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On Bullshit Hardcover – January 30, 2005
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"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 2005
Harry G. Frankfurt, 2017 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer, American Council of Learned Societies
Winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy, The Book Standard
Listed on the 2017 War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List
[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
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
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Frankfurt makes a distinction between lying and BSing. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing BS requires no such conviction.”
“The liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood… The essence of BS is not that it is false but that it is phony… to bluff one’s way through (something) by talking nonsense… Although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The BSer is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”
“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth” are both responding to the facts. “The response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The BSer ignores these demands altogether… He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, BS is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
“So why is there so much BS?”
“BS is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of BS is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled–whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.” This reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias wherein incompetent people are overconfident.
“The contemporary proliferation of BS also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality… One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.” This implies that political correctness and the academic climate of no wrong answers have played a role in making BS a socially acceptable alternative to truth.
The author makes an amusing analogy between hot air and excrement. “Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.” However, given that manure is widely used as fertilizer, I think this statement is an unintentional example of BS.
Frankfurt contradicts himself when he states on page 53 that BS “is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘BS artist.’” On page 22 he made the opposite assertion. “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of BS so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who—with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth—dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.”
While only 67 4×6-inch pages, the book contains a lot of extraneous rambling before the author gets to his point. For example, on page five Frankfurt refers to Max Black, author of The Prevalence of Humbug. “Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery. This list of quaint equivalents of is not very helpful.” If it is not helpful, then why bring it up? Frankfurt is a master of verbosity.
This book has some giggle value as a gag gift. Or leave a copy on your coffee table to start a conversation.
2) It may apply to yourself as well as those around you daily.
3) Its a short read.
4) Its a serious book but does make one laugh
5) Helps an individual detect Bulls*** faster and break it down into decernable pieces so ta speak.