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32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between the immediate and the theoretical, August 19, 2006
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This review is from: Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (Paperback)
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. [This author's middle name was Christopher, I think, although he uses neither the name nor initial to identify his writings. He is not to be confused with William E. (Edmund) Barrett (1900-1986), the novelist, and at least one other William Barrett, who appears to be a psychoanalyst.]

_Irrational Man: A study in Existential Philosophy_ (1958) is credited with being largely responsible for introducing existentialism to America. Two years earlier Barrett edited and published a work that might be described as the first attempt to provide a serious philosophical rationale for the post-war "Zen Boom": _Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki_(Doubleday Anchor, 1956). Both books are still selling well, a half century later. But Barrett, like many others, was put off by the pretentious antics of the Beat Generation:

`Twenty years ago, . . . I played a small part in introducing Zen to this country, and I have not always been happy with the results. American youth acquired another vocabulary to throw around. The "mindlessness" that Zen recommended was pursued by the young in the haze of marijuana and drugs. They forgot, if they had ever learned, the prosaic and magnificent saying of the sage Hui-Neng: "The Tao [the truth] is your ordinary mind." In recent years I have let myself forget all about Zen, and probably have been nearer to its spirit. Stick to your ordinary mind, reader, and forget the tabs. Find your own rocks and trees.' (_The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization_ , 1978, , p. 371)

Judging from Amazon's book listings, Barrett's later works do not sell as well as his early ones -- which is not to say that they are not worth our attention. Philosophical popularity is rarely a measure of worth. The rather substantial (392 pp.) _Illusion of Technique_ was followed by _Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer_ (1986), a rather slight volume summing up his conclusions.

Barrett taught philosophy at New York University, 1950-1979, but was no "ivory tower" intellectual. He was well aware of what may be called the gap between phenomenalism and scientific materialism. He lucidly explores the issues, but offers no easy answers. If you are interested in ideas, see what an involved thinker has to say.

Readers may be interested to know that in 1962, four years after _Irrational Man_, Barrett teamed up with Henry D. Aiken to produce a 4-volume set called _Philosophy in the Twentieth Century: An Anthology_. (Random House) -- an anthology of extracts with extensive introductions. Vol. Three, Part Four (Phenomenology and Existentialism), pp. 123-450 !!, returns to the topic, this time with the inclusion of Camus and Bergson. As of this writing, Amazon lists the set under two numbers, but ASIN: B000AQLUMQ (which can be typed in as a title) has an extensive list of dealers with sets and individual copies at good prices. I highly recommend checking them out.
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Initial post: Mar 6, 2012 5:15:00 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 6, 2012 5:15:26 PM PST
Keene says:
@Robert, very good review. Best to you.....Thanks for the recommendations at the end.
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