Stafford Davis's Reviews > On Bullshit

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
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Jan 05, 10

Read in January, 2009

It’s a funny title and subject for sure, but this book is a serious philosophical inquiry into the nature of bullshit and its applications. I might also say that Frankfurt is a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton – just to appease anyone that thinks this is all a bunch of bullshit.

Opening argument:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit... In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, and what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.
One of the main subjects of the book is the distinction between a liar and a bullshitter. Frankfurt contends that a liar is more vile than a mere bullshitter.
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth… In order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
Frankfurt’s descriptions of bullshit are so succinct and poignant, that I can’t elaborate or bullshit my way through any analysis of his theoretical study. The only thing I can add here, on a personal note, is that I get a giddy chuckle every time I read the word ‘bullshit’ and ‘bullshitter’ in this insightful book!
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