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On Bullshit Hardcover – January 30, 2005

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Editorial Reviews Review

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," Harry G. Frankfurt writes, in what must surely be the most eyebrow-raising opener in modern philosophical prose. "Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted." This compact little book, as pungent as the phenomenon it explores, attempts to articulate a theory of this contemporary scourge--what it is, what it does, and why there's so much of it. The result is entertaining and enlightening in almost equal measure. It can't be denied; part of the book's charm is the puerile pleasure of reading classic academic discourse punctuated at regular intervals by the word "bullshit." More pertinent is Frankfurt's focus on intentions--the practice of bullshit, rather than its end result. Bullshitting, as he notes, is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it's true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter's complete disregard for whether what he's saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

This may sound all too familiar to those of use who still live in the "reality-based community" and must deal with a world convulsed by those who do not. But Frankfurt leaves such political implications to his readers. Instead, he points to one source of bullshit's unprecedented expansion in recent years, the postmodern skepticism of objective truth in favor of sincerity, or as he defines it, staying true to subjective experience. But what makes us think that anything in our nature is more stable or inherent than what lies outside it? Thus, Frankfurt concludes, with an observation as tiny and perfect as the rest of this exquisite book, "sincerity itself is bullshit." --Mary Park


A #1 New York Times Bestseller

Winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy, The Book Standard

"[Frankfurt] tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound, St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask some of the preliminary questions--to define the nature of a thing recognized by all but understood by none. . . . What is bullshit, after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth."--Peter Edidin, New York Times

"The scholar who answers the question, 'What is bullshit?' bids boldly to define the spirit of the present age. . . . Frankfurt's conclusion . . . is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created. Eureka! Frankfurt's definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed."--Timothy Noah, Slate

"Immediately, I must say: read it. Beautifully written, lucid, ironic and profound, it is a model of what philosophy can and should do. It is a small and highly provocative masterpiece, and I really don't think I am bullshitting you here."--Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times (London)

"This is what the world has long needed. . . . Bullshit is now such a dominant feature of our culture that most of us are confident we can recognize and rebuff it. But Frankfurt shows the reader just how insidious (and destructive) it can be. . . . This book will change your life."--Leopold Froehlich, Playboy

"Frankfurt's book should be required reading for anyone whose speech or writing are intended for public consumption. Despite his subject, he is definitely not full of it."--Kevin Wood, The Daily Yomiuri

"On Bullshit offers a tightly focused, telling critique of a political and cultural climate that seems positively humid with mendacity, obfuscation, evasion and illusion."--Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

"There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal correctness. . . . Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analyzed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt's little book is a nice starting point."--Petter A. Naessan, Philosophy Now

"[On Bullshit's] calm, clearheaded deconstruction of everyday deceit is without parallel."--Gordon Phinn, Books in Canada

"With its relevance to contemporary issues and culture, On Bullshit is well worth the read. . . . The analysis is strict and philosophical with the clear intention of seeking the truth."--Karen Boore, The Michigan Review

"Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, presents a scholarly and formal essay on inflated truth, purposeful obfuscation, and pretentious duplicity. . . . I'm sure he had a blast writing it, and the droll prose is a tasty treat."--Richard Pachter, The Boston Globe

"Professor Frankfurt concludes that bullshit is a process rather than an end product. . . . If you are fed up with hype, spin and bullshit this book will provide insight - and therapy."--Australian Doctor

"Terrific. . . . Has anything truer ever been written?"--William Watson, Montreal Gazette

"If you want to read a succinct, stylish piece of argument that will make you think far beyond the points it makes, you could do no better than invest ten dollars on Professor Frankfurt's handsomely bound essay."--Christopher Jary, British Army Review

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 67 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; 1 edition (January 30, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691122946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691122946
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 4.2 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (293 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,380 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Harry G. Frankfurt is a professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. His books include The Reasons of Love; Necessity, Volition, and Love; and The Importance of What We Care About. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1,441 of 1,585 people found the following review helpful By Pedram Agharokh on March 15, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I got this book after seeing Prof. Frankfurt on the Daily Show with John Stewart. Having a bachelors degree in philosophy I was intrigued. Here are some of my observations:

1) This book is not traditionally funny. If you are looking for a joke book get one, this is a work of philosophy and as such has a degree of intellectual humor. Some of the observations and comments are funny but overall this is not a joke book, rather it is designed with a specific philosophical purpose... (he's an "ivy league" Philosophy Professor and published by Princeton)

2) Very short but to the point. I read the whole book in less than an hour. That being said there is a lot of content which deserves meaningful reflection... its one of those books that you will probably end up going "ahhh haaa" at least at one point.

