William (Christopher) Barrett

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Allen Lacy

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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 detention camps to exorcise such quirky souls as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, sometimes the computer people who would love to reduce all human activity to a simple formula, sometimes social scientists of a behaviorist bent.

For the "bland summer hotel" that B. F. Skinner presented as a Utopian ideal in Walden II, Barrett has utter contempt. He mocks especially Skinner's assertion that his Waldenites will have a high appreciation for all the arts. What would a person conditioned to live without tension make of Oedipus or Hamlet? "Two cases of very badly bungled conditioning," suggests Barrett.

Barrett's heroes are people like Solzhenitsyn and all other dissidents; eccentric monomaniacs like Bobby Fischer (whose passion for excellence and for chess would disturb the placid waters of a Walden II); and workers whose random and erratic bathroom trips are sufficient to drive computer people to desperate frenzy.

As a book about technique, Barrett's new book fails. He shows a fine indifference to the work of Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, and others who have tried to present technique as a social and philosophical problem for our time. Occasionally he has to distort his material, wrenching it into place to make it serve his rather vague overall thesis. Often in reading The Illusion of Technique, I wasn't sure what he meant by his central term. Furthermore, I'm not at all sure that it is technique that is the sole enemy. "Informing visions" (such as a 1,000-year Reich) have worked much mischief in the world. Nevertheless, The Illusion of Technique is a very engaging book, one in which the parts are somehow greater than the whole.

Like Irrational Man, The Illusion of Technique is no scholarly monograph addressed to Barrett's fellow philosophers. Some of them will probably find it too sermonic, too high-flown in its rhetoric and its ambitions, for their tastes. Nevertheless, the philosophical commentary and interpretation Barrett gives of James, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein is lucid. He communicates a good sense of the questions each thinker wrestled with—and those they failed to pursue. He considers the development of their thought, and he pursues the degree to which their work, admittedly very different in style, is deeply interconnected.

Although Barrett gives his major attention to the three thinkers he considers to be the undisputed philosophical eminences of this century—and of these James satisfies him most—he also discusses Husserl, Russell, Nietzsche, Hegel, Kant, and Descartes. To read The Illusion of Technique is thus to travel, really very pleasantly, through the territory Western philosophy has explored ever since Descartes embarked on his expedition of radical doubting of all that he thought he knew.

Barrett's own philosophical style is rather paradoxical. He writes lucidly about the need for mystery. He describes, beautifully and elegantly, the need to recognize the claims of the silent and the wordless over our being. He argues rationally for the preservation of our freedom, for the maintenance of sufficient disorder in human existence that it will always be a bit unpredictable.

Finally, it is not William Barrett's...

(This entire section contains 767 words.)

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concern for the demonic possibilities of "technique" that unifies his book, nor is it his clear presentation of the dominant figures of recent philosophical history. It is Barrett himself. UnlikeIrrational Man, The Illusion of Technique gives the reader a view of the author, of how he lives, of what he thinks important. (p. R13)

One senses, by the time one has finished the book, that even the great philosophers whose thought Barrett analyzes and dissects are like familiar objects in his life, that he has moved toward age in the company of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience much as some people do who have come to look on an old Oriental carpet or a treasured vase as a deeply personal friend.

The Illusion of Technique is finally a very powerful and moving testament to the values for which it argues. (p. R14)

Allen Lacy, "Rational Arguments for Human Disorder," in The Chronicle Review (copyright © 1978 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.), November 13, 1978, pp. R13-R14.


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Anthony Quinton