William (Christopher) Barrett

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Joseph J. Fahey

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"It is easy to let the age have its head; the difficulty is to keep one's own." While this quotation from G. K. Chesterton does not appear in [The Illusion of Technique], it nevertheless is the substance of its message. We live in an age fascinated with a "technology of behavior," and the consequence is that person is treated as object rather than subject. William Barrett's purpose here is to seek the meaning of person in relationship to being in technological civilization.

He posits that freedom is the philosophical question today which must be addressed if we are to avoid both a Marxist and Skinnerian conditioning of behavior, which understand person only in a technical or functional sense. It is Professor Barrett's conviction that we can avoid both nihilism and determinism only through understanding person on a far deeper level than mere "technique," a level which verges on the "poetic" and "mystical." Person is, in short, more than technique. There cannot even be technique without freedom since "technique presupposes freedom for its own being." (pp. 129-30)

Professor Barrett concludes from a lengthy discussion of [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, William James, and many other] philosophers that an attempt to program or condition human nature logically is futile because nature, while logical and capable of being systematized, is also poetic, mystical, and thus at heart quite indeterminate. It is precisely the latter side of human nature which makes human beings "free"—free to create, free to dream, and free to commune with "being." These freedoms can never be understood in a purely logical, technical, or political sense. Thus the individual can never be the object of science or the state but must ever be their subject, or that which freely creates logic or politics. (p. 130)

There is a sense in which this book is timeless. Human beings have always struggled to understand the relationship between freedom and determinism. By including the mystical and poetic in human nature, Barrett persuasively argues for freedom. But the book also very much relates to our time in which behaviorists pursue the illusion that human beings can be neatly quantified, codified, and computerized. No, we are more than that and it is in seeking "more" that sometimes we defy the rules of logic and technique, and so discover our freedom.

The book does have two drawbacks. One, it is too long and at times too technical. Better editing would have avoided some rambling in spots. Second, despite Professor Barrett's disclaimer, the book should have dealt explicitly with concrete social issues of our time. Our future is threatened not only by a technical understanding of human nature but also by nuclear weapons and war. Issues like these may even challenge professor Barrett's thesis that the fundamental issue which faces us is not freedom or even meaning, but simple survival. Also, perhaps more explicit treatment of "homo religiosus" would strengthen Professor Barrett's argument.

This book is quite useful for professors of philosophy and religion…. Pastors and church persons with a philosophical orientation may want to read this book because of its excellent discussion of humankind's search for meaning and freedom in a technological age which, somewhere along the line, has replaced religion as the "new priesthood." It is a difficult but rewarding book and for those who believe that philosophy is still a partner with theology in understanding the human predicament and promise, it is a sine qua non. (pp. 130-31)

Joseph J. Fahey, in a review of "The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization," in Theology Today (© 1980 Theology Today), Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, April, 1980, pp. 129-31.

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