Barrett, William Christopher

views updated

Barrett, William Christopher

(b. 30 December 1913 in New York City; d. 8 September 1992 in Tarrytown, New York), philosopher, cultural historian, and educator who brought existentialism into the main current of American intellectual life in the late 1940s and later, through his books and teaching, instructed two generations in modern philosophy, political thought, and twentieth-century literary and artistic experiment.

Son of John Patrick Barrett, a grocer, and Delia Connolly, a cook, Barrett was the youngest of four children raised in the Catholic faith. He grew up in the borough of Queens, attended public high school in Long Island City, and showed an early interest in the classics, particularly Aristotle. At the City College of New York he caught the Marxist wave of the early Great Depression years and that influence made him at home with the New York intellectuals later in the decade. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1933 he continued his education at Columbia University in New York, spent 1936 on a fellowship at the University of Chicago, and then earned his Ph.D. at Columbia with a dissertation on Greek philosophy in 1938.

In 1937 he met the legendary poet and critic Delmore Schwartz, who soon drew him into the circle of Partisan Review writers that included Phillip Rahv, Lionel Trilling, and Mary McCarthy. A Gentile in the predominantly Jewish world of Marxist intellectuals, Barrett enjoyed the curious position of an insider who was outside. Yet he was never quite committed to the rough-and-tumble of politics and personalities in New York literary journalism and pursued a career in teaching, first at the University of Illinois at Urbana from 1938 to 1940 and then at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, from 1940 to 1942. At Brown he met and married Juliet Bigney, a secretary working at Pembroke College; their marriage lasted from 1941 until her death in 1979 and produced two children. Barrett spent the early World War II years with the Office of Strategic Services, and in 1944–1945 served with the State Department as vice consul in Rome. Once back in the United States, he resumed his friendships in New York, wrote on postwar Italy for Partisan Review under the pseudonym of Moses Brown, was named an editor of the magazine in 1946, and held a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship during 1946–1947.

Barrett’s Partisan Review years, 1946–1953, saw the emergence of two strong themes in his thought: the focus on existentialism, including its roots and permanent importance in world philosophy, and the battle with totalitarianism, especially in its postwar Communist form. Barrett’s famous exposition of the “new” movement called existentialism came out in the magazine in 1947; during the same period his anti-Stalinist editorials argued the democratic leftist point of view. In 1952 Barrett led the International Seminar at Harvard, an enterprise geared to demonstrating the vigor of the anticommunist American intellectual. Vaguely disaffected with Partisan turn against anticommunism after Stalin’s death, Barrett incorporated a teaching position into his workaday life before leaving Partisan Review for good in 1953. He took a position at New York University that lasted from 1950 to 1979, then taught at the United States Military Academy in upstate New York for two years, and then at Pace University in New York City as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy from 1982 to 1992.

Irrational Man, published in 1958, was Barrett’s first major work. An exploration of thinkers and writers who revolted against abstraction and scientific positivism, the book is a close reflection on the meaning of being as expounded by S0ren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Boldly at odds with reductive analytic philosophy, Barrett championed the often poetic exploration of man’s nature; in so doing he also provided concise and exceptionally lucid accounts of whole bodies of protoexis-tentialist thought. During the 1960s Barrett pursued his literary career as reviewer for the Atlantic and later as the magazine’s columnist in “Reader’s Choice.”

His next major book, Time of Need (1972), surveyed the artistic and fictional dimensions of the existentialist phenomenon, studying figures such as Alberto Giacometti and Pablo Picasso, Samuel Beckett and William Faulkner. The analysis of novels, he argued, allowed him access to the elemental and primal world that, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had argued, was taking place behind the backs of mere reporters. Fiction for Barrett was a form of existential history, not the vague realm of fancifulness dismissed by analytic philosophers.

The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in a Technological Civilization, published in 1978, was a different kind of book—more polemical and explicitly opposed to the direction of modern civilization. Much of the material first appeared in the neoconservative magazine Commentary, a fact that registered Barrett’s abandonment of his youthful leftism and his return to the Catholic Church. Barrett’s purpose was to trace the development of three philosophers—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and William James—who moved beyond the truths of logic and science and explored being. Metaphysical when others were pragmatic or ideological, Barrett was a philosopher out of his time. He attacked the instrumentalism of the late twentieth century and its emphasis on method at the expense of value.

Barrett’s 1982 memoir, The Truants: Adventures Among the Intellectuals, was his own mental history as well as the story of a generation of writers and thinkers. Without any private revelation of the confessional sort, he manages to show the temperament and soul of a thinker grappling with intense conflicts between human feeling and principle. Central to the book is Barrett’s early devotion to Schwartz—a philosopher’s devotion to a mostly demented poet. Other attractions, and eventual recoils, involve the nihilistic Rahv and the all-too-rational Trilling. The characters are “truants,” escapees from essential truths who take refuge in their abstract formulations—Marxism, Freudi-anism—and neglect the sources of life and spiritual discovery. Barrett describes the great critic Edmund Wilson as unable to see anything in Rome other than his own ideas. Along with the truancy there was also the aggression and destructiveness of this class of intellectuals: their infighting, battling over leftist politics, and brilliance wasted on polemics. In an elegiac mood—recalling his illusions about politics, especially—Barrett creates a very spiritual account of a group of secular thinkers and critics.

The 1970s and early 1980s were a time of honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, a National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellowship in 1976, and a Mellon Fellowship in 1981. Barrett’s last book, The Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer (1986), takes the spiritual measure of thinkers from the seventeenth to the twentieth century, finds much of empiricism dangerous to the soul of man, evaluates Immanuel Kant’s awareness of moral states beyond our “finite station,” and analyzes the soul-denying elements in Jean-Paul Sartre and postmodern deconstruction. The book is an accessible and elegant study of the challenges to metaphysics in the modern world. Barrett died in suburban Tarrytown, his home since 1962, of esophageal cancer. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown.

Barrett was a lifelong existentialist, even when that philosophy was crowded off the stage by the politics of the New Left, deconstruction, feminism, and new versions of pragmatism and positivism. Believing that philosophy was coextensive with literature and art and that religious impulses were a vital component of the self, he had little appeal for academic specialists. Yet his combination of clear reasoning and recognition of the mysteries of being make him an important guide to modern philosophy.

Barrett’s miscellaneous papers are held at the time of this writing by his daughter, Susan Barrett, but are eventually to be archived at the Library of Congress. Hilton Kramer’s review of the book The Truants shows how it is “a permanent part of our literature,” New York Times Book. Review (7 Feb. 1982). Mark Shechner’s review of the book in Nation (27 Feb. 1982) gives useful opinions about Barrett’s place among the New York intellectuals. James Atlas gives a sharply focused short analysis of The Illusion of Technique in Time (4 Sept. 1978). An obituary is in the New York Times (10 Sept. 1992).

David Castronovo

About this article

Barrett, William Christopher

Updated About content Print Article