William (Christopher) Barrett

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John Wild

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666

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 "Republic," and which has raged ever since at the heart of our culture is now at an end?

Indeed we sense this as we read Mr. Barrett's lucid account of those modern philosophers who were able to transcend provincial limitations, to break with academic technicalities, and to become, as they now are, a living force in the Western world as a whole. We think of this new philosophy of existence as a French, or at the widest, a European phenomenon. This is a serious error. Russian thinkers like Soloviev, Shestov, and Berdiaev must be included, and certainly the American philosopher William James, though this is not commonly recognized…. Mr. Barrett is certainly right in identifying basic existential themes in his writings. This insight should be noted and developed further by historians of American thought.

The existential thinkers interpreted by Mr. Barrett diverge on many points. Nevertheless they all see the dangerous partiality of that objective rationalism which is so deeply ingrained in our tradition, and seek for new ways of shedding light on those obscure regions of being-in-the-world which it has disregarded. (p. 19)

Mr. Barrett lays a heavy emphasis on the narrative side of this development, and in his last chapter interprets it as a revealing of the dark irrational "furies" in man which are at last being recognized and respected. This is an anticlimax, for, as his own discussions show, the new philosophy is much more than this. As a matter of fact, it is neither rational nor irrational: it has penetrated to a deeper ground beneath them both from which it is able to understand man and his world in a new and more revealing light. Mr. Barrett does not thoroughly explore the new conception of a relative human truth and its implications for philosophy. Nevertheless, he has written a brilliant and penetrating book of deep concern not only to the professional philosopher but to the layman as well—to all men, in fact, who are interested in the living thought of our time. It portends a near future when philosophy in this country may stop trying to produce second-rate imitations of science and by returning to its own field, the human life-world, may once again become an inquiry that matters to living men. (p. 38)

John Wild, "Recovery of the Sense of Being," in The Saturday Review, New York (© 1958 Saturday Review Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLI, No. 36, September 6, 1958, pp. 19, 38.

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