Anthony Quinton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

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

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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 surgical instruments. (p. 460)

Wittgenstein is an odd choice as representative of the kind of science-oriented philosophy Barrett sees as the main enemy. The bulk of his written work falls within the rather circumscribedly cognitive domain of interest of analytic philosophers in this century, but in both its forms it is exceptionally cryptic. What is more it is associated with, and sometimes accompanied by, a lot of self-denigrating matter of a very different kind. Barrett quotes the letter to Engelmann in which Wittgenstein says that what is important is precisely what he has not written, that whereof we must remain silent. And he returns several times to the formulation of Heidegger's fundamental problem: 'it is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.'

Analytical philosophers are simply not in the business that interests Barrett, that of articulating a 'philosophy of life', a system of attitudes to the world and man's place in it. Vague and indirect intimations of such a thing can be identified by a kind of recreational hermeneutics, but it will not be simple Comtean optimism. Barrett has to do a fair amount of interpreting of Heidegger to get from his etymological abstractions about Being and about truth as openness to the programme of unreflective nature-mysticism he arrives at, but he has the warrant of Heidegger's later style of life in woodland seclusion and at least it gives some content to the strangely elusive utterances involved.

Hovering around the edges of this book is a confessional autobiography and it would certainly have been fresher and more interesting. Barrett is a pleasant writer, for all his anxiety to be accessible, with a wide range of knowledge and interests inside and outside philosophy. But there is something rather listless and unconvincing about the way in which he tries to put all his cultural bits and pieces to the service of a largely conventional message of spiritual consolation. (pp. 460, 462)

Anthony Quinton, "At Home in the World," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2532, September 28, 1979, pp. 460, 462.∗

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