I think, therefore, I am... Hey, what's that shadow?

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre meet Ernesto Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960.
Photo: Public Domain.

Irrational Man: A Study in Existential PhilosophyIrrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book provides an overview of existentialism. Originally written in 1958, Barrett was bringing the tradition of existentialism (those leading to Sartre) to the United States. That the book is set in the midst of the Cold War is obvious, and when released again in the 1990s, the book's setting had not yet (albeit imminently) changed. But there were many lessons to be learnt and the book achieved for me what I really needed: an overview of existentialism and the works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre all in one place. I needed this to make sense of other works I am still engrossed in, and this book fulfilled the role admirably. I will get to the works of these aforementioned existentialists, plus Wittgenstein, but not yet. 

When I read John Stuart Mill in detail I couldn't help but recognise fragments of my education materialising almost as if I had written them in On Liberty. Elements of Stoicism remind me of things I had discovered (apparently) independently but more likely acquired through osmosis through my education. Thinking of myself as a frustrated post-modernist who can only really comprehend empiricism and positivism, I welcomed the familiarity of Heidegger's work, again, as if I had heard it before. But what really struck me was the eloquence of Barrett in saying what I was just saying to my students in my lecture today: you have to understand ideology and philosophy to understand politics. Barrett says it thus:
...anyone who wishes to meddle in politics today had better come to some prior conclusions as to what man [sic] is and what, in the end, human life is all about. I say "in the end" deliberately because the neglect of first and of last things does not - as so-called "practical" people hope - go unpunished, but has a disastrous way of coming in the back door and upsetting everything.
Barrett also highlights a problem for Americans that any typical group of Australian political science lecturers will tell you could easily still apply to Australians:
The [Australian] insisted that all international problems could all be solved if men [sic] would just get together and be rational; Sartre disagreed and after a while discussion between them became impossible. "I believe in the existence of evil," says Sartre, "and he does not." What the [Australian] has not yet become aware of is the shadow that surrounds all human Enlightenment.
The final words indicate the extent of this darkness surrounding the light, and in these words I see my frustration in the background of my positivist and empiricist viewpoint: put simply "he [sic] must first exist in order to logicize". While I doubt I can ever change my habitual viewpoint, particularly this late in the game, I have just purchased a copy of Walter Kaufmann's edited collection, Existentialism: From Dostoevsky to Sartre, which recaps a number of works I have read previously (such as Notes from Underground and Camus' Myth of Sisyphus, but it also includes numerous works by Heidegger, Nietzsche, Jaspers, et al. which are essential reading. 

It is as if I have just stepped off the MTR at East Tsim Sha Tsui station in Hong Kong. I must walk now to Tsim Sha Tsui station (proper) to get back on the main line, but I know I will have to walk to East TST to venture back into existentialism again sometime soon. The branches of my literary journey do get tangled at times, but at least now the basics are starting to reveal themselves more clearly, even if I am noticing the darkness in the background.



View all my reviews

Gunning Weather