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Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy Paperback – 1 Jun 1962


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Product details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books (1 Jun. 1962)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385031386
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385031387
  • Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.9 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 169,977 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
THE story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead. Read the first page
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44 of 44 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 5 Mar. 2003
Format: Paperback
This book gives an introduction to the concepts put forward by some of the main figures in the Existentialist school of thought and the historical roots from which these ideas came. I bought it because I'm a relative newcomer to philosophy and was very impressed. Barrett has a great eye for detail, whilst retaining a clear and lucid style. His analysis of the lives and thought of four main Existentialist thinkers - Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (forgive me if the spelling is wrong!), Heidegger and Sartre - is full of insight and reveals the linking threads that connect their ideas; and in fact it is this aspect of the book I liked the most. He draws out the links and hidden themes that run through the writings of the four thinkers and Existentialism in general, and places all this in a firm historical context to show how the ideas have developed from various sources - not just philosophy but literature, art, politics and so on. What we end up with is a conception of the world quite different from that put forward by other schools of philosophy; the focus is on our existence in the world, and the nature of this existence as experienced by us, with all our imperfections and limitations. The main question seems to be: 'is there any meaning to human life?' Overall it's very easy to read, provides a lot of food for thought, and fulfils its stated task admirably. I almost don't want to give it five stars because that's what everyone else seems to have done - but it really is that good. Highly recommended.
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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Dagfinn Hobaek on 18 Mar. 2003
Format: Paperback
This classic study by William Barrett is _the_ most lucid and consistent work I've devoured on the subject of Existentialism. The author approaches the existential tradition by neatly placing it within the broader history of European thoughts and beliefs in an admirably perspicuous way. Not a single word of dispraise - I can only express delight at the unambiguous and sensible manner in which the book is written. Whether you already have some prior knowledge of Existentialism and would like to expand your general knowledge on the subject, or are merely curious, I strongly recommend this book.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By David J. Smith on 15 Jun. 2005
Format: Paperback
Alongside Cooper's "Existentialism: A Reconstruction" I rate this as best amongst introductory studies in existential thought. Barrett deals with a few individual philosophers, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre, highlighting differences in their outlook and their milieu while underscoring the philosophical constants. The author suceeds in writing in an interesting and engaging way, pacing well to clarify the more difficult concepts. The heart, human affectivity, and its need for meaning, so central to existentialism, is exposed in this work as the throbbing organ that other philosophies tend to disregard.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 13 Jan. 1999
Format: Paperback
I'm only a beginner in educating myself on philosophy, but Barret has a brilliant, balanced overview of the defining philosophers of our time, and the thought that produced them: Kirkegaard, Neitzche, Heidegger, and Sartre. I had trouble setting the book down once I started reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Kirk McElhearn TOP 500 REVIEWER on 8 Dec. 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
This book was written more than 50 years ago, at a time when existentialism was a - more or less - household term, and when people wanted to know what it was all about. William Barrett not only has an extensive grasp of the topic, and of philosophy in general, but he manages to make these ideas accessible and understandable to all.

So what is existentialism, and why did it have the grip it did on Americans (this book was written by an American for Americans) at the height of the Cold War? Barrett says, early in the book that the themes that existentialism treats:

"are themes of life: People do die, people do struggle all their lives between the demands of real and counterfeit selves, and we do live in an age in which neurotic anxiety has mounted out of all proportion so that even minds inclined to believe that all human problems can be solved by physical techniques begin to label “mental health” as the first of our public problems."

He discusses "modern man's" tendency to run away from the big questions:

"NO AGE has ever been so self-conscious as ours. At any rate, the quantity of journalism the modern age has turned out in the process of its own self-analysis already overflows our archives and, were it not that most of it is doomed to perish, would be a dull burden to hand down to our descendants. The task still goes on, as indeed it must, for the last word has not been spoken, and modern man seems even further from understanding himself than when he first began to question his own identity.
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Format: Paperback
This book may have been first published in 1958, yet decades later it is fresh, relevant and readable - surprisingly so. Barrett offers an historical overview that traces the intellectual threads (some centuries old) that came together in Existentialism, setting a context for other more focussed works.

His study is conducted in several parts. The first few chapters dwell on the contemporary outlook, which has not changed all that much despite the rise of postmodernism and shifts in contemporary thought since he penned these words. Next are three historical chapters which trace the development of existentialist doubt over many centuries from Hebrew, Greek and Christian sources. Then comes the weighty third section, which studies those core Existentialist thinkers: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre.

For me the book's enduring strength lies in Barrett's ability to move beyond the usual parameters of formal philosophy, and reveal Existentialist values implicit in literature. The most illuminating, and stimulating, sections were in his middle chapters which closely inspected the works of several key 19th century writers, showing Existentialist themes weaving through the poetry and novels of Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Rimbaud, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski. There is fine analysis in those chapters, showing exactly how their works break with traditional ideas of the world and set a new intellectual agenda. Barrett is a perceptive and sensitive reader who brings out an urgent, thoroughly modern outlook in their works.
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