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..