Abstract of


The Will to Power vs The Will to Prayer:

William Barrett’s The Illusion of Technique 30 Years Later




2008 marks the 30th anniversary of Barrett’s book.   One year before Richard Rorty, Barrett had already celebrated a philosophic triad.  Wittgenstein and Heidegger were common choices. For Barrett, though, William James, not John Dewey, deserved the third place of prominence.  Barrett believed the best in Pragmatism lay not in the direction of  Deweyan instrumentalism but in that of Jamesian willful commitment.  The “illusion” of technique is the belief that a single method can be extended as a general instrumental model for dealing with the world.  Such hegemony  encourages thinking of things as manipulanda, that which awaits reshaping by humans.  Such a position is consistent with the Will to Power: subjects thinking primarily in means-end terms, projecting ends and then transforming objects to achieve the ends.  Barrett contrasts this with the “will to prayer,” an attitude which, inspired by Platonic eros, seeks, not control, but active engagement leading to personal transformation.



The Will to Power vs. The Will to Prayer

William Barrett’s The Illusion of Technique 30 Years Later



Word Count: 3426


Two renegade pragmatists

As the 1970s were ending, two books were published which drew extensively on classical American philosophy. Both were by eclectic thinkers who sought to build bridges between American, Continental and Analytic philosophical traditions.  Each book celebrated three exemplary thinkers.   Wittgenstein and Heidegger were common choices.  The different American philosopher sent a significant signal about opposing emphases.  Published in 1979, Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature supplemented Wittgenstein and Heidegger with John Dewey.  William Barrett’s The Illusion of Technique, one year earlier, had chosen William James.  Rorty’s book pointed toward the future, if only because of Rorty’s own subsequent influence.  Barrett’s book, whose 30th anniversary we celebrate this year, was quite different.  It was sort of backward looking.  Pulling together themes from his career, Barrett interwove Heidegger’s emphasis on Being, Wittgenstein’s flirtations with mysticism, and the centrality of hopeful commitment that marked James’s appreciation of religion. The prominence of existentialism and liberal religious thought that had lasted through the sixties and early seventies were sort of being given one final summation by Barrett.

This year, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Barrett’s work, I wish to take a new look at his text.   Several reasons conspire to make such an effort worthwhile: (1) in remembering Barrett we recall someone well versed in American Pragmatism who took that influence in a syncretic rather than a school-follower direction. (2) There is the simple piety accorded to an important bridge figure who helped bring philosophy to a wider audience.[1] (3) There is also his unique amalgam of Heidegger and James, an amalgam which provides fruitful hints for a 21st century Pragmatist-inspired philosophy of a different sort than is typically found at SAAP meetings.  This amalgam can be summarized in an alternative triad to Rorty’s  “Contingency, Irony,  and Solidarity.”  For Barrett, the central triad would  be “Eros, Irony, and Prayer.” This is an odd assortment.  Those of us familiar with recent conversations in Classical American Philosophy will realize immediately that the these three pivots, eros, irony, prayer, do not represent dominant themes at SAAP meetings.[2]  It is precisely for this reason, because Barrett offers a provocation to business as usual that it is worth taking a new look at his work on its 30th anniversary.

The heart of Barrett’s analysis can be summarized in the title I have given to this essay: “The Will to Power vs. The Will to Prayer.”[3]   His main concerns, indicating clearly why he favored James over Dewey, can be articulated in straightforward terms.  One culmination of Modern philosophy is an emphasis on instrumentalism.  Instrumentalisms, no matter how finessed, nuanced or refined, bring with them certain basic orientations: (a) they prioritize means-end thinking; (b) they encourage an attitude which considers objects as manipulanda, things to be manipulated in the service of ends envisioned by the subject; (c) control becomes a major concern, and (d) a lingering ideal of closure or completeness haunts the entire project. Philosophy’s focus is not on life-enigmas to be puzzled over. Rather there are “problematic situations” awaiting resolutions.  Barrett worries that a world dominated by this sort of thinking will always be accompanied by a fundamental sense of alienation.  Humans, whose own lives are touched by the enigmatic, the tragic, the open-ended, even the mysterious, will fail to come to terms with those dimensions so long as instrumentalist models guide thinking.  That, at least, is his thesis.


