When I saw this guy profiled in the New York Times Sunday Magazine
, I knew I couldn't resist. Now, to buy his On Truth
...Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. Summary
: Philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt develops a theory for bullshit--what it is, what purpose it serves, and, most importantly of all, what it really means to use it in lieu of lying. Comments
: Those who don't know any better believe that liberal academics are the biggest bullshit artists of all. Enter Harry G. Frankfurt to prove them all wrong. This tersely-written little treatise reads like the academically-rigorous version of Colbert's "truthiness." Whereas the former is all about falsities that perhaps are not even known to be false tailored specifically to reinforce the speaker's unrealistic worldview, Frankfurt's "bullshit" is all about someone who believes that truth is wholly unknowable but continues to make assertive statements anyway. However, he notes that total despair that there can ever be a reliable source of objective reality leads to a particularly disturbing sort of bullshit: "Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself (65-66)." Sure sounds like a variation of Bush's "Trust me; I'm the decider" proclamations to me.
Though Frankfurt shies away from suggesting that there is more bullshit now than in the past, I believe that such a position is quite arguable. Paradoxically, the more scientists learn about the material world, the less the layperson understands. Yet the layperson must somehow cope with those scientific breakthroughs every day whenever he turns on his car, goes to the doctor, or reads the newspaper. The more there is to know about the world and how it works, the less a person is going to have the time or the means to learn it all. Moreover, ideas change so rapidly and technology develops so quickly. The world feels unknowable, so we bullshit instead. Windows XP or Windows Infinity, we're still the same essential person, right? Wouldn't you rather believe in the essential immutablity of a person? Umm...sorry. But no. (Too bad a lot of other people don't reach the same conclusion. Dude, some things are NOT a matter of opinion!) And here, irrational politics be born. Notes
: hardcover, 1st edition, 9th printing Rating
- A lightning-fast, accessible read that should have its readers stopping to think for at least a few minutes after the book is put away. I'm amazed that it's sold so well (never mind the eye-catching title), but perhaps it was just the right historical moment.