WITH A SMALL pamphlet entitled "What Is Existentialism?" (1947) and a follow-up book, Irrational Man (1958), William Barrett, a former editor of Partisan Review, introduced the exciting European philosophy of existentialism to post-World War II America. Now, in Death of the Soul, Barrett joins the growing company of intellectuals who are taking stock of the era of modernity, the period from the 17th century to the present. In his new book, Barrett has chosen to wage intellectual warfare on behalf of the soul against the philosophers of modernity -- from Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard to Sartre, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida, who are implicated in "the loss of the self in the modern world."
Barrett begins with the thesis that modern philosophers under the dominating influence of the empirical natural sciences, have been progressively undermining the traditional concept of the soul. Not even Descartes can escape culpability. Descartes' rationalism diminishes the soul, his mechanism diminishes the body and his mind-body dualism disrupts the soul's unity. The British empiricists, discrediting an imperceptible substance, "desubstantialized" the self -- "a blow from which the Modern Age has never rescued it." Kant emerges as the last philosopher not to succumb to the split in modern consciousness between the perspective of science and that of the moral and spiritual life of the West. But even Kant, under the influence of empiricism, lacks a "grasp of the concrete self."
Astonishingly, Barrett sees the whole of 19th-century idealism and 20th-century existentialism as contributing to the loss of the self. But aren't these philosophies the arch-opponents of the scientific positivism and empiricism which undermine the self? And aren't idealism and existentialism generally regarded as the philosophies which discovered, explored, and celebrated the self? Barrett maintains that, ironically, "certain contemporary versions of that philosophy have become destructive of the individual." This from the author of Irrational Man, the euphoric, widely acclaimed study of existentialism? Without explaining his startling reversal, Barrett assails the existentialists for causing the "disappearance" of the self. Heidegger is attacked for providing no subject to undergo the various modes of being; at the center of the human being Heidegger leaves "a gaping hole," expressive of the "desolate" emptiness of our culture. Sartre's pursuit of unlimited freedom leads him to deny a human essence, an enduring self or a personal character. The Sartrean self is a rootless, potentially demonic non-self, "pure potentiality in the void." Barrett concludes with a brief glance at the fearful fate of the soul at the hands of logical positivism, analytic philosophy, and deconstructionism.
The question is, what does Barrett mean by the soul/ self/ person/ mind/ consciousness/ subjectivity, all of which he uses interchangeably? And what is he defending?
From fragments scattered throughout Barrett's book, the outlines of an Aristotelean and medieval Christian view of the soul emerge. We are spiritual beings, Barrett seems to be saying, "rooted in God," living in His beneficent universe. Soul and body, actuality and potentiality, are two aspects of a single, pure, immaterial and immortal substance; as moral beings, we seek to fulfill our divinely created human nature, but we live with a sense of our sinfulness; and at the core of our being is the struggle for personal salvation.
But how can the Aristotelean and medieval doctrine of the soul be restored to us in the closing years of the 20th century? Has Barrett shown us that there are threads of continuity leading back from contemporary discourse to older doctrines of the soul, as Mircea Eliade tried to do? To the contrary, he has shown only underminings of the idea of the soul in modern philosophy, except for questionable fragments from Leibniz and Kierkegaard. Has Barrett, alternatively shown us that "the reality of consciousness as we actually experience it" discloses the features of the Aristotelean and medieval Christian soul? Has Barrett ventured to construct a new doctrine of the soul, linking the old view with the problematic image of the soul today, including the psychoanalytic concept of the unconscious, which he understands and values? He has done none of these. He has told us, in effect, that Western civilization can regain its soul only by an absolute return to medieval Christian doctrine -- and in so doing he has replaced philosophic inquiry with religious faith.
The bombshell in Barrett's book is not solely the "death of the soul" concept but also his apostasizing from existentialism in conjunction with his return to traditional religious doctrine. But that Barrett is still the captive of existentialism is revealed by the characteristic existentialist violence with which he rejects Enlightenment rationality, objectivity, commitment to truth, optimism, and the idea of progress. The Enlightenment appears in Death of the Soul as an era of scientific and philosophic attacks upon the Christian concept of the soul. But had the soul fled from the Enlightenment? Didn't the Enlightenment celebrate the human individual as an unfragmented, enduring substance, endowed with a human nature? Hasn't the Enlightenment's idea of progress been interpreted as a scarcely secularized form of Christian eschatology? By sharply opposing the Enlightenment to the medieval doctrine of the soul, Barrett has failed to perceive the continuities within the vicissitudes of culture.
