William (Christopher) Barrett Leslie Dewart - Essay

Leslie Dewart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The title of [What Is Existentialism?] would lead one to expect a pedestrian but systematic introduction to the subject of the sort usually addressed in the preface "to the general reader" or to "the educated public"—but which normally mystifies and rarely educates. Happily, the title is deceptive. This volume is neither a systematic treatment nor one which deals with existentialism in general. It offers instead two essays, related and partly overlapping, on the thought of one philosopher, Martin Heidegger. Moreover, these two essays, the composition of which was separated by "more than a dozen years," represent the author's attempt, not to popularize, but to divine the significance of Heidegger's thought as an event in the history of philosophy.

But in the end Mr. Barrett's accomplishment of this task does constitute, in a way, a highly successful introduction to existentialism; indeed, this is one of the best secondary sources yet available in English on the subject. The reason is that Mr. Barrett is one of the relatively few English-speaking philosophers who has attempted to view the contemporaneity of existentialism not as a novel or bizarre phenomenon, but as a historically present reality. The author, therefore, is far removed from that legion who, with the unquestionable but lifeless expertise of a Thomas Langan, dissect existentialism as if it were an unidentified body washed up to our domestic shores…. Mr. Barrett conveys the more important truth that existentialism is not simply an interesting episode in the annals of recent academic fads, but the conceptualization and intellectualization of a...

(The entire section is 675 words.)