor at Priceton for 30 years. I realized maybe Sartre’s (at the time) radical rejection of academia made Kaufmann look down on Sartre a little, hence the flippant intro.

Context 3: 10 months earlier, I had witnessed the unexpected and swift loss of my dad to cancer – an awful fate for someone who really did not want to die. The Wall is all about someone who doesn’t want to die. I realized it’s actually a really fucking scary read.

The new takeaway: Sartre actually was great, and all it took was a little bit of context.