William (Christopher) Barrett Essay - Critical Essays

Barrett, William (Christopher)


William (Christopher) Barrett 1913–

American literary critic, philosopher, and editor.

Barrett, an expert on existentialism and other philosophies and an astute literary critic, is widely known for his affiliations with Partisan Review, the most influential journal of leftist and modernist ideas published in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Begun during the 1930s by William Phillips, Philip Rahv, and other anti-Stalinist Marxists, this journal was considered the voice of post-World War II New York intellectuals. Written and edited by such prominent figures as Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Delmore Schwartz, and Lionel Trilling, Partisan Review has been described as the first evidence of "an independent and literate left" in the United States. Its initial program called for Marxism in politics and modernism in the visual arts and literature. Barrett, who served there as an associate editor between the years 1945–1953, was valued especially for his ability to translate the then new and "abstract Continental philosophy into lucid prose." His "What Is Existentialism?," an essay which appeared in Partisan Review in 1947, is among the clearest explanations of that philosophy. Tired of the intense intellectual atmosphere at Partisan Review and increasingly disaffected with the political positions of the magazine's staff, Barrett, who became increasingly conservative as his career progressed, left the publication in the 1950s. He went on to serve as a professor of philosophy at New York University from 1950–1979 and acted as the literary reviewer for the Atlantic Monthly in the 1960s.

Barrett's philosophical views are expressed most clearly in his books Irrational Man (1958), now considered a classic introduction to existential philosophy, and The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilisation (1978). In both of these works, Barrett's main thesis is that the greatest threat to modern civilisation and the cause of "the modern malaise of nihilism" is that which he calls "deranged rationality." The source of the phenomenon, in Barrett's view, may be found in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the evolution of Greek rationalism. Greek philosophers, who depended on abstract models to explain the world, detached reason from "the mythic, religious, and poetic impulses from which it had formerly been mixed." In doing so, in Barrett's opinion, they began a movement which led toward modern nihilism. Barrett calls for a return to the belief that life, in its mystical and mysterious grandeur, cannot be "enclosed in a completely rational system." He advocates a "new conception of thinking," one that recognizes the limitations of reason in the determination of truth and one that takes into account the "anxieties and dilemmas of ordinary men."

Barrett's philosophical views inform and shape his literary criticism and aesthetic theory. In Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1972), for example, he examines how the work of twentieth-century literary and visual artists reflect nihilistic tendencies and a burgeoning sense of alienation. An informal survey of works by such artists as Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett, and Ernest Hemingway, Time of Need shows Barrett to be sympathetic with those authors whose work gropes beyond the limits of rationalism. Renowned primarily as a philosopher, Barrett's literary criticism is also considered important and relevant to the contemporary reader because of the broad associations it makes between literature, philosophy, and the problems of the modern age.

Barrett's recent work, The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals (1982), is both a memoir of his personal and professional relationships with writers at Partisan Review and an examination of New York's intellectual life. Described by some critics as an important contribution to the intellectual history of the twentieth century, The Truants contains portraits of Philip Rahv, Delmore Schwartz, Mary McCarthy, and others.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

John Wild

In this suggestive book ["Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy"] William Barrett shows that Greek rationalism was much more than just a set of abstract theories. It established a structure of consciousness, an attitude towards life, which persisted throughout our subsequent history, and still plays a dominant role in contemporary life and thought. This attitude turned away from the individual subject and the concrete world in which he exists. Instead of trying to understand the human person from the inside as he lives, this rationalistic attitude was content to regard him from the outside as a thing before the mind, and to fit him into a universe of objects….

Mr. Barrett points out that the romantic poets were already rebelling against the abstract intellect which, if universalized, means the death of man. Developing certain suggestions of Whitehead, he shows how many existential insights can be found in Wordsworth. This poet knew that man exists not as an isolated substance but rather as always open to a world in essential relation to him…. The author has a genuine understanding of modern art and literature, and he indicates with a wealth of example and insight how they have already gone far beyond romanticism in challenging the rationalist conceptions of cosmic symmetry, and in revealing the absence of man, as he is in his dark inner depths, from such artificial constructions. There is no doubt that art and philosophy are at last moving in parallel directions. Can it be that the ancient quarrel between the philosophers and the poets which began with the writing of Plato's...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Charles Frankel

[In "Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy"] William Barrett has presented the most thorough account yet written for the American layman of the philosophy that has attracted so much attention in Europe since World War II—Existentialism. This philosophy is a protest against the submersion of the individual in a mass society, and Mr. Barrett … shares in this protest. A man with a taste for both poetry and politics, an independently minded philosopher and a writer of vigor and passion, he believes that the intellect in the modern world has become an inhuman gadget and that organized reason has given our civilization unprecedented powers, which it uses without taste or moral insight.

