Book Review of "On Bull****" by Harry Frankfurt
Harry Frankfurt, On Bull****. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005. 67 Pages. $9.95 hardback.
How often does a tiny hardback written by a prestigious philosopher—the title of which is a rather impolite word—make it to the bestseller lists? How many professional philosophers get interviewed on television and find their books reviewed in the popular press? The answer: almost never. Yet this has occurred with On Bull****, a remarkable (and serious) discussion on a prevalent problem by an insightful thinker.
We have all suffered from being recipients of the book’s malodorous subject matter. Worse yet, we may have caused others to thus suffer by dispensing it ourselves. But exactly what is it? Philosophers revel in questions of definition, clarification, and elaboration. "What is truth, or beauty, or goodness?" they ask. Frankfurt descends the hierarchy of value and instead looks at the bottom of the heap: "What is bull****?" That is, what is this all-too-commonly employed form of communication that provokes our ire or outrage?
The answer is not as simple as one might think. It is not simply lying. Lying, Frankfurt argues, requires careful attention to the truth in two senses: First, in order to lie, one must know what one believes to be true—and then deny it. Second, the successful liar must lie in a way that the lie seems to cohere with things believed to be true. Therefore, the skillful liar must have a broad understanding of what people take to be true. An obvious or otherwise ill-formed untruth just won’t do. But a shrewdly brewed lie may serve the liar’s purpose quite nicely. Such lying, while execrable, is not quite excrement of the bovine sort. Frankfurt likewise scrupulously explores the meaning of "humbug" and finds it inadequate as a synonym.
So what, then, is bull****? Frankfurt is patient in his examination and compelling in his conclusion. To communicate thusly means to speak or to write such that one shows little concern with truth. While the liar must carefully consider truth in order to lie effectively, the cow patty provider communicates for entirely different