Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 1, Number 2


IRRATIONAL MAN by William Barrett

Dan C. Coker
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas

Editor's Comment: Communication must be audience-oriented in order to be effective. An understanding of the assumptions that undergird the world view of the host population is indispensable to an effective proclamation of the Good News. Philosophical presuppositions are important building blocks of a world view in every culture. To be unaware of them is to be ignorant of the local people at the deepest level of their thinking. Therefore, I commend the following book review to your careful consideration.

Review Editor's note: A weakness that shows itself quite frequently among our missionaries is the failure to have an accurate grasp of philosophical thought and, therefore, an adequate basis upon which to develop the biblical principles that place every human thought in proper perspective. Barrett's treatment of Existentialism is very useful in its survey type analyses. It has not ben revised since its printing in 1962, but continues in print as a frequently-used text and reference in courses concerned with the cultivation of philosophical awareness, one of the principal avenues by which one arrives at cogent conclusions relative to the cultural variables in life's definitions.

Barrett, William. Irrational Man. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1962, 305 pages. ISBN 0385031386.

With a four-pronged literary fork William Barrett methodically punctures the self-imposed "thick skin" of rationalism and logical positivism, while condemning the inadequacies of all the idealists from Plato to Kant. These frequent attacks, designed to show the shortcomings of those philosophical schools of thought, might appear to the casual reader as the central theme of the book, but it is definitely secondary to the presentation of a definition of Existentialism that purports to clarify by the testimonies of literature, art, the "great minds" and the human predicament of the twentieth century just what the Existentialist means when he declares, "Existence is before essence."

Stabbing at scientific method and its followers, while striving to reinforce his principal thesis, Barrett frequently engages in the following type of prosaic manipulation:

Essences Plato called Ideas . . . When an Idea comes into existence, it is through a fall (a kind of original sin) from some higher realm of Being. Time itself--that invisible and tormenting medium of our own individual existence--becomes merely a shadowy image of eternity. . . . It requires very little imagination to see how, holding such a philosophic position, one's attitudes toward life become colored all the way down the line of Platonic bias. All of Plato's writings, the whole of his philosophy, are in fact a working out of the consequences of this fundamental conviction of the priority of essence over existence for every field of human experience . . . Plato's is the classic and indeed archetypal expression of a philosophy which we may now call essentialism . . . Existentialism, by contrast is the philosophy that holds existence to be prior to essence (pp. 103, 104).

A key phrase in the above is "one's attitudes toward life," which succinctly identifies the type of philosophy Existentialism claims to be. This definition of philosophy, which the author exploits to the fullest, logically affirms the fact that everyone has an "attitude toward life"--and that attitude just might be existential, whether one knows it or not!

To accomplish the task of defending such a position, Barrett wields his "fork" and molds his thesis in four parts, which can be summarized in the following ways:

Part I - "THE PRESENT AGE." The contention is made that this age, the twentieth century, is the exact time in history for the advent of Existentialism: Fundamentalist religion is out (p. 13); It has been "realized that...Positivist man is a curious creature who dwells in the tiny island of light composed of what he finds scientifically ‘meaningful'" (p. 21); Man is confronted with the "present day world" of industrialization and materialism (p. 32); Modern art (particularly cubism) portrays that a "new and radical conception of man was at work in this period" (p. 47). Anyone who wilfully chooses to remain unaware or unappreciative of the above forces at work in this era is written off as a "Philistine," toward whom Barrett makes an attempt to be benevolent, but is not very convincing in his effort (p. 42).

Part II - THE SOURCES OF EXISTENTIALISM IN THE WESTERN TRADITION. Drawing heavily on the book of Job in the Old Testament, Barrett contrasts Greek reason to Hebraic faith. "The lifting of reason fully out of the primeval waters of the unconscious is a Greek achievement," (p. 81), but Job's faith is a gut-level relationship that transcends the intellect--"a change and conversion of the whole man" (p. 73).

Although, it is argued, the Greeks would not have strayed so far from the entire being of man if Socrates' philosophy had not been corrupted by Plato and Aristotle

("...the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest"), what is more certain is the fact that Christianity had its roots in Hebraic faith and not Hellenistic reason. In Christianity, it is further said, any attempt to rationally establish the existence of God is ridiculous--but He is there just the same, a "proof" of the limits of rationalism (pp. 115, 116).

Building on the fact that many cultures and philosophers (especially of the Orient) have not only admitted the existence of the inexplicable, but have also found comfort in the same, the author moves more closely toward modern, western man, whom he hopes to convince by using such devices as the dreams, poems, and predictions of great writers. Referring especially to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, he elaborates on the encounter with those strangely introverted people of the sky-island, Laputa. La puta is Spanish for "the whore," and Barrett seems to be echoing not only Swift, but also Luther, in his condemnation of that whore reason (p. 121).

Part III - THE EXISTENTIALISTS. Four immortals among the Existentialists: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, are presented in brief biographical sketches and equally brief analyses of their thoughts. These men and their principal ideas compared with carefully chosen passages from the works of several philosophers, but particularly those of Plato and Descartes, serve to portray the most powerful testimony for the worth of Existentialism. While reading these selections, one becomes increasingly aware of the primary ideas that support "existence prior to essence;" thus the principal objective, it would appear, is best accomplished in this section of the book.