The author, however, does not think that our troubles come from having failed to take reason seriously enough. They come, he believes, from having taken reason too seriously. For the belief in reason, to his mind, has accelerated the drift toward a cold and collectivized world instead of combating it. Western culture, he asserts, has been in the grip of a myth—a fantasy that there is such a thing as the rational intellect, detached, pure, objective, and master of all it surveys. This is the main cause of the "divorce of mind from life" that plagues us. And he believes that Existentialism, more than any other philosophy on the current scene, is aware of this problem and has significant things to say about how to deal with it.

Mr. Barrett places his exposition of four leading Existentialists—Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre—in a broad context. A good deal of his book is devoted to a detailed study of such varied products of modern culture as the painting of Cézanne and the cubists, the writing of men like Joyce and Faulkner, and the Principle of Uncertainty in modern physics. All of these developments, in his view, reveal the growth of a new conception of human experience and a common conviction that the traditional categories and ideas of abstract reason are insufficient to place men in touch with reality.

Existentialism, Mr. Barrett argues, has captured this central theme. It expresses the realization that there are "subterranean...

(The entire section is 904 words.)

Leslie Dewart

The title of [What Is Existentialism?] would lead one to expect a pedestrian but systematic introduction to the subject of the sort usually addressed in the preface "to the general reader" or to "the educated public"—but which normally mystifies and rarely educates. Happily, the title is deceptive. This volume is neither a systematic treatment nor one which deals with existentialism in general. It offers instead two essays, related and partly overlapping, on the thought of one philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Moreover, these two essays, the composition of which was separated by "more than a dozen years," represent the author's attempt, not to popularize, but to divine the significance of Heidegger's thought as an event in the history of philosophy.

But in the end Mr. Barrett's accomplishment of this task does constitute, in a way, a highly successful introduction to existentialism; indeed, this is one of the best secondary sources yet available in English on the subject. The reason is that Mr. Barrett is one of the relatively few English-speaking philosophers who has attempted to view the contemporaneity of existentialism not as a novel or bizarre phenomenon, but as a historically present reality. The author, therefore, is far removed from that legion who, with the unquestionable but lifeless expertise of a Thomas Langan, dissect existentialism as if it were an unidentified body washed up to our domestic shores…. Mr. Barrett conveys the more important truth that existentialism is not simply an interesting episode in the annals of recent academic fads, but the conceptualization and intellectualization of a...

(The entire section is 675 words.)


Convinced that modern academic philosophy has largely given up on its responsibility to pursue the meaning of human life or even to ask the questions most vital to man, philosopher William Barrett [in Time of Need: Forms of Imagination in the Twentieth Century] turns to the testimony of modern art for a schema of the human condition. His choice of artists is wide and varied, ranging from Camus and Hemingway to sculptor Henry Moore and director Stanley Kubrick. The prevalent theme is, of course, nihilism and the struggle of major artists to express the plight of man alone in a universe bereft of meaning and value. The author's approach is leisurely and informal, more the result of his "haphazard reading and...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Anatole Broyard

In "Time of Need," the author is saying, like a teacher to a lazy student, "I'm afraid that's a very superficial reading." And he goes on to prove it. Examining Camus, Hemingway, Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, Hesse and even E. M. Forster—as well as Giacometti, Henry Moore, Picasso and others in the visual arts—he shows them moving beyond rational meaning, which is not the business of art, toward myth, mysteries and perspectives even deeper than those in de Chirico's paintings.

For all the pages that have been written about them, his interpretations of these artists are startlingly fresh and provocative….

With Beckett, [Barrett] has outdone himself—and perhaps the reader as well....