3) Inexpensive. Its under ten bucks... some may say that its pricey for such a small book but if you enjoy it, whose to say what the intrinsic value will be to you down the road.

4) Warning... this is not the most complex or even dense piece of philosophy. Certainly its not like reading Hegel or another "headache philosopher" but this is a work of philosphy. As long as you know that going into this there should be no problems. A friend of mine read this book thinking it would be comical and fun, almost expecting jokes and punch-lines... he was disappointed.

The last thing I will say is that I really enjoyed the book and I can imagine many people really reading this book a couple of times and really liking it. I am already recommending it to some of my friends and lawschool professors... If you do decide to buy this book... ENJOY!
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89 of 95 people found the following review helpful By R. Anthony Lee on June 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I confess that when I bought this book, I expected it to be a sort of quasi-satiric send-up of bulls**t. Then by about p. 10, I began thinking it was a really serious scholarly treatment of the subject. (I mean after all - a professor emeritus of moral philosophy at Princeton?) But as I got further into it, and after reading about 20 of the 140 reviews of the book on Amazon (how many books get 140 reviews?), I began to get the picture. It is indeed a humorous book--not a quasi-satiric har-har kind of joke book, but a very dry sort of academic humor. In fact, I believe it's an academic put-on--in fact, bulls**t about bulls**t. It is highly self-referential in the sense that a great deal of what it says about bulls**t is applicable to the book itself.

Most of the reviewers who figured this out gave it a low rating because they felt they had been conned by the catchy title and resented paying ten dollars for what is little more than a short essay conflated into a publishable format. In some cases, there might have been some degree of humor-impairment involved, but in most, I think it was simply disappointment and the feeling of having been cheated. But I think that misses the point of academic put-ons.

We hardly need to be told that there's a lot of bulls**t in today's culture, but I think it's relevant here to note that a lot of it is found in scholarly literature that sounds like bulls**t to anyone not privy to the particular discipline it is targeted to, but is sincerely meant to be taken seriously by its authors. (Frankfurt's last sentence, tellingly, is, "sincerity itself is bulls**t.") This can lead to fairly serious issues about misrepresentation, which is one of the central elements in Frankfurt's definition of bulls**t.
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60 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Ed Uyeshima HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICE on February 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Professor Harry Frankfurt has come up with a compact winner with this provocatively titled tome, all of eighty pages, about a subject around which we all seem to have a vast amount of experience. As a professional philosopher who has earned emeritus status at Princeton University, he surely must be a master at this topic and sets about to prove it by discussing it with irony, broad humor and a cheekiness that ultimately brings a certain seriousness to his work. He is especially effective in portraying the mental improvisation we go through when asked unexpected questions that require thoughtfulness. Whether it is within the context of a political opinion or literary analysis, the very act he discusses actually provides great motivation for someone to learn more about what he or she is saying.

What Frankfurt does is take his analysis several steps further by saying his subject, if left unaddressed, will lead to such an altered perception of reality that we will not know what reality is. His argument about his subject as an indictment has merit, though at times, he seems to be carried away with his own rhapsodizing, rather ironic given the topic. According to the author, the very lack of sincerity in some schools of thought, epitomized by the rise of Nazism, for example, has led to a retreat from the ideal of correctness. I would have never thought of Nazism as the result of common BS, but Frankfurt makes this thinking seem entirely logical and that indeed it is a bigger threat than the outright lie. But he does not dwell on the delivery of such a message, as BS is more easily detectable than a lie, at least from most perspectives. A master at this topic fakes opinions with finesse, but he or she does not necessarily get things wrong.
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