Barrett is perhaps the first of many intellectuals who are rediscovering the region of the sacred in the wake of the various religious renewals of the past decade. Are we really witnessing the death of the soul? We may, instead, as the second millennium draws to an end, be about to be swept up into another Great Awakening. Philosophically, the search for the soul belongs to philosophia perennis. But the meaning of the soul is not wisely sought in the narrow channels of medieval Christianity so much as in the broad open bays where the human spirit in myriad ways, as Augustine knew, is touched by and responds to the sacred. Such a view of the soul lies implicit but undeveloped within classical American philosophy, in its profound conception of the sanctification of human experience. The philosophic task of thus reaffirming the soul in the face of some of the obstacles which Barrett identifies, becomes more pressing as we move with apocalyptic anxieties towards the third millennium. THE LINKAGE between Barrett's Death of the Soul and Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information is the attempt to assess the significance of the computer in the nation's life. In Barrett, the mechanistic drift of our culture is expressed by the question: can machines think? This was first asked in 1951 by Alan Turing, the British logician and computer expert, who posed the further question: will a computer be able to write poetry? A poem, Barrett answers, is not written by adding one symbol to another, "as computer partisans may believe." To write poetry such as T.S. Eliot's, a computer would have to grasp the contemporary state of the language and the idiom, be creatively sensitive to the language of past writers and their traditions, be able to appropriate and transform predecessors and to ripen into wisdom. Barrett has no quarrel with the utility of the computer, only with the construction of a philosophy of mind modelled upon what he considers to be the additive, atomistic functions of the computer.
Theodore Roszak is famous for his The Making of a Counter Culture (1969), which powerfully defended the revolutionary Youth Movement and New Left of the 1960s as a separate culture, opposed to that of the white, male, technocratic, militaristic West. By 1972, in Where the Wasteland Ends, Roszak was prophesying the "psychic alienation and death of the soul" brought about by science, technocracy, industrialization, urbanization and materialism. These forces can only be overcome by a religious renewal leading to a "final radicalization of our society." By religious renewal he means the "Old Gnosis," varieties of mystic illumination to be found in the hash-pipe, in primitive primordial energy, in certain Oriental sages, in the Romantic poetry of Blake and in the counter-culture itself.
Now, in The Cult of Information, Roszak, professor of history at California State University, Hayward, sees that the importance being placed upon information-processing on the part of government, business corporations, the scientific "establishment" and educators is contributing to a kind of mindless cult of the computer, which he seeks to expose.
Roszak contends that the computer has only two abilities: to store vast amounts of information and to process this information by logical procedures. "The true art of thinking," which has powers of reason and imagination, is being threatened by "mechanical counterfeits." Behind the computer Roszak sees two old enemies: profiteering corporations and governmental agencies extending their domination through the collection of data.
Roszak's book is itself crammed with detailed information regarding the economics and politics of "high tech"; the corporate manipulations behind the computer invasion of college campuses; the questionable usefulness of the computer in comparison with the live teacher in the classroom; the contribution of the computer to the obfuscation of political issues by data glut; the necessity of the computer to the "surveillance machine" of government and industry. The features by which Roszak distinguishes the threatened "art of thinking" from the processes of the computer are similar to Barrett's requirements for writing the poetry of T.S. Eliot. For Roszak, the mind thinks with ideas, not information. Ideas generate pattern perceptions and thus have primacy over information; "master ideas," at the core of every culture, are generated not by data but by conviction. Experience, memory, and insight, which are the sources of our creativity, are synthesizing, gestalt functions, unlike the algorithmic data-processing of the computer. Both Barrett and the more knowledgeable Roszak may be wrong, however, in denying the possibility of pattern-recognition and associative holistic functions to the computer; the development of these functions, rather than information processing, is now in the forefront of research in artificial intelligence. Thelma Z. Lavine is Robinson University Professor of philosophy at George Mason University.