Irrational Man by William Barrett

In this superbly written overview of the Western philosophical tradition, William Barrett traces the roots of 20th century existentialism back through Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard all the way to the Greek and Hebrew traditions that formed the foundations of Western European civilization. Writing in 1958, Barrett begins by describing Europe’s spiritual and intellectual crisis after two world wars. If twenty centuries of religious faith and scientific progress led only to slaughter and destruction, then what was the good of science or religion? And what better system of knowledge and belief could replace them?

Irrational Man by William Barrett

Barrett points out that for post-war Europe, the quest for understanding was not merely abstract and theoretical, but visceral and urgent. Post-war Europeans were bereft. Their faith in their world view had been shattered, and with no new understanding to fill the gap, they were painfully conscious of the absence, the hole, the missing part.

In times of personal crisis, people question their world all the way down to its roots. So, in this time of civil crisis, did people question the cultural, philosophical, and religious beliefs of the Western tradition. Barrett traces these roots to the two fundamental and opposing traditions of Greek rationalism and Hebrew faith.

Barrett, who was a professor of Philosophy at New York University, spends most of the book setting up the problem that existentialism evolved to address: the lack of meaning at the center of the rationalist cultural worldview in the modern West.

Christianity had for centuries provided a spiritually satisfying understanding of a universe in which man had a place. In the enlightenment of the 18th century, rationalism began to displace some of that faith, offering scientific explanations for phenomena once explained by religion. In the 19th century, science went to work for capitalism, and man began more then ever to control and even produce the world he lived in.

The old spiritual understanding of the world was increasingly giving way to a more material view: it wasn’t God who ruled the world, the world was simply a collection of things that behaved according to discoverable physical and chemical rules. Science discovered the rules and capitalism applied them in the form of technology to make whatever the world wanted.

God was no longer the provider, nor the explanation of order in the universe. Science and industry were. This is what led Nietzche to say “God is dead.” He didn’t say this as a proclamation of his own atheism. He said it as an observation on the society in which he lived, merely stating the fact that Europe had begun to look more to science, manufacturing, and man’s own reasoning abilities, instead of to God, for deliverance and salvation. (Regarding reason, remember that the rise of Marxist philosophy appeared in the mid-late 19th century, and one of the core ideas of Marxism was that a government based purely on reason must logically produce the best society. We’ve seen how well that pans out.)

Barrett’s book traces Western reason back to its roots in Plato, and then examines the evolution of some fundamental ideas in the writings of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Heidegger, and Sarte. All four of these writers point out in different ways the limits of reason, and in particular the limits of the Cartesian dualism that Barrett traces back to Plato.

Cartesian dualism, for those who don’t know, is the idea that the human mind and the world it looks out on are two separate things. The world “out there” is composed of objects, which the mind can observe and reflect on.

The book’s title, Irrational Man, refers to all the dimensions of human nature that reason does not an cannot address: instinct, the need for meaning, belonging, love; the need to feel one has a place in the universe.

There’s too much to summarize in this book, so I’ve excerpted a few quotes to give a flavor of what’s here. The page numbers refer to the ancient 1962 mass-market paperback edition published by Doubleday.


Time is no longer a reckonable sequence, then, for him [contemporary Western man], but an inexhaustible inescapable presence. (p. 53)


Since the Greeks, Western man has believed that Being, all Being, is intelligible, that there is a reason for everything…and that the cosmos is, finally, intelligible. (p. 55)


[I]n opening our eyes to the rejected elements of existence, art may lead us to a more complete and less artificial celebration of the world. (p. 59)


This break with the Western tradition imbues both philosophy and art with the sense that everything is questionable, problematic… Hence the themes that obsess both modern art and existential philosophy are the alienation and strangeness of man in his world; the contradictoriness, feebleness and contingency of human existence; the central and overwhelming reality of time for man who has lost his anchorage in the eternal. (p. 64)


The Hebrew is concerned with practice, the Greek with knowledge. Right conduct is the ultimate concern of the Hebrew, right thinking that of the Greek. (p. 70)


[T]he whole impulse of philosophy for Plato arises from an ardent search for deliverance from the evils of the world and the curse of time. (p. 72)


[T]he Greeks gave us science and philosophy; the Hebrews gave us the law. (p. 72)


[On Job’s anger toward God]