Technology, technique, freedom

Barrett’s discussion revolves around the question of freedom.[4] This topic remains a living one, even though the specific foils addressed by Barrett, Skinnerian behaviorism and communist totalitarianism, have faded away.  For Barrett, freedom does not mean sheer randomness, the Sartrean absolute options open to everyone at everytime.  We are encultured, embodied creatures. As such many channels have already been cut for us by biology, culture and personal history.  Even if such limitations were not present, there remains an additional problem as old as Plato.  Freedom understood as the ability to do whatever I want whenever I want, turns out to mean, as the Socrates who criticized democratic life realized, a kind of imprisonment to whims and impulses.[5]

A more humane freedom is one which eventuates in an  “ability to direct our future in ways that we desire” (Barrett, 45).  Cultivating such a freedom requires two important prerequisites. The first one is teleological.  Freedom is liberty, and liberty comes about only with the liberation of capacities.  This raises the issue of what capacities should be encouraged and cultivated, an issue that depends, in turn, on what one considers central to a meaningful life.  The issue of freedom, as a result, is inseparable from a question like “what kind of person should I become?”  In turn, no answer to that question is possible except in light of certain general orientations about what make a life significant. There are no short-cuts.

“No short cuts” could sort of serve as a slogan for Barrett’s concerns. This is where the second prerequisite comes it to play. It deals directly with the book’s title.  There is something about technique which is inimical to freedom. At this point, we might expect a diatribe against machines, implements, technologies of all sorts.  But this is not at all the direction taken by Barrett.  It would make little sense, he claims, to rail against technology. “Clearly, then, it would be silly for anyone to announce that he is “against” technology, whatever that might mean.  We should have to be against ourselves in our present historical existence” (Barrett, 208).  “Technique” is a procedure as old as humans: seeking repeatable, predictable procedures which allow us to achieve in a more efficient way whatever ends we have selected.  “Technology,” the cognate of “technique” means, for Barrett, whatever embodiments of technique have been produced by human ingenuity.[6]  Only the most isolated kind of egghead could complain about anesthesia, central heating, aspirin, septic systems, and the various other developments that have relieved suffering and made our lives healthier.

What then could be the “illusion of technique”?  First of all, we need to notice that the title does not worry about the illusion of “technology.” Barrett wishes to separate “technique,” the pattern underlying technological advances, and the technological marvels themselves.  The technological innovations that surround us are not the problem.   It is the tug of technique that is the problem, the temptation toward making it the main mode of contact with our surroundings.  What Barrett calls the “illusion of technique” could just as well be called the “hegemony of technique,” for that is the real temptation about which he worries.


The cash value of “Being”

Barrett asks, Heidegger-style, about what it means to live in an age when technology dominates.  The task of philosophy he says, is “to try to see where technical and technological thinking, with no other principle but itself, must lead us; and whether some countervailing mode of thought may not be called for (Barrett, 208).  Influenced as he is by Heidegger, Barrett unfortunately can’t seem to avoid the term “Being.”   He does, however, admit how clumsy and prone to misunderstanding is the term. Trying for a more ordinary language alternative Barrett has this to offer:  “Well then, let us scrap the word and plunge instead into the everyday world and try to take note of the ways in which we are in the world” (Barrett, 236).  What is most significant here is not the term italicized by Barrett, but rather the plural “ways.”

The term “Being,” more than anything,  serves as a reminder. It keeps us allied to a pluralistic approach to things. There are many ways in which we are in the world. As a reminder,  it helps us resist a strong temptation which accompanies the successes of technology.   Impressed by the success of a particular approach in a particular setting, we can easily be tempted to extend that approach to all areas of concern.  The hegemony of technique is the particular form this temptation takes in the technological era.  Because of this, the “cash value” of Being, for us, is precisely its pluralistic reminder.  It makes us wary of undertaking such unwarranted extensions.[7]

Such a caveat is to be  contrasted with instrumentalism, the embrace of technique as a suitable general model for our approach to things.  Interpreting John Dewey, Larry Hickman, puts it this way.  “It is the central thesis of this book that inquiry within technological fields—among which he included science as well as the fine and the vernacular arts—formed the basis of and provided the models for Dewey’s larger project: his analysis and critique of the meanings of human experience” (Hickman, 1).  The generalized instrumental method, Hickman states explicitly, can be utilized in quite different contexts.  “Here, as elsewhere, Dewey argues that there are no differences between moral theories and those utilized by the physical sciences except in terms of the material they address” (Hickman, 112). 

