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


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 314 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor Books/Doubleday (July 1, 1962)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385031386
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385031387
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #157,318 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist Philosophy, this book introduced existentialism to America in 1958. Barrett discusses the views of 19th and 20th century existentialists Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre and interprets the impact of their thinking on literature, art, and philosophy.

From the Inside Flap

Widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist Philosophy, this book introduced existentialism to America in 1958. Barrett discusses the views of 19th and 20th century existentialists Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre and interprets the impact of their thinking on literature, art, and philosophy.

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Customer Reviews

Barrett first makes a successful case for modern art.
Vincent Poirier
Unlike so many critical books and works of philosophy which are dry and dull, Barrett is a colorful writer with great imagery and a flowing language.
Stephen G. Melvin
He was well aware of what may be called the gap between phenomenalism and scientific materialism.
Robert E. Morrell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

137 of 140 people found the following review helpful By Pumpkin King on February 20, 2002
Format: Paperback
IRRATIONAL MAN is a great read for anyone interested in existentialism. William Barrett does not bore, and he covers existentialism from its roots in Hebraism and Hellenism to its development by its most famous spokesman, Jean-Paul Sartre. For Barrett, existentialism is a personal and relevant matter, and he passionately reminds the reader that it is a philosophy for the modern age, an age of atomic weaponry. Though he has only four chapters on particular existentialists (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre), he also addresses various other figures such as St. Augustine, Descartes, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. The scope of this work is vast.
The aforementioned "existentialists" have disparate views, but all share the understanding that reason has its limits, that man is alone in the world, and that to live, one must face one's own finitude. Each thinker comes to their ideas from a unique point of view and Barrett connects their ideas with their personal historical context. What we have is a study that is coherent and enlightening, passionate and somehow urgent.
But perhaps it is a little too passionate, too grandiose. He has romantic notions of greatness, in art and in thought. Sometimes he seems too sure of his interpretations as well, but it is up to me to go to the original sources he writes about and try his findings against mine.
In the end, the very fact that I desire to read directly the works of the four existentialists he writes about shows to me that Barrett has done a fine job, and he has simultaneously clarified and deepened my understanding of existentialism beyond the famous line "existence precedes essence." As an introduction or a supplement, IRRATIONAL MAN is an essential, and entertaining, work.
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54 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Stephen G. Melvin on April 18, 2000
Format: Paperback
The book largely responsible for bringing the existential thought patterns to America, Barrett's book is a wonderful read. Unlike so many critical books and works of philosophy which are dry and dull, Barrett is a colorful writer with great imagery and a flowing language. He sums up beautifully the historical and social factors that lead to the existential revolution as well as captures the feeling of alienation that modern man feels almost as well as Camus did in Sisyphus.
Minds like Kierkegaard, Hiedegger, and Sartre are brilliant, but often their writing is convoluted and complex. Barrett simplifies their concepts while giving a thorough and clear exposition of them. After reading this book, a person will have a good basic knowledge of the philosophical underpinnings of existential philosophy and should be able to converse with others who are knowledgeable on the subject. I heartily recommend it to those who feel as if they are a stranger to the rest of humanity and to themselves.
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51 of 53 people found the following review helpful By S. Guha on June 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Near the beginning of his book, Barrett quotes a bit of verse by Yeats:
"Now that my ladder's gone,/ I must lie down where all ladders start,/ In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart."
This is the problematic of existentialism, which Barrett (correctly) identifies as the "homelessness" of man in a world bereft of religion, hitherto his only sure ladder to the transcendent. Existentialism might succinctly be defined as the attempt to continue living philosophically in the deafening, intolerable silence that follows the collapse of that ladder. This basic theme is traced from the thought of our forebears, as far back as Ecclesiastes and Augustine, but also more recently in Pascal and Swift, through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, to Sartre, Camus, and Gabriel Marcel, among others. In the end Barrett seems to offer two conclusions. The first is that the choice between theism and atheism matters less than the recognition of man's desperation in the face of the Silence. The second is that unchecked rationality, enshrined in modern scientism (not to be confused with science) is the enemy of reason. There is, as he notes, a distinction between being rational and being reasonable; some of the most insane and ludicrous schemes--like Mutual Assured Destruction--have been arrived at with impeccable rationality, because no wisdom had interfered with the intelligence of those involved. Although existentialism cannot in the end offer a way out of the Silence, this book is invaluable for its humanizing theme and its recognition of facts that our culture is all too eager to sweep under the rug. It is worth the while of any thoughtful person to read it.
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Robert E. Morrell on August 19, 2006
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Nothing is more exhausting than the search for meaning. Every question has a thousand answers, each claiming to be correct. And each can be challenged by a thousand objections. Evermore we come out the same door as in we went, and return to -- ourselves. We alone are unavoidably the final arbiters of our personal beliefs and values. Occasionally we have the good fortune to find a guide through the jungle of perplexing philosophical questions who can explain issues clearly, distinctly, and quietly, without forcing his personal conclusions on us. But how do we know the guide is reliable? Before we have heard what he has to say, we don't. And if we chose to believe that he is reliable, that is our choice.

I agree with the many readers of _Irrational Man_ that Barrett is a remarkably persuasive guide. Not that I agree with him completely -- nobody's beliefs can totally correspond with those of another. No matter. Barrett has his feet on the ground, and one gets the feeling when reading him that however convoluted the explanation -- and some (but not all) explanations are necessarily convoluted -- Barrett is not playing with smoke and mirrors. My recommendation is to read a few pages of what he has to say as critically as you please, and then decide for yourself.

William Barrett (1913-1992) grew up in the generation just before and after WWII. His memoir _The Truants: Adventures among the Intellectuals_ (1982), recounts his early days at _Partisan Review_ and his associations with such figures as Delmore Schwartz, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, and Philip Rahv. Very interesting as biography; no philosophy. The book is out of print but can be found for a ridiculously low price.
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