William (Christopher) Barrett Charles Frankel - Essay

Charles Frankel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.)