The ways of being here are simply not taken seriously enough.  What the plural emphasis on ways we are in the world reminds us is that the “material they address” makes all the difference.  Different situations elicit different approaches for making sense of them and for living through them.  When Camus’s Dr. Rieux, in The Plague, has to stand by helplessly while a young boy suffers horribly and dies, he can’t help wonder what this says about human life in general.  This kind of response is quite different from how the same doctor approaches the need for a team of helpers to catalogue the victims of the plague, pick up the cadavers, and dispose of them.  The latter is a problem for which means-end calculation is suitable. The former is an enigma  calling forth a thoughtfulness of a different sort.


Being, Thinking, Valuing

Describing the issue in this way situates the “illusion of technique” in a different direction than one might suppose. The issue with regard to freedom is not to be framed in typical terms. Those would worry that technique, the machine-like repetition of processes, allows  no leeway for variation, interruption, transformation, alteration.  There are plenty of activities where the help of a machine-like procedure is to be welcome.  But here, once again, is where  pluralism must be taken seriously. Successes in one area must not lead one to think that a particular method is suitable for our multiple ways of being in the world.  The “illusion of technique” thus takes us to the heart of philosophy.  Its ramifications spill over into basic modes of orientation within ontology, (how is Being construed?), epistemology (how is thinking construed?), and axiology (how is value construed?).  In each of the cases, living within the framework of technology actively encourages particular construals. Those construals, in turn, limit the openness to meaningful existence.  Such limitations become the major restrictions on the kind of humane freedom identified as optimal by Barrett. [8] 

The affected construals all intersect with and depend on one other.  With the successes of technology all around, we are encouraged to impose certain limitations on “Being” (sorry the clumsy term is called for in this case).   “Being,” the sense of “always more,” the reminder that however we capture aspects of reality, something always escapes, tends to recede into the background.  In its place there is a focus on “beings,” individual entities.  Those entities, in turn, are, within the technology framework understood not only as “objects,” but as objects of a particular sort.  They become what Erazim Kohak called manipulanda, things that exist in order to be manipulated.

When, we think of the varied ways we are in the world, we are encouraged, by contrast,  to appreciate, admire, wonder at all those entities around us.  They are thought to manifest a richness that evades any kind of categorization, any sort of finding a universal under which they can be subsumed.  They are, in our fundamental acquaintance with them, allowed the freedom to manifest themselves in the fullness of what they  are.

The ontology of manipulanda  limits such manifestations by channelling activities in the directions of what is suitable for ends determined by us.  Because of this, it is accompanied by a particular manner of construing thought. What happens here is that the meaning of “thinking” itself is altered.   Thinking is no longer the attempt, via various human modes of approach, to approximate ever-widening appreciations of understanding.  Thinking as a fluid conduit for making sense of our condition, leaving plenty of room for various approaches, has been replaced by a less generous option: calculative rationality.  Means-end calculation, the default mode of dealing with  manipulanda, comes, by virtue of its prominence, to be identified with thinking itself.  Thoughtfulness, contemplation, appreciation and wonder move to the periphery.  Mind is no longer an engaged participant marked by wonder.  It now becomes the font of tools for working on material.[9]  Manipulation and control take on central roles.   In short, rationality replaces thinking. 

Something important happens to value as well when beings are understood as manipulanda.  There is here a kind of nihilism at work.  Once the default mode of dealing with our surroundings is to treat them as  manipulanda, then the old medieval transcendental, ens et bonum convertuntur, no longer holds. Manipulanda can, at best, be goods-in-waiting. Value now comes to be something emergent, something that results when human ingenuity has undertaken its manipulating tasks and only then created an entity-with-value.  When philosophers think in instrumental terms, they employ mostly examples of raw materials transformed into something which satisfies a human goal.  In so doing,  they are, unwittingly perhaps, but genuinely, nihilizing existence.  They are buying into a mode of thinking which accepts an initial value-neutrality in the entities that make up our surroundings.  Value comes to an object only once it has been transformed into the service of human aims.


