Charles Frankel

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904

[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.

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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 forces of life" with which pure reason cannot deal and that reason itself has its roots in these irrational forces. Existentialism wants a new conception of human thinking, which recognizes that existence is primary and logic only secondary. It asks, in short, for an intellectual revolution, for a new set of standards by which the works of the mind can be judged.

On the whole, Mr. Barrett summarizes rather than analyzes the arguments of the Existentialists, but his account nevertheless does much to illuminate this philosophy about which much has been said but relatively little known. Despite the sweeping character of some of the author's generalizations about art, science and culture, "Irrational Man" makes it plain that Existentialism is not just a fad and that it reflects developments in our society profoundly challenging the ideal of the life of reason.

The book is all the more useful because Mr. Barrett is himself "engaged" and "committed," and has offered his own Existentialist interpretation of modern Western history and culture. Whatever we may think of his position, it is good to read a philosopher who thinks that philosophy should have something to say about the anxieties and dilemmas of ordinary men.

Nevertheless, the position for which Mr. Barrett has chosen to argue is much less than persuasive. Because the "subterranean forces of life" are unaware of the laws of logic, he argues that we too should keep logic in its place. Because human reason is fallible, he believes that we ought to supplement it with irrational methods when we form our basic beliefs. These are astonishing inferences to draw from rather ordinary platitudes. Despite the anguished tones with which the existentialists announce their discovery, it is, after all, rather stale news that human reason is fallible. (p. 6)

It is not hard to understand why contemporary pressures should encourage a resurgent hostility toward rationality and its works. But it is hard to understand why a professional intellectual, who emphasizes that reasonable ideals are always precariously situated, should propose to strengthen reason by granting the right of "subterranean forces" to be recognized as sources of truth. These forces are not, after all, inherently orderly and harmonious, and some principle is necessary to choose among them. If it is not to be reason, all that is left is impulse, desire and sheer brute force.

Mr. Barrett believes that there is a kind of knowledge which "is not the kind … that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels…. Yet it is knowledge all the same." Everyone will grant that we come to our beliefs in all sorts of ways. But to misuse the word "knowledge" as Mr. Barrett does is to make it impossible to distinguish between just having beliefs and having beliefs that are true. Though it may not be his intention, it is equivalent to a request that we drop all standards from the governance of human affairs. Logic alone, as Mr. Barrett says, is surely not enough. Unhappily, illogic, whether alone or in company is even worse. (pp. 6, 18)

Charles Frankel, "Reason and Reality," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 7, 1958, pp. 6, 18.

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