A Book: Irrational Man

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.

-William Barrett in Irrational Man

Irrational Man by William Barrett

First published in 1958, Irrational Man is something of a dinosaur next to the sexily titled and slickly paced philosophy books that fill today’s bookshelves. Despite its age and the sad fact that some of the ideas in the book have aged less than gracefully, it remains as its back blurb says, “widely recognized as the finest definition of existentialist philosophy ever written”.

These days existentialism takes a back seat to its offspring, postmodernism, and it is unfortunate that in the minds of most people, the “scientized” sophistry, sometimes frivolously so, and abstruse language that so characterizes contemporary postmodern literature is inevitably linked to existentialism as well. It may therefore be surprising that I, the author of a site dedicated to reason, identify strongly with some of the central tenets of existentialism.

Yet I do identify with existentialism, and as a point of fact, among those thinkers traditionally associated with the movement, I most admire Friedrich Nietzsche and find in his thought no fundamental contradiction to the views I myself hold. As a text that predates the rise of postmodernism, Irrational Man serves well the role of introducing existentialism, in all its compelling, uncomplicated, candor, free of all the intellectual baggage that would come later.

Irrational Man opens with a lament that one can easily sympathize with: professional philosophers, motivated by a guilt of not being scientists and the desire to emulate the spectacular successes of the physical sciences, have become ever more specialized and academic, and in doing so lost sight of the total vision of man. So it was up to the non-professional philosophers to formulate a new way of viewing human existence that would ultimately shake Western civilization to its foundations.

The two fathers of existentialism are Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, neither of whom were academic philosophers. Even more tellingly, the texts written by these two tend to be literary, intensely personal, even poetic. Perhaps the most useful part of Irrational Man are the chapters on these two personages as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, undoubtedly the most well-known of the existentialists and Martin Heidegger, an academic philosopher and Sartre’s teacher. These four, claim Barrett, are the “most considerable figures that the movement has yet brought forward.”

Besides these, Barrett also has chapters detailing the advent of existentialism, its presence in literature, in art and how it relates to traditional Hebraism and Hellenism. Included in the appendix are two chapters on the concept of nothingness and a discussion of the verb “to be” and how it cannot avoid but be an “essential reference to the existential”. Other than these, and parts of the summation of Heidegger’s contribution to existentialism (particularly the concept of dasein) and Sartre’s concepts of the self, the book is relatively free of metaphysical discussion and Barrett frequently relates the ideas he presents to real-world issues, making it a very clear and readable text.

Barrett places much emphasis throughout the book on the abdication of organized religion as the central pillar of human life. While this is certainly justified by the fact that many, or even most, of the existentialist philosophers viewed the decay of traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs and values as the first step towards existentialism, contemporary readers living in an age where this decay was a fait accompli long before they were ever born, would certainly find it a far less pertinent dilemma than it was for Barrett’s generation.

Most modern readers would probably find greater affinity with the quotation above: that modern life, in light of the sheer economic and technological prowess humans today collectively wield, which many existentialists regard as a dehumanizing force, and the widespread popularity and availability of mass communication mediums including the newspapers and television, has become increasingly abstracted to the point where everything is “externalized”. Barrett therefore credits the great tragedies of human history, including the great world wars, as momentous events that force individuals to “stand face to face with life”. As he writes of the conditions in nineteenth-century Russia in which the great writers Tolstoy and Dostoevski produced their oeuvres, “Habit and routine are great veils over our existence. As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit. When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from habits and norms he once accepted automatically. There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

I agree that the “externalizing effect” is certainly true to some extent and believe that most people don’t reflect enough on their individual purposes in life. For example, many people now probably live out their greatest loves, hopes and fears, not with the flesh-and-blood people they interact with in everyday life, but instead with the characters of the television shows and movies that they watch and the novels that they buy, and many others live out entire lives according to some fixed schedule thrust upon them by tradition or circumstance that they have had relatively little hand in devising. However, I believe that Barrett is wrong if it is supposed that any specific mode of living is automatically more “authentic” than any other or that any person has the right to judge whether or not another person’s subjective experience of life is “authentic”. Yet Barrett writes “Every step forward in mechanical technique is a step in the direction of abstraction. This capacity for living easily and familiarly at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of modern man’s power… But it is also a power which has, like everything human, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootlessness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails modern man in his moments of real anxiety.”

While it is true that our modern mastery of the physical world does involve an inevitable measure of abstraction in the sense that no human today can reasonably be expected to understand all of the technology he or she uses in everyday life, the fact remains that such abstractions, if you must, do assist us immeasurably in providing the basic necessities and conveniences of life. In fact, Barrett omits to mention in his book that Heidegger became an active, even an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism, and Sartre supported the Communist Soviet Union precisely because they felt that the authoritarian governments of those regimes freed ordinary citizens from the odious task of taking care of their day-to-day existence, in favor of more time to devote to intellectual pursuits, which they felt was more important. In effect, they thought that “abstractions” in the day-to-day workings of life were so important that imposing them by force was justified.

Even graver, Barrett here commits the same fundamental error made by practically all of the existentialist thinkers: despite the stark reality offered by existentialism that life is really meaningless and that all values, whether esthetic or moral, were inherently subjective and all meanings completely arbitrary, none of the thinkers really believed that reality was quite as bleak as that. Barrett reveals his personal bias in his critique of Sartre that valorizes the rural “roots” of past thinkers at the expense of “urban intellectuals”. For this reason, I suspect that Barrett would never accept that, say, a computer programmer might find the contemplation of an abstract software algorithm every bit as “authentic” as Wordsworth’s poet wandering over the moors and taking in the splendors of nature.

Other aspects of Barrett’s critique of the abstractness of modern life is open to dissection as well. He repeats a lament attributed to E. B. White that upon the occasion of an eclipse of the moon, most people preferred looking at the reflection of it on the screen instead of out of their windows. The poverty of this argument is easily demonstrated in a scene from Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora in which the question of the way the conscious software characters perceive events through cameras is raised. As one of the flesh-and-blood human characters points out, “Just because our own minds are being run a few centimeters away from our own cameras, that doesn’t make our experiences magically superior.” Then there is Barrett’s attempt to persuade readers that the finitude of rationality itself has been “proven” by science and mathematics by invoking Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminacy, for which there is as yet no conclusive consensus on how it should be interpreted as there remains several possibilities that could yet return determinacy to physics, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a line of argument brilliantly riposted by Egan in his novelette Oracle. He also makes much of Miguel Unamuno’s quote that “If there is no immortality, what use is God?”. Yet as Christopher Scott Wyatt writes, “For many individuals, immortality promises to give life some greater meaning. I do not understand how this is, since I can see no greater meaning to my life if I live one day or a million days.”

By far the most significant error in this book, and one that again may be attributed to most of the existentialist thinkers may be seen in Barrett’s exposition of Dostoevski’s Underground Man. Here he writes, “If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash this machine. What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment. Like Nietzsche after him, Dostoevski was the great explorer of resentment as a powerful and sometimes unaccountable motive in man.”

The error is that Barrett and the existentialists failed to presage a time when the irrationalities of man, his frustrations and resentments, can be understood and rationalized in terms of modern science. Books like Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal and the work of evolutionary psychologists like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby do precisely this. In How The Mind Works, Steven Pinker even explains why the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that Barrett so abhors can sometimes be a reasonable strategy. In effect, while Barrett is right to say that man ignores the “Furies” at his own peril, he is wrong to say that they can never be placated by science. The excellent Hedonistic Imperative website in particular, persuasively explains why scientific intervention in the nature of man is ultimately necessary to achieve any lasting experience of true happiness. It is ironic then, given the complete demise of the Freudian brand of psychology, that Barrett claims that “the one science of man that has attempted anything like an understanding of the total human personality is psychoanalysis, a field that must be distinguished from its suspicious neighbor, academic psychology..” The one existentialist who got it right in the end might be Nietzsche who wrote, “We must be physicists in order … to be creative since so far codes of values and ideals have been constructed in ignorance of physics or even in contradiction to physics.”

All this is not to say that Barrett’s book is worthless. On the contrary, it performs an essential role in revealing, beyond the superficial fads of the fashionable Parisian café intellectual that Sartre popularized, the profundity of thought that is present in the great existentialists. “Existential angst” is today a derogatory term used to denote childish and unnecessary anxieties, but Barrett convincingly demonstrates that the “nothingness” at the core of man, in all that he does, and in all that he can ever become, is very real indeed. Furthermore, he advances well the lesson best expressed by Nietzsche that “The real world, [Nietzsche] said, than which there is no other, is the world of the senses and of Becoming.”

Perhaps other readers will point out that the greatest fault in Barrett’s book is that he fails to propose a solution to the existential problem of the human condition. To say this however, would be to miss the point of existentialism entirely. While Kierkegaard proposed the self-confessed absurd leap of faith to Christianity and Nietzsche proposed his much maligned Will to Power as solutions to this perennial problem, both of these thinkers were at their weakest and least convincing when attempting to prescribe universal cures. Both were most effective in the role of the Socratic gadfly in challenging the unquestioned assumptions that are often taken as absolute truths in society. The real lesson of existentialism is that each individual must come to terms with his own existential angst by himself. Yet to resolve this problem, one must first know of it in the first place, and this is precisely why Irrational Man is worth reading: as a glorious gadfly to the individual reader.

6 thoughts on “A Book: Irrational Man”

  1. Fascinating review. Thoughtful remarks. A former Randist, I am constantly rereading Barrett’s books. What you said of Heidegger and Sartre is, I think, truer of Sartre; was Heidegger’s motive for joining the Nazis really to get more leisure time to contemplate? What do you think about Barrett’s remarks in this and other books about the place of reason vis-a-vis what I call intuition or the unconscious? I mean especially his chapter about the Escape from Laputa? I disbelieve in Rand’s exalted view of capital-R Reason and Branden’s advocacy of a completely conscious life, but, still, obviously we need to be wary of ignoring reason and of trusting ourselves entirely to the kind of unconscious functioning that Rand called “whim worshipping.” Any thoughts? Thank you very much!

  2. With regards to Heidegger, you are probably correct that he was motivated more by his belief that the German people and language had a special destiny. As for what I believe is the proper role of the unconscious versus the conscious, I intend to write on this at greater length in my series on Ayn Rand. In short, I now believe that people are motivated primarily by their unconscious drives. Reason and empiricism are means of getting at the objective truth but there is no universal truth to be found on what it means to live a “good” or “correct” life, though they are still useful in uncovering possible contradictions in our unconscious drives. Please do note that this essay was written some 5 years ago and I’m bit rusty now on what Barrett wrote.

    Finally, thanks very much for posting this comment. This essay is by far the most heavily read essay on the entire site since it seems to come up at the top of Google searches. I’m very much interested in hearing what people think about it.

  3. I read Barrett two decades ago. He was a breakthrough in my thinking about the world. Question: Can you tell me who your’re quoting in your sentence “Barrett therefore credits the great tragedies of human history, including the great world wars, as momentous events that force individuals to ‘stand face to face with life’.” I seem to rememeber “stand face to face with life” from Montaigne. Was it actually Barrett, or Kierkegaard? I remember it as being part of a powerful injuction. Do you have a reference?

  4. I don’t actually have the book with me at the moment so I don’t know the answer. It should be simple for me to check up on this in a couple of months time. Thanks for commenting.

  5. You are a monster in your assessment of existentialism… This philosophical movement never had its proponents in the unlimited horizon of americas unlimited horizons, and as such, you posit the notion, extreme abstractions which mean the loss of millions of lives or the loss of the possiblity of a better quality of life for those millions as being necessarily forfeit to rational concerns…

    There may be no instant detractors to oppose you at present but, there will be in time… Rest easy in your comfortable, bougeuouse fortress….

  6. I gather that you’re trying to say that you oppose the “abstractions” created by capitalist mass production and the globalized economy because it hides the human loss and suffering on the other side of the equation. I’m not sure what that has to do this book or the existentialist movement however. Feel free to critique some of my other posts, because I’ve certainly defended capitalism in them, but I don’t think it’s particularly relevant to this one.

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