 Freedom restrained 

Accompanying this triple shift is a correlative limitation on freedom.  The ubiquity of technical reason involves necessary limitations on how things can manifest themselves.  Freedom to flourish gets channeled into a particular direction.  Only those dimensions and possibilities privileged in the service of ends-in-view come to be liberated.  At its most revealingly destructive, within 20th century totalitarian societies, the central power chose the ends in view and treated the populace as a mass to be shaped in terms of those ends.  Within such a conceptual landscape, freedom for humans takes on particular characteristics.  It becomes, primarily, the ability to project ends and secure the means that will make those ends come to pass. Freedom means, essentially, the ability to control circumstances.  This kind of freedom has little to do with personal transformation and growth.  It has almost everything to do with the reshaping of the external world.  Such a prioritization has a name,  Will to Power.  It is not simply a set of separate acts of will. Rather, it is an entire orientation which results when the multiple modes of being-in-the-world are artificially constrained.  The “illusion” associated with “technique” is its temptation to ubiquity.  Rationality replaces wisdom.  Philosophers begin drawing exclusively examples from engineering and tool usage.  Gradually, it becomes second nature to identify thinking with the need for control and domination.  

So far, much of this is warmed-over Heidegger. But Barrett identifies a particular limitation in Heidegger’s analyses.  Heidegger’s choice of favorite poet, Hölderin, is telling in this regard.  Barrett, for whom philosophy’s commitment to wisdom is a commitment to live a particular kind of life, wonders why not pick Shakespeare, Sophocles, Dante or Homer. Here are poets of the multi-dimensional human condition.  Of Dante and Shakespeare, in particular, Barrett has this to say:  “With them the human person does not vanish into an empty presence.  Here are real human agents, embodiments of the will in its sublime as well as its atrocious shapes—not the technical will, to be sure, but the moral will for good or evil” (Barrett, 241).


The contribution of William James

Here is where William James serves as an important counterbalance.  Staying with Heidegger alone, one might construe the choices as that between an activism, engineering-style, or a passivity of the sit-and-meditate style.  James is important because  he emphasizes the will, but does so in a way that that sidesteps the will to power.  We can, says Barrett, rescue a tradition which emphasizes active engagement, will, yet does not associate it, with control, manipulation, tool-using transformations.  This is will as Platonic eros, the drive that sends us outside of ourselves to engage with others.  Here is an impulse whose proper culmination is “birth in beauty” to use a key phrase from Plato’s Symposium (206e). “Birth,” the free emergence of new combinations, not manipulation. “Beauty,” the continually surprising depth of richness, not control.

The Pragmatist implications of Barrett’s approach begin to emerge at this point.  His take on Pragmatism, inspired by James, emphasizes two idiosyncratic dimensions,  dimensions are not at all prominent in discussions by contemporary Pragmatists.  There is first of all, eros, mentioned above.  And then there is prayer.  Ultimately, for Barrett, something must be preserved from the attitude encapsulated in the phrase “will to power.”  That is the centrality of will, understood here as manifested in praxis and action, active engagement with things and persons. What the will to power gets wrong is its straightjacketing of will as the instrument for selecting ends and manipulating objects in light of those ends.  Such an instrumentalization will always culminate in a fascination with control.   Emphasizing will within the context of eros occasions a different attitude.  Now, the multiple ways in which we engage with our surroundings bring other expectations than control.  The hoped for results are rather mutual transformations,  sheer appreciation, novel births. Such results cannot, however, be achieved without an initial commitment, one which is different from the will to power.  This initial commitment is an act of trust. It is the willingness of faith, faith that there are depths of reality to be revealed if only we bracket the will to power and emphasize our willingness to trust and hope. This is what Barrett means by “prayer.” 

Admittedly, this is an idiosyncratic use of the term.  “Prayer” here stands for a willingness to be engaged fully by the other.  It is more the openness and vulnerability of trust than of control via projecting ends and securing the means to achieve them.  The will to prayer embraces an openness to disclosures that are not predicted ahead of time.  James is important because he has emphasized how this sort of initial commitment and trust are prerequisites for particular kinds of revelations.[10]  The “will to prayer” identifies a particular orientation, one that welcomes truths that will emerge from such initial acts of trust, even if the revelations are surprising and unexpected.  A Pragmatism without Jamesian emphases, Barrett seems to be saying, will tend toward instrumentalism and celebrating the will to power. A Heideggerian grasp of technology, without Jamesian emphases, tends toward quiescence and passivity (Gelassenheit was the fancy word used by Heidegger).