(The entire section is 383 words.)

John Wain

[Time of Need] is written out of a belief that Western man has exhausted his dynamo, that the time of need is now. The pride which once drove us to place the human alongside the divine—even if in the process the divine must give way and crumble to dust—has turned into sickness and self-doubt. Man's journey away from the primitive began with the Enlightenment, which promised to rid him of superstition and fear. At the same time the scientific revolution began to put into his hands the keys of the physical world. He has, so far, used those keys only for robbery and blasphemy. It was all right as long as man could see himself as being in cahoots with God, but when in the 19th century this partnership...

(The entire section is 882 words.)

Allen Lacy

In a series of articles published in Commentary between 1967 and 1976, Barrett presented his interpretation of such modern philosophers as William James, Martin Heidegger, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Readers of these provocative and lively essays could have easily predicted their eventual publication in a single volume.

The Illusion of Technique is that volume. Rather surprisingly, Barrett has chosen to embed his reflections on major figures in 20th-century philosophy in an examination of "the nature of technique—its scope and limits."…

Barrett's thesis about "technique" provides him with both villains and heroes. His villains are sometimes the technicians who design...

(The entire section is 767 words.)

Anthony Quinton

[The Illusion of Technique] is room service philosophy, presented with the utmost consideration for the presumed limitations of its readers….

The Illusion of Technique is, mainly, a meditation on the condition of man in the modern world that shows an increasing tendency to turn into an account, with modestly exemplary intentions, of a personal return to a strongly felt, if very nebulous, next best thing to religious faith. The project is carried out in a curious way as a more or less critical exposition of themes in the philosophies of Wittgenstein, Heidegger and William James. At times this seems an odd choice, as if a work of Vaughan Williams had been arranged for an orchestra of...

(The entire section is 461 words.)

Joseph J. Fahey

"It is easy to let the age have its head; the difficulty is to keep one's own." While this quotation from G. K. Chesterton does not appear in [The Illusion of Technique], it nevertheless is the substance of its message. We live in an age fascinated with a "technology of behavior," and the consequence is that person is treated as object rather than subject. William Barrett's purpose here is to seek the meaning of person in relationship to being in technological civilization.

He posits that freedom is the philosophical question today which must be addressed if we are to avoid both a Marxist and Skinnerian conditioning of behavior, which understand person only in a technical or functional...

(The entire section is 602 words.)

Hilton Kramer

The great interest of William Barrett's new book ["The Truants"] is that it takes us inside the lives and the minds of one of [the] pivotal intellectual coteries—the Partisan Review circle as it emerged in the years immediately before and after World War II—and reexamines both its leading personalities and its governing ideas with an unusual degree of intimacy, intelligence and candor. "The Truants" is, first of all, an insider's vivid and poignant memoir. It closes, indeed, with its author in tears, and it contains many other pages that, without ever becoming mawkish or self-indulgent, stir the emotions.

The book is exceptionally well written, and it abounds in brilliant portraiture....

(The entire section is 2010 words.)

Seymour Krim

[In a sense, The Truants] reads like a thoughtful novel—[Barrett] cannot separate Partisan Review and its sometimes overbearing contributors from the cultural and historical pressures of the period. As evidence, just when we are thoroughly hooked by his first-rate personality portraits, we see that Barrett is really after a lot bigger game than we had originally expected….

William Barrett now looks back upon [the] bold effort to link together the values of high art and revolution as by and large a self-willed illusion. Although he himself was a Marxist during his days on Partisan Review, he finds that he and his fellow editors never once questioned the inherent loss of...

(The entire section is 440 words.)

Pearl Bell

[One] cannot help suspecting that The Truants was originally conceived on a more modest scale—a memoir in the form of portraits—than what it finally became: a tantalizingly suggestive, but thinly realized attempt to draw, from the exhaustion of Marxism and modernism as they played themselves out in the story of Partisan Review, a far-reaching polemical lesson about the imperative need for a new moral and religious consciousness in our time. The issues he raises are indisputably important, but in this anecdotal context of recollection Barrett fails to do them justice.

There remains a nagging question: what can these memories of the Partisan Review intellectuals mean to those...

(The entire section is 847 words.)