Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 67pp.
Bullshit, writes Harry Frankfurt, is "one of the most salient features of our culture." When you consider the worlds of political spin, professional sports as entertainment, advertising, television, technology, the legitimation and even glorification of war in the name of patriotism, film, finance, and, to be sure, religion, it would be hard to disagree. Further, let us admit that "each of us contributes his share." In his tiny book (you could easily read it in one sitting) Frankfurt proposes to develop a "theoretical understanding" of this corrosive phenomenon. But for a person of his considerable talent as professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton, he misses a golden opportunity to enlighten us.
His trajectory is simple. First, he considers a 1985 book by Max Black called The Prevalence of Humbug (pp. 4–19), showing how and where he differs with Black's definition of a similar concept. Next, he reflects upon a single incident in the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein to show that "indifference to how things really are" is the essence of bullshit (pp. 19–34). Next, he examines the semantic range of cognates such as "bull session" and "shooting the bull" from the Oxford English Dictionary (pp. 34–56). After a quick pass at a treatise by Saint Augustine called "On Lying" (pp. 56–62), he suggests reasons why we find so much bullshit in our culture. People are often tempted or sometimes constrained to speak about things of which they are ignorant. Intellectuals, for example, often feel the need to have an opinion about everything. Further, and perhaps more pernicious, there is a deep skepticism in our society, observes Frankfurt, which denies that we can have a reliable knowledge of objective reality. This makes the epistemological default "sincerity" rather than knowledge, and given our fallen human natures sincerity, he suggests, is just another form of bullshit (this does not stop him from a sincere dedication in the front of his book).
I read this book because it enjoyed its fifteen minutes of fame on the New York Times bestseller list, but in the end I could not shake the feeling that the book was little more than a marketing ploy, the combination of a cute title about a legitimate phenomenon and a prestigious university press. A man of Frankfurt's erudition might have written it over a weekend, if not in a single long day. His florid prose epitomizes turgid academic jargon, such as this gem: "It is a further question whether there are any features essential to humbug or to lying that are not dependent upon the intentions and beliefs of the person responsible for the humbug or the lie, or whether it is, on the contrary, possible for any utterance whatsoever to be—given that the speaker is in a certain state of mind—a vehicle of humbug or of a lie" (p. 8). In the end, ironically, Frankfurt has served up a fine specimen of the phenomenon he sought to explain.