On Bullshit

During my weekly trawl through the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago, I came across an interview with Harry Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, about his new book, On Truth. This was a followup to his book from last year, On Bullshit, which I’d heard a little about but had never bothered checking out. On a whim, I decided to buy On Bullshit.

The first thing you notice about this book is that it’s more of a long essay that happens to be in a handsomely-bound hardback form, rather than a book. Consequently, you would be forgiven for thinking that this was a rather lightweight and fun book, not unlike Eat, Shoots and Leaves – perfect for a quick read, or even better, a present for someone who is acquainted with the ways of bullshit. At least, that’s what I thought when it came in the mail, and I suspect it’s what the 400,000 other readers also thought.

I was quickly disabused of this notion on the first page, where it becomes clear that this isn’t some jokey throwaway essay, but a very precise and considered definition of what is meant by bullshit. It’s not without wit, but I’m pretty confident in my belief that most people do not actually finish this book, given its comparatively complex arguments. Unsurprisingly, the book is almost completely free of bullshit (apart from some examples) and so it’s hard going at times.

The key insight is that bullshit need not be false, and bullshitters need not be liars:

The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

Later, Frankfurt attempts to explain why there appears to be more bullshit around these days. Essentially, people are expected (or have the opportunity) to know and have opinions on far more topics than ever before, and thus the discrepancy between their knowledge and their opinions is correspondingly large, and so there’s more bullshit. This naturally leads on to a discussion of post-modernism (or something like it) where Frankfurt asserts that many people seem to be more interested about being sincere rather than being correct.

The book ends with a wonderful statement about sincerity that I won’t repeat here, but you can read it in the book, which you can read in less than an hour in a library or bookstore. It would be nice if a lot of people did read it, but I have a sinking feeling that the people who really need it would give up after the first few pages…

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