By demonstrating quite convincingly that Existentialism is not a set code or standard of thought, and that those who hold such a philosophy might well be in deep disagreement with some of the thoughts of others in the same philosophic school, the author sets a mood for the individual to project himself into an awareness that makes him "free" from everyone else, but at the same time a "messenger" to others. Such freedom equips man to make individual decisions in a world lacking purpose--this undertaking should be identified as the "heart" of the existential philosophy. That Existentialists differ widely in some of their conclusions about various concepts, but are joined in their "being" or existence can be illustrated in the following biographical sections:

1. Kierkegaard - The "Christian gadfly" (p. 157) strives to demonstrate the truth of existence before thought in his own "personal and passionate existence" (p. 151). His "existence" is a demonstration of what it means to be a Christian, not a philosophy about the truthfulness or ridiculousness of the procedure. He observes that one's life is not a matter of speculation, but a reality in which he is involved. He encounters the "self that he is, not in the detachment of thought, but in the involvement and pathos of choice" (p. 163). His Christian philosophy involves the principles that the "individual is higher than the universe" (p. 167). The universal ethic, then, must at times be broken or superseded by the individual--not haughtily, but often with much pain.

2. Nietzsche - In one way of speaking, he is the direct opposite of Kierkegaard: "God is dead" he says, because "man killed Him" (p. 182). The reason man killed God, according to Nietzsche, is because man could not stand God's looking on his ugliest side. Because of his pronouncement of God's death, Nietzsche is linked with Nihilism (although he frequently uses Biblical references in his writings and affirms that the idea of God is not abstract, but concrete). Also, his final contribution to philosophy, the Will to Power, comes to be the "essence of Being itself" (p. 198), although he previously scoffed at the idea of "Being."

3. Heidegger - Different from the others, Heidegger is a professor of humble origins who leaves the academic stamp (p. 207) upon his writings. Clearly the hero of the four (according to Barrett who, by the way, is also a professor), he is protected by the author from the attacks of contemporary philosophers, such as Martin Buber ("not in the same league with Heidegger" p. 236). Heidegger is the "Superman" who "destroys" the famous cogito, ergo sum of Descartes with the statement that "man Being-in-the-world" (p. 217). Man is not imprisoned by his ego, he is outside, in the world, existing, totally involved. This might be called the "Field Theory of Man" in which one exists not just in his skin, but in a whole region in which "is the world of its care and concern" (p. 217). Paradoxically enough, Heidegger did not consider himself an Existentialist.

4. Sartre - The French philosopher is often credited with the founding of Existentialism, but Barrett frequently assures the reader that this is not the case. Nonetheless, acknowledged as a leading Existentialist, Sartre makes his contribution to philosophy. Being caught in the dualism of Descartes (a situation that would horrify Heidegger) Sartre reveals his "Being-in-itself" and "Being-for-itself" as explanation of two phenomena: just being something, and being conscious of being something--beyond self (p. 245). Barrett seems to appreciate Sartre, especially his "consciousness and freedom" that enable a man to say "no" in his mind regardless of what external pressures force physical man to do (pp. 241-242), but at the same time pokes a bit of fun at him. Pehaps this is because of Sartre's Communist-oriented utopian ideas.

Part IV - INTEGRAL MAN VS. RATIONAL MAN. Here Barrett tries to "wrap it up" in a neat package, mainly through the appeal that Existentialism provides "a truth for man that is more than a truth of the intellect" and seeks to bring "the whole man--the concrete individual in the whole context of his everyday life, and in his total mystery and questionableness--into philosophy" (p. 249).

The author does a quite masterful job in accomplishing his aims, and gives the reader a more precise (if Existentialism can be "precise") picture of existential man. One becomes involved in Barrett's process, appreciates the power and precision with which he presents his arguments but, in the end, has some misgivings about the whole thing. The question keeps coming back, "Do the ‘proofs' and testimonies presented really have that much in common, or has Barrett merely forced the situation through clever rhetoric?"

With the continual insistence that Existentialism has always "been around" Barrett hits on a point that might prove to be at once his strongest and weakest. One needs to think that a way of looking at life was "always there" or it might be too new to fit anything as old as life. At the same time, a continued reference to the Existentialism of the thinkers from Socrates to the present leaves a credibility gap. The image that comes to mind is that of one who establishes a twentieth-century religion, but painstakingly sets out to prove that Jesus and the Apostles were really whatever it is that the newcomer is espousing. He sets the scientific aside and appeals simply to a phenomenon he calls "existence." Interesting it is, but is it believable?

The doubts notwithstanding, Barrett comes through: the germ is there, and the reader resigns himself to the possibility of the ultimate "truth" of which the Existentialist speaks. While reading Barrett's book, this writer had the definite feeling that the English language, somehow, fails to adequately express what "to be" existentially and "to be" essentially really mean. An illusion is made to this idea (p. 210), but not really developed. Perhaps the example of Spanish can shed some light: ser (to be) seems to suggest essence, while estar (to be) implies existence. The subtleties involved in these two verbs of being are only to be learned through experience with the language and, perhaps, that within itself is a form of Existentialism!


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