            There are also implications here for the sort of pan-Textualism associated with the direction Richard Rorty hoped Pragmatism would take.  At one point Rorty summarized his position in three words chosen as the title of a book: contingency, irony, solidarity.    If we have an interest in following Barrett, another path emerges.  This one could be summarized by terms that, I have to keep admitting, are certainly strange for most Pragmatists.  For just that reason they offer the possibility of a novel, hopefully fruitful mode of bringing them into our time:  Eros, Irony, Prayer.  Eros, the willingness to encourage, not manipulation, but various births in beauty.  Prayer, the sentiment of awe in the face of phenomena whose revelatory dimensions are unbounded.  Irony, as old as Socrates, takes on a particular meaning when affiliated with eros and prayer.  

Irony, within the context of the will to power, can easily become an intellectual game, a withdrawal of the thinker into an “aesthetic” realm detached from accepting full consequences for utterances.  A post-Barrett irony is not this supercilious detachment of the intellectual twit who is simply playing games with language.  It has little to do with purposeful holding back, double entendres, speaking one language to the masses, another to the initiates.  Real irony accompanies any philosophy that admits, as James did, how  “the subtlety of nature flies beyond it, and that its formulas are but approximations. Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation” (James, 1902; 2002, 353. ) To keep that attitude prominent, it is important, even after 30 years, to listen to Barrett’s warning about the illusion of technique.









[1] Barrett did this especially in his work with the Partisan Review, his popular book on existentialism, Irrational Man, and his cooperation with D.T. Suzuki in making Buddhist texts available to an American audience.

[2] There is one important exception, Tom Alexander, with regard to highlighting eros. See the entries under Alexander on the “Works Cited” page.

[3] “Perhaps the will, at its deepest, does not connote self-assertion and dominance, but love and acquiescence; not the will to power but the will to prayer” (Barrett, 231-232).

[4] “For the book as it now stands, besides being an exploration of certain contemporary thinkers, is also an attempt at a connected argument for human freedom” (Barrett, xvii.)

[5] See Plato’s Republic, Book IX, 571a-580a

[6] “Thus, even though we cannot formulate it, we come very early to know what the logical essence of the machine is, and consequently, the meaning of technique that is central to technology. A machine is, logically speaking, an embodied decision procedure.  By going through a finite and unvarying number of steps it arrives invariably, so long as it is not defective, at a definite result” (Barrett, 20).  The general definition here is comparable to how technology is characterized by a contemporary Pragmatist philosopher Larry Hickman: “Technology may thus be thought of as a family of methods and tools that evolves in response to the needs and goals that it is called upon to serve, and in response to the uses to which it is put” (Hickman,  61).

[7] “In the end, however, Being is what technical man cannot conquer, though our civilization may have to learn this at last only through catastrophe” (Barrett, 76).

[8] There are certain clues for determining whether we find ourselves within the hegemony of technique.  What we need to do is ask specific questions: Are human situations in general defined in terms of tools from one realm operating on material from another? Is there a constant concern with control? Do favored examples cluster around physical manipulation of surroundings?  Is means-end language thought to encompass all human activities?

[9] Once again the formidable defense of instrumentalism formulated by Larry Hickman provides good examples of the language that comes to dominate when technique has become the primary mode of access to the world.  When we look for examples that give us a sense of our being in the world, we are directed to activities like repairing light switches, or woodworkers reshaping wood.  Knowledge comes to be understood as a “productive skill.” Our situatedness in the world is rendered as a series of ongoing processes in which we search for “a tool with which to operate on the unsettled situation” (Hickman, 21, 27, xii ,21).

[10] James comments on the question “Do you like me or not” in this way: “Whether you do or not depends, in countless instances, on whether I meet you half-way, am willing to assume that you must like me, and show you trust and expectation.  The previous faith on my part in your liking’s existence is in such cases what makes your liking come. But if I stand aloof, and refuse to budge an inch until I have objective evidence, until you shall have done something apt, as the absolutists say, ad extorquendum assensum meum, ten to one your liking never comes”  (James, 2000, 213)




Works Cited


Alexander, Thomas (1993). “The Human Eros,” in Philosophy and the Reconstruction of Culture, ed. John Stuhr.  Albany: SUNY Press.


----- (2003).  “Between Being and Emptiness: Toward an Eco-Ontology of Inhabitation,” in In Dewey’s Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction. Albany: SUNY Press.


Barrett, William (1978). The Illusion of Technique: A Search for Meaning in Technological Civilization.  Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.


Hickman, Larry (1990). John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press


James, William (1902; 2002). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Routledge.


------ Pragmatism and Other Writings (1907; 2000). Ed. Giles Gunn.  NY: Penguin Books.


Plato.  The Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube & C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.


----- The Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehemas & Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1989.