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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.