When faith is full, it dares to express its anger, for faith is the openness of the whole man toward his God, and therefore must be able to encompass all human modes of being. (p. 74)


pp. 74-78: The Greeks had direct access to the eternal through reason, where the mind operates as a detached observer. Reason provided access to “the universal, the abstract and timeless essences, forms and Ideas.” The Hebrew believed God was unknowable. “If he hoped at all to escape mortality it was on the basis of personal trust that his Creator might raise him once again from the dust.” (p. 77) Faith was not detached. It was based “on commitment, the passionate involvement of man with his own mortal being (at once flesh and spirit)…” (p. 77) “Detachment was for the Hebrew an impermissible state of mind, a vice rather than a virtue…” (p. 76) “… a man abstracted from such involvements [family, tribe, and God] would be, to Hebraic thought, but a pale shade of the actual existing human person.” (p. 78)


…the features of Hebraic man are those which existential philosophy has attempted to exhume and bring to the reflective consciousness of our time. (p. 78)


In Plato rational consciousness as such becomes, for the first time in history, a differentiated psychic function… The lifting of reason fully out of the primeval waters of the unconscious is a Greek achievement. And from the differentiation Western civilization takes on, subsequently, the character that distinguishes it from the civilizations of the Orient. Science itself, a peculiarly Western product, became possible only through this differentiation of reason and its exaltation as the crowning human power. (p. 80-81)


We have to see Plato’s rationalism, not as a cool scientific project such as a later century of European Enlightenment might set for itself, but as a kind of passionately religious doctrine–a theory that promised man salvation from the things he had feared from the earliest days, from death and time. (p. 84)


[T]he chief content of this education [of the guardians of the state], it’s sole content from the age of twenty to thirty-five, is to be mathematics and dialectic. At this point, we may imagine a great Eastern sage such as Buddha or Lao-tse looking somewhat askance: the enlightenment they sought, which was the redemption of the individual, would not have come through any such severely intellectual and logical training. And one’s own observation of professional mathematicians hardly supports the view that they are the most whole and intact psychological specimens mankind has to offer. (p. 84)


Aristotle himself conceived of philosophy as the personal and passionate search for redemption from the wheel of birth and death. (p. 87-88)


Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be described to a blind man… The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational… The question is one of where the center of human personality is to be located: St. Paul locates this center in faith, Aristotle in reason; and these two conceptions, worlds apart, show how at its very fountainhead the Christian understanding of man diverges utterly from that of Greek philosophy… From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche. (p. 93)


[B]ecause the soul shared in the eternal Ideas, it too could be eternal, and so the man Plato himself might survive death. But Paul’s instincts are shrewder: he knows that neither Platonic nor any other kind of reason can convince us of immortality; nothing short of a miracle will do–and the most astounding one at that, a stumbling block to the skeptical among Greeks and Jews alike. (p. 94)


Theodicy is an attempt to deal with God as a metaphysical object, to reason demonstratively about Him and His cosmos, to the end that the perfection of both emerges as a rational certainty. Behind this lies the human need to seek security in a world where man feels homeless. But reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult. In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital, since it alone holds firm to those inexpungable elements of our existence that Augustine described in his Confessions, but then as a metaphysician attempted to think away. (p. 97)


The tension between the vital and the rational in man involves such a delicate balance that it can split apart into open warfare even where man is totally contained in a universal Church. The instincts of man are so earth-bound that they shrewdly sense it whenever the approach of logic threatens them. (p. 98)


…the old conflict between faith and reason, but this time sharpened by the sense of a naive and rude age that the very coming of reason was itself a threat. (p. 99)


Logic is quite useless, according to this theologian (Peter Damiani, 1007-1072), in helping us to know God because God in his nature is so incomprehensible and omnipotent that He transcends the basic law of logic, the principle of contradiction… Logic is a man-made tool, and God cannot be measured according to its requirements. (p. 99)

Related: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin


[S]olidly ensconced in habit, the good citizen, surrounded by wife and family, secure in his job, need not cast his eye on the quality of his days as they pass, and see how each day entombs some hope or dream forgotten and how the next morning wakes him to a round that becomes ever narrower and more congealed. (p. 112)


Now, the mathematical mind, as Pascal describes it, is defined precisely by its preoccupation with clear and distinct ideas, from which it is able to extract by deduction an infinite number of logical consequences. But the material with which the intuitive mind is dealing is so concrete and complex that it cannot be reduced to clear and distinct ideas that can be set forth in a few simple axioms… man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp… Pascal saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally. Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience. (pp. 114-115)


Justice Holmes remarked that the hallmark of genius, in a great lawyer or jurist, was his ability to cut through technicalities and go for the jugular. (p. 150)


