What is Existentialism?
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 with another work of similar proportions. There was thus a great deal of merit and discernment in Mr. Barrett’s insistence, from the start, on the determining importance of Being and Time.
But, granting this, the first part of the book certainly presents an inadequate and distorted view of Heidegger, not because of any deliberate prejudice, but clearly because Barrett came to him with certain false expectations, which naturally had been shaped by his philosophical and ideological background. Barrett was an American student of philosophy before the advent of logical positivism and linguistic analysis, with strong progressive leanings and a vivid interest in the more literary aspects of French existentialism. The atmosphere is pleasantly familiar to those who lived on the subway-circuit between uptown Columbia and downtown Astor Place in the New York of the Forties; one can find it curiously stylized and reflected back to one of its sources in the special issue on the U.S. which Sartre edited for Les Temps modernes around that time. Such a background (in contrast perhaps to the one existing today) was open and eclectic enough to allow for an initial curiosity and sympathy in approaching Heidegger, but it was bound to stand in the way of a correct first reading. Especially under the French influence, it would tend to focus on the aspects of Sein und Zeit that may, at first sight, appear to have to do with the realm of immediate experience rather than with a rigorous philosophical discourse on this experience.
To some degree, Sein und Zeit may lend itself to this kind of confusion. It contains, after all, such phrases as “being towards death,” talks at times (though much less often than is generally assumed) about such familiar-sounding experiences as care, guilt, anxiety, etc., devotes a footnote to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyitch (though this is the only literary reference in the book), and mentions, albeit with strong philosophical reservations, Kierkegaard. A reader may therefore assume that this is a “subjective” book which, like Sartre’s essays, somehow tries to cope, in terms of actions, values, and beliefs, with such matters as our anxieties, our historical predicament, or our mortality. In addition, Sein und Zeit is written in a harsh, polemical, somewhat arrogant tone that was characteristic of Heidegger’s temperament and can be mistaken for the pathos of ideology or belief. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. At best, it expresses the genuine passion for truth and animates all major philosophical inquiries, at worst the frustration of a junior professor chafing under the tyranny of seniority in the German academic system.
For nothing is more remote from Heidegger than this confusion between the pathos of direct experience and the knowing of this experience—a confusion which, ironically, has become associated with so-called “existential” thought, mainly because of Sartre’s famous and unfortunate phrase about the precedence of existence over essences. One could rather describe Being and Time as the most thoroughgoing attempt to cleanse our thought from that confusion not only in language, but in the philosophical project as a whole. Heidegger begins his argument by insisting that the very act by which man, instead of abandoning himself to the immediacy of experience, always interprets this experience in the direction of a cognition, constitutive for the human way of being as such. To put this very crudely, it means that we are human to the extent that we are able to understand our own subjectivity by transforming it into language and, ultimately, by seeing it exactly as it is, in the pure language of true philosophy. Therefore Heidegger does not in any way wish to plunge one into the undifferentiated and opaque mass of direct actions, feelings or emotions; his entire enterprise strives in the opposite direction. When, he talks about death, for instance, it is not to awaken within us the kind of visceral response, the immediate pathos associated with the experience. Instead he speaks of death in order to establish a crucial distinction between two ways of knowing: the inauthentic, evasive manner in which we generally “know” of our mortality as something which happens only now to others and not yet to ourselves, and the authentic knowledge of ourselves as finite and therefore essentially temporal creatures. Death, then, is mentioned primarily for epistemological reasons and not, as the much abused term would appear in its popularized version, for “existential” reasons. The word “existential” Heidegger uses to mean exactly the opposite: philosophically conscious knowledge as opposed to immediate, intuitive, experienced knowledge.
On his first reading of Being and Time, the author of What is Existentialism? was obviously not aware of this, hence his summary of the book puts all the emphases in the wrong places. The historical antecedents of Heidegger are not correctly stated and the all-important neo-Kantian background ignored. By again and again stressing “existential pathos” as being Heidegger’s real concern, Barrett obscures the main argument of the book. Heidegger’s aim in this book is primarily to show how the possibility of an inauthentic and partial relationship towards things inheres in the very nature of the human makeup, along with the intent to overcome it. The entire organization of Being and Time is determined by this theme, which Barrett only mentions as a topic among others. The very notion of temporality, which originally has nothing to do with our everyday use of past, present, and future, depends on this passage from a “fallen” to an “authentic” consciousness. Since this is not clearly brought out, Mr. Barrett’s summarizing paraphase necessarily goes astray, and his critical remarks do not apply to Heidegger’s actual statement.
But in the later chapters of What is Existentialism? a considerable change has taken place and the author is now a great deal closer to the movement of Heidegger’s thought. His analysis of the distinction between Sartre’s basically unphilosophical undertaking and Heidegger’s is one of the real contributions of the book. In this section, my only reservations have to do with the end of the chapter, “Historical prophecy” (pp. 213-216), in which Barrett, taking his cue from some of Heidegger’s pronouncements on technology, indulges in some consideration on the future state of our historical world which, despite a reassuring ironical tone, might be misleading. I know that Heidegger himself, in his later essays, has occasionally adopted an oracular tone—but this is perhaps an understandable human weakness in someone who may well feel he is not correctly understood. Utopian prophecy in any form is alien to him, a dangerous misconception of time as a determined, particularized entity, the very opposite of the open and free time of man’s historical project. It is a classic case of confusion between—to use Heidegger’s vocabulary so well explained by Mr. Barrett himself—an “ontic” and an “ontological” view of history, all the more dangerous since the unprepared reader is likely to focus on such passages; they seem concrete and revealing precisely to the extent that they are fantastic. And they breed another kind of confusion in that they are often linked with Heidegger’s avowed interest in poetry in later life.
It is well-known that, although Sein und Zeit contained an almost striking lack of literary allusions, Heidegger’s subsequent work devotes a great deal of attention to poetical exegesis. Are we to assume that this is a turning away from the rigorous language of philosophy to a freer, vaguer mode of discourse? Or is this similar to Sartre’s easy moving back and forth between theory and fiction? It is likely, rather, that poetic language interests Heidegger because it is not less but more rigorous than the philosopher’s, having a clearer consciousness of its own interpretative function. Since man is defined as the philosophical animal, the being that interprets itself by means of language, true poets can often go further in man’s essential project than the philosophers, not because (as Mr. Barrett says) they are closer to nature, but because they are closer to language. Heidegger’s own poetical exegeses are of particular interest to students of literature because they provide a philosophical basis for the act of exegesis itself.
Mr. Barrett’s second essay contains many valuable suggestions. His considerations on Heidegger’s interpretation of Kant and Plato, on the change (or lack of change) between the early and the late Heidegger, on his conception of history, on his notion of man as a creature of possibilities, on his place in the development of Western philosophy, are all most useful. It is not that Mr. Barrett has been, as it were, “converted” by Heidegger during that twelve-year period, for no truly philosophical work ever demands that kind of response. But we are now precisely at the point where his criticism is of great interest, and one can only hope that he will choose to pursue his dialogue with Heidegger further. What has happened is simply that he now reads him on his actual terms instead of looking for his own problems and contructs—and this is by no means so easy as it may seem.
A new period seems to have started in this country’s attitude towards Heidegger. A painstakingly accurate (though not altogether felicitous) English translation of Sein and Zeit* , by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson, has recently appeared, making Heidegger available for serious study here for the first time. Coupled with Mr. Barrett’s eminently sensible essay, it will do much to further a correct understanding of an intellectual movement that has been much maligned, as well as much admired, for the wrong reasons.