William Barrett (philosopher)

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William Christopher Barrett (1913–1992) was a professor of philosophy at New York University from 1950 to 1979.


Precociously, Barrett 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. These included Irrational Man 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.

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 philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger and was the editor of D. T. Suzuki's 1956 classic Zen Buddhism. In fiction his taste ran to the great Russians, particularly Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Barrett died in 1992, aged 78, of 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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