For the thinker, as for the artist, what counts in life is not the number of rare and exciting adventures he encounters, but the inner depth of that life, by which something great may be made out of even the paltriest and most banal of circumstances. (p. 155)


But introversion and extraversion, as Jung suggests, are not at all of our own choosing; and the rosiest extravert is just as effectively imprisoned in his own centrifugal self as as the introvert is in his centripetal one. (p. 156)


Kierkegaard would find his task, he told himself, in raising difficulties for the easy conscience of an age that was smug in the conviction of its own material progress and intellectual enlightenment. (p. 157)


[Reason] has only one means of accounting for what does not come from itself, and that is to reduce it to nothingness. Which is exactly what Parmenides did, and what philosophers after him continued to do. The process is still going on today, in somewhat more subtle fashion, under the names of science and Positivism… (p. 159)


Positivism takes its cue from Kant’s doctrine and discards all thinking about existence (metaphysics, as this school calls it) as pointless because existence cannot be represented in a concept, and hence thinking about it will never lead to any definite results in observation. (p. 162)


If the abstractness of modern society can be said to lead to a repression of all the emotions, certainly the most deeply repressed are those we call “negative.” The “positive” emotions such as love or joy lend themselves to all kinds of sentimental caricatures in popular art, which are probably more damaging to the spirit than outright repression of such feelings would be. But what love does not know the ache of fear, what joy is not tinged with regret? Modern man is farther from the truth of his own emotions than the primitive. When we banish the shudder of fear, the rising of the hair of the flesh in dread, or the shiver of awe, we shall have lost the emotion of the holy altogether. (p. 169)


Religion is not a system of intellectual propositions to which the believer assents because he knows it to be true, as a system of geometry is true; existentially, for the individual himself, religion means in the end simply to be religious… Objective truth is easily recognized, and indeed today it has come to be almost the only sense of the term in our usage… But the truth of religion is not at all like that: it is a truth that must penetrate my own personal existence, or it is nothing; and I must struggle to renew it in my life every day… In the Oriental religious and philosophical tradition, where truth has never been defined as belonging basically to the intellect, the Master is able to discern whether or not a disciple has attained enlightenment from how he behaves, what kind of person he has come to be, not from hearing him reason about the Sutras. (p 170-171)


The chief movement of modernity, Kierkegaard holds, is a drift toward mass society, which means the death of the individual as life becomes ever more collectivized and externalized. The social thinking of the present age is determined, he says, by what might be called the Law of Large Numbers: it does not matter what quality each individual has, so long as we have enough individuals to add up to a large number–that is, to a crowd or mass. And where the mass is, there is truth–so the modern world believes. Behind this social observation, of course, lay Kierkegaard’s ultimate conviction that Christianity is something that concerns the individual alone… (p. 173)


Man, this most dangerous of the animals, as Nietzsche called him, now holds in his hands the dangerous power of blowing himself and his planet to bits; and it is not yet even clear that this problematic and complex being is really sane. (p. 180)


Man killed God, [Nietzsche] says, because he could not bear to have anyone looking at his ugliest side. (p. 182)


[Nietzsche] had perceived correctly that the principal conflict within Western philosophy lay at its very beginning, in Plato’s condemnation of the poets and artists as inhabiting the world of the senses rather than the supersensible world of the abstractions, the Ideas, which represent true Being as opposed to the constant flux of Becoming in the world of the senses. Nietzsche took the side of the artist: The real world, he said, than which there is no other, is the world of the senses and of Becoming. (p. 200)


In history textbooks we represent the emergence of the modern period out of the Middle Ages as the birth of an energetic and dynamic will to conquer nature and transform the conditions of life, instead of submitting to them passively while waiting to be sent to the next world as medieval man had done… Technology of the twentieth century has taken such enormous strides beyond that of the nineteenth that it now bulks larger as an instrument of naked power than as an instrument for human well-being. Now that we have airplanes that fly faster than the sun, intercontinental missiles, space satellites, and above all atomic explosives, we are aware that technology itself has assumed a power to which politics in any traditional sense is subordinate. If the Russians were to outstrip us decisively in technology, then all ordinary political calculations would have to go by the boards. The classical art of politics, conceived since the Greeks as a classically human art addressed to humans, becomes an outmoded and fragile thing beside the massive accumulation of technological power. The fate of the world, it now appears, turns upon sheer mastery over things. All the refinements of politics as a human art–diplomatic tact and finesse, compromise, an enlightened and liberal policy, good will–are as little able to avail against technological supremacy as the refinement of a man’s dress and person are able to ward off the blow of a pile driver. The human becomes subordinated to the machine, even in the traditionally human business of politics. (pp. 201-202)


Yes, we bear with us still the old liberal ideals of the individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; but the actual day-to-day march of our collective life involves us in a frantic dynamism whose ultimate goals are undefined. Everywhere in the world, men and nations are behaving precisely in accordance with the Nietzschean metaphysics: The goal of power need not be defined, because it is its own goal, and to halt or slacken speed even for a moment would be to fall behind in achieving it. (p. 202)

[Note that reason knows nothing outside itself and power has no goal other than itself. In the Christian view of the world, there is something beyond and higher than us to which we are accountable.]


