Irrational Man: A Study In Existential Philosophy is a 1958 book by William Barrett which served to introduce existentialism to the English speaking world. His writing style is conversational, and he takes time to define terms and give the reader background on philosophical terms and concepts, so this book is aimed at a general reader curious about the topic.
The need for a native English speaker to write a text on existentialist philosophy was paramount for its understanding, since most of the primary philosophers in this movement were not native English speakers. While Kierkegaard's works had been translated several decades earlier, the full impact of existential philosophy had not yet been felt in the English speaking world when this book was produced. Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness had been available in English for only a couple of years, Walter Kaufmann's translation of Friedrich Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra had been out only a few more, and Martin Heidegger's Being and Time had not yet been translated into English.
In the four parts of the book, Barrett explains in brief the philosophical tradition to which existentialism was a reaction, and then the main concepts of existential thought.
Part one – "The Present Age"
This part shows the impact that existentialism has had on culture even without being a widely known philosophical school of thought.
Part two – Sources of Existentialism
This part traces the development of philosophy (and is a good overview of the subject) as it pertains to being, ontology, and metaphysics. This serves to show the contrast between existentialist thought and other forms of philosophy.
Part three – The Existentialists
The four main philosophical thinkers are introduced, along with their primary thoughts and terminology.
The discussion of each philosopher serves as a road map for those seeking an entre into the primary works of each, which can be dense with unique terminology. (Particularly Heidegger and Sarte.) The material in each of these four sections summarizes the main points each philosopher contributed to existentialism. The reactions of one philosopher to another is also explored. (Again, particularly Heidegger and Sartre.) The philosophers are also situated in the larger history of philosophical investigations outside of existentialism itself.
Barrett concentrates on these main philosophers and avoids an in-depth discussion (although he does mention some) of the many of the existentialist artists, writers, etc.
Part four – Integral vs Rational Man
This last, short part applies existentialist thought to the world of the late 1950s, during the Cold War.
- Appendix one is "Negation, Finitude, and the Nature of Man" which was a paper presented by the author in 1957.
- Appendix two is a discussion of existentialism and analytic philosophy. (This is not for the general reader.)
- Currently published by Anchor Books ISBN 0-385-03138-6.