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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 December 2014
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. Of documentation of external facts we have had enough and to spare, more than the squirrellike scholars will ever be able to piece together into a single whole, enough to keep the busy popularizers spouting in bright-eyed knowledgeability the rest of their days; but of the inner facts—of what goes on at the center where the forces of our fate first announce themselves—we are still pretty much in ignorance, and most of the contemporary world is caught up in an unconscious and gigantic conspiracy to run away from these facts."

And explains that, in part, it's the fading away of religious belief that leads man to seek answers elsewhere:

"The decline of religion in modern times means simply that religion is no longer the uncontested center and ruler of man’s life, and that the Church is no longer the final and unquestioned home and asylum of his being. [...] The loss of the Church was the loss of a whole system of symbols, images, dogmas, and rites which had the psychological validity of immediate experience, and within which hitherto the whole psychic life of Western man had been safely contained."

And states that:

"Existential philosophy (like much of modern art) is thus a product of bourgeois society in a state of dissolution."

So what can we do? Barrett offers no solutions, but points us toward the main thinkers who have examined these questions: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre. I was surprised that he essentially ignored Camus, with only a few references to him, but this is most likely because Camus never developed a philosophical "system" (though neither did Kierkegaard or Neitzsche), and perhaps at the time the book was written, when Camus was still alive (just barely) he hadn't been appreciated enough.

He does discuss the absurd, which is something that Camus explored in his early works, saying (without referring to Camus): "Man’s existence is absurd in the midst of a cosmos that knows him not; the only meaning he can give himself is through the free project that he launches out of his own nothingness."

Lest one think that existentialism is a sort of nihilism, Barrett shoots that down, pointing out that :

"Human finitude is the presence of the not in the being of man. That mode of thought which cannot understand negative existence cannot fully understand human finitude. Finitude is a matter of human limitations, and limitations involve what we cannot do or cannot be. Our finitude, however, is not the mere sum of our limitations: rather the fact of human finitude brings us to the center of man, where positive and negative existence coincide and interpenetrate to such an extent that a man’s strength coincides with his pathos, his vision with his blindness, his truth with his untruth, his being with his non-being. And if human finitude is not understood, neither is the nature of man."

All in all, this is a profound book, which will answer some of the questions one has about existentialism - and about human life in general - as well as point you toward other readings.
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on 5 March 2003
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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on 15 June 2005
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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on 12 May 2017
Wonderful book, of course. Still holds its own.
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on 18 March 2003
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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Barrett was one of the figures who introduced Existentialism to America after WW2 (largely through his editorial work at Partisan Review), so this book has been written by a figure deeply involved with the movement discussed. 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.

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.

* Readers stimulated by this work may also appreciate Barrett's later book exploring Existentialist themes in modern novels from Kafka & Hemingway through to Camus & Beckett, Time of need: forms of imagination in the twentieth century. And for a closer look at what happened in Paris in the mid-20th century I found Andy Martin's The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus offers a lively incisive account, but Barrett is outstanding on the big historical picture.
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on 13 January 1999
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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on 25 November 2013
In such a short space of one book Barrett outlines the origins of Existentialism then of its various forms from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Camus and Sartre, through Heideggar and Jaspers.
I recommend this for all students of Existentialism before they go on to read some of the others. One is often confused by the different approaches of the well known names of existentialist writers. Barrett gives us a very readable overview and to my mind a very scholarly, and well written one.
The book is not written in technical language, nor in teh jargonm so beloved of academics.
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VINE VOICEon 17 February 2017
The best of all introductions to Existentialism for the general reader is William Barrett’s Irrational Man. He sees Western philosophy since Descartes as pursuing knowledge of things, objects rather than consciousness of existence, Being. Revolt begins after the 2nd World War with Existentialism in France with Sartre, but the roots began in Germany, with Heidegger, Jaspers and Husserl. Husserl said the philosopher had to avoid preconceptions in facing the actual concrete data of experience. For Anglo-American analytical philosophy science was the ultimate arbiter. Life and mind had become divorced. Professional philosophy, competing in the modern factory of specialization ofknowledge with science, refined away all content for technique, leaving man’s life as the subject of study uncatered for. We get the famous dualism between mind and the external world. Heidegger’s concept of ‘being in the world’ is the lever of this new philosophy. Heidegger thinks of himself returning to the pre-Socratic Greeks to unearth the original wonder of what we mean when we say we exist. He describes the reality, ordinary, everyday, in which we find ourselves. Along the way he shows how Kierkegaard and Nietzsche had helped blow apart the old tradition of knowledge, one through individual Christianity, the other through the death of God in a revolt against the academies, systems and concepts with their over simplifications, to realize a more authentic expression of the whole man.Reason left existence out of its picture of reality.” I am” is a subjective truth.

Heidegger shows the extraordinary gaps that open under the feet of ordinary reality through death, anxiety, conscience, alienation. From this he asks what the meaning of life is. We are thrown into this world, we are given this life. The whole nature of our being is time-saturated. We are involved in the task of creating ourselves from our contingent, factual staring point. Plato’s philosophy is like essentialism, which holds that essence is prior in reality to existence. Existentialism, by contrast, the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence. However Heidegger places Being prior to existence, and in this way differs from the Existentialists like Sartre. Nietzsche is divided whether to make the goal of Superman the extraordinary man, or the complete and whole man. These are two different men, unresolved by Nietzsche. He was torn apart by psychosis. Inspired by Dionysus he posits the Will to Power as man’s goal.This results in nihilism, in a struggle for power, face to face with the void. The culmination of Western metaphysics. Heidegger attempted to describe what human existence is: man must rethink himself into Being. Being is the ‘to-be’ of whatever is, which has fallen into oblivion. He makes use of Husserl’s phenomenology: this attempts to describe what is given to us in experience without preconceptions; his motto was “to the things themselves”-rather than to the prefabricated conceptions we put in their place. Man’s existence is temporal too from the inside out. Moods, care, concern, anxiety, guilt, conscience, are all saturated with time. Now is the moment dividing past and future. We have to understand past and future together to understand the present. His existence is a field spread out over time as it is over space.

For Sartre, there is no given values or essences prior to man’s existence. Sartre allots to man the freedom that Descartes ascribed only to God.. As His existence precedes all essences, so man’s existence precedes his essence; out of the free project his existence can be he makes himself what he is. With the death of God man takes the place of God. Sartre is the heir to Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. But where they were frenzied prophets, Sartre employs the lucidity of Cartesian reason, and advances it, as the basis for humanitarian and democratic social action. Sartre’s philosophy is based on Cartesian dualism. Sartre moves in an altogether opposite direction to Heidegger’s thinking, which is Being itself. In Sartre this is divided into Being-for-itself and Being-in-itself, but no Being, division into subject and object, the world of consciousness and the world of things. This is why Heidegger, who places Being before existence, declared “ I am not an Existentialist” -because the thinking of Cartesians like Sartre remains locked up in the human subject. Nothingness is the basis of freedom for Sartre, which is based in consciousness. For Sartre the two Cartesian consciousnesses never understand each other. They are two subjectivist minds who misinterpret each other. As subject I convert you into an object, and you reciprocate. And this fiendish dialogue goes on. There’s no sincere communication.Sartre’s most positive doctrine is his notion of liberty: as human beings our freedom is total and absolute. We pretend to ourselves that we are far more unfree, than we are. But there is a positive value in certain conventions, language for instance. But Sartre’s image of freedom is close to self-destruction; he prefers to dwell on the extreme. If you are to find your freedom anywhere, it will have in the end to be in the ordinary day-to-day reality of life. For Heidegger the fundamental freedom is freedom to be open to the truth, to which action is subordinate. Sartre’s notion of freedom developed in the extreme situation when France was under occupation; the time when Sartre said he felt most free. Heidegger has no word for ‘consciousness’ or ‘man’.

Barrett summarises his previous work in book in “The Place of the Furies”, an essay in Part 4 of the book, “Integral vs. Rational Man” in a section which ends with two appendices. He notes that while people now are critical of irrationality, its part of the integral framework which places rationality on an unassailable pedestal to be worshipped as some kind of evolutionary best goal, that” despite the increase in the rational ordering of life in modern times, men have not become the least bit more reasonable in the human sense of the word. A perfect rationality might not even be incompatible with psychosis; it might in fact lead to the latter.” Although he doesn’t negate the need for rationality, he thinks it should be put in its proper place alongside the irrational, both of them acknowledged as necessary to life. But he does warn that, without the irrational, as symbolized by the Greek Furies, humanity will lose the edge necessary to achieve full satisfaction of being. They are part of the “darker side of life, but in their own way as holy as the rest…Without the shudder of fear or the trembling of dread man would never be brought to stand face to face with himself or his life.” Barrett said this philosophy points you to the religious sphere of existence. Does what exist mean something or nothing? “We feel the need of a new Kierkegaard to pump back living blood into the ontological skeleton of the Heideggerian Dasein. Truth lies for Kierkegaard in the ethical and religious passion of the individual, for Heidegger, in Being itself, in the open region where subject and object meet, but has no ethics. Barrett’s prose is sated with natural feeling, he describes liberally from literature and art , which he has extensive knowledge of. He does this with fluency and lack of jargon. This book must be the ultimate source book, and reads like it’s just been written..
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on 6 October 2007
This book is well written, even by today's standards. Should be used as a text book. The book book also shows how relevant existential philosophy still is even today - with alienation such a persuasive feature in contemporary society existentialism may be more prevalent now then ever. This book is very readable. It will provide the reader with an understanding of the most obscure exitentialists. This book should be a classic in existentialism.
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