The fundamental feature of Descartes' thought is a dualism between the ego and the external world of nature. The ego is the subject, essentially a thinking substance; nature is the world of objects, extended substances. Modern philosophy thus begins with a radical subjectivism, the subject facing the object in a kind of hidden antagonism… Nature thus appears as a realm to be conquered, and man as the creature who is to be conqueror of it. (pp. 202-203)


For Nietzsche, the problem of nihilism arose out of the discovery that “God is dead.” “God” here means the historical God of the Christian faith. But in a wider philosophical sense it means also the whole realm of supersensible reality–Platonic Ideas, the Absolute, or what not–that philosophy has traditionally posited beyond the sensible realm, and in which it has located man’s highest values. Now that this other, higher, eternal realm is gone, Nietzsche declared, man’s highest values lose their value. If man has lost the anchor to which he has hitherto been moored, Nietzsche asks, will he not drift in an infinite void? The only value Nietzsche can set up to take the place of these highest values that have lost their value for contemporary man is: Power. (p. 204)


To the degree that modern life has become secularized those highest values, anchored in the eternal, have lost their value. So long as people are blissfully unaware of this, they do not sink into any despondency and nihilism… [D]espite all its apparently cheerful and self-satisfied immersion in gadgets and refrigerators American life, one suspects, is nihilistic to its core. It’s final “What for?” is not even asked, let alone answered. (p. 204)


[U]nless our Faustian civilization can relax its frantic dynamism at some point, it might very well go psychotic. To primitives and Orientals, we Western men already seem half crazy. But it will not do merely to assert blandly that the tension of this dynamism has to be relaxed somehow and somewhere; we need to know what in our fundamental way of thinking needs to be changed so that the frantic will to power will not appear as the only meaning we can give to human life. If this moment in Western history is but the fateful outcome of the fundamental ways of thought that lie at the very basis of our civilization–and particularly of that way of thought that sunders man from nature, sees nature as a realm of objects to be mastered and conquered, and can therefore end only with the exaltation of the will to power–then we have to find out how this one-sided and ultimately nihilistic emphasis upon the power over things may be corrected. (p. 205)


The picture of man that emerges from Heidegger’s pages is of an earth-bound, time-bound, radically finite creature… (p 208)


By doubting all things Descartes arrived at a single certainty: the existence of his own consciousness–the famous Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am.” This is the point at which modern philosophy, and with it the modern epoch, begins: man is locked up in his own ego. (p 216)


My Being [says Heidegger] is not something that takes place inside my skin… my Being, rather is spread over a field or region which is the region of its care and concern. (p. 217)


[T]he gulf between subject and object, or between mind and body, that has been dug by modern philosophy need not exist if we do not make it. (p. 218)


Men exist within a mutual context of understanding. (paraphrase of 224) This is culture and society. When the mutual context of understanding breaks down, we revert to our more violent and primitive natures.


[Death] is the most extreme and absolute of my possibilities: extreme, because it is the possibility of not being and hence cuts off all other possibilities; absolute, because man can surmount all other heartbreaks, even the deaths of those he loves, but his own death puts an end to him. Hence, death is the most personal and intimate of possibilities, since it is what I must suffer for myself: nobody else can die for me. (p. 225)


We tend to think of finitude principally in connection with physical objects: objects are finite because they are contained within definite spatial boundaries. They extend so far and no farther. The essential finitude of man, however, is experienced not at his boundaries but, so to speak, at the very center of his Being. He is finite because his Being is penetrated by non-Being. At first glance, this looks utterly paradoxical; and our reason, basing itself rigidly on the law of contradiction, cannot comprehend it. But we ourselves, as existing beings, comprehend it all too well when we are plunged into the mood of anxiety, when the void of non-Being opens up within our own Being. (p. 226)


Anxiety is not fear, being afraid of this or that definite object, but the uncanny feeling of being afraid of nothing at all. (p. 226)