William Barrett (philosopher)

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For other people of the same name, see William Barrett (disambiguation).

William Christopher Barrett (1913–1992) was a professor of philosophy at New York University from 1950 to 1979. Precociously, he began post-secondary studies at the City College of New York when 15 years old. He received his PhD at Columbia University. He was an editor of Partisan Review and later the literary critic of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. He was well known for writing philosophical works for nonexperts. Perhaps the best known among these were Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy and The Illusion of Technique, which remain in print.[1]

Like many intellectuals of his generation, Barrett flirted with Marxism before turning his energies to providing readable introductions to European philosophical schools, notably existentialism. Irrational Man remains one of the most approachable reviews of existentialism in English.

Barrett was good friends with the poet Delmore Schwartz for many years. He knew many other literary figures of the day, including Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, and Albert Camus. He was deeply influenced by the philosophy of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger and was the editor of D.T. Suzuki's 1956 classic Zen Buddhism. In fiction his taste ran to the great Russians, particularly Dostoyevsky. He was the father of Susan and Michael Barrett, longtime husband of Juliet Bigney Barrett and the grandfather of Madeleine, Natalie, Keegan, Kyra, and Rian. Barrett was also father to Ellen (Nell) Barrett through his second marriage to Margaret Merrick Boyce Barrett, and the grandfather of Georgia and Clinton.

Barrett died in 1992 in the Tarrytown Hall Nursing Home in Tarrytown, New York. He was 78 years of age. According to his son-in-law Gary La Rue, Barrett's death was due to cancer of the esophagus.[1]

Barrett's Law is named for him: "not everyone who might read the productions of scholarly writers is an expert in the fields discussed" (p. 99).[2]


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  1. ^ a b Honan, William H. (September 10, 1992). "William Barrett, 78, a Professor And Interpreter of Existentialism". New York Times. Retrieved March 3, 2014. 
  2. ^ Burman, J. T. (2012). The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999. Perspectives on Science, 20(1), 75-104. [1] doi:10.1162/POSC_a_00057 (This is an open access article, made freely available courtesy of MIT Press.)

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