What is Existentialism?
by William Barrett
Grove, 218 pp., $5.00
The main interest of this book stems from the contrast between the two parts in which it is divided. They deal with the same topic—the work of the contemporary philosopher Martin Heidegger—but were written twelve years apart. The first essay originated shortly after the war, at a time when American intellectuals were discovering existentialism, a movement that by then had practically become a part of French popular culture; the second essay is dated 1963. Among the many attempts to write on a non-technical level about this subject, I find this book more useful and informative than most of its predecessors, mainly because it doesn’t pretend to carry out the dangerous assumption of its title: that “existentialism” could be neatly defined and described, conveniently summarized in a few formulas, thus sparing everyone a lot of tiresome reading and the hard task of learning a foreign terminology. Precisely because Professor Barrett writes for the general public, but from a philosophical point of view (and not as a member of the general public trying to philosophize), he spares us the usual hasty resumés of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and even Heidegger that, in the past, have purported to tell us what existentialism is all about. Instead, by the juxtaposition of the two essays, he allows us to follow the development of his own attitude towards a certain mode of thought. This provides us with a glimpse into a significant occurrence: the reaction of a mind brought into contact with a particularly powerful source of philosophical insight. In the process, we may not learn very much about the source itself, but we are at least told something important about the mental attitude with which it should be approached. And that, after all, is the best a non-technical book on a philosophical subject can accomplish: not to pretend to offer a short-cut, but to put the reader in a receptive frame of mind to embark on his own search.
Although the author tells us that he is “more surprised by the continuity [of the two essays] than by their divergences,” it is certainly the latter that call for comment. In one respect, Mr. Barrett’s philosophical intuition did not betray him, even when he was writing on existentialism in the late Forties. He realized then as now that any treatment of the subject had to start from the work of Heidegger, and that any treatment of Heidegger had to start from his early and most important work, Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1926). This was not obvious at the time: the success of Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s literary and theoretical work had pushed the influence of Heidegger into the background; one was altogether willing to see him replaced and bypassed by the younger French existentialists whose politics were much more appealing. Moreover, Heidegger’s work seemed to be stalled since the publication of Sein und Zeit; he purported to dismiss the unfinished treatise as a false start, without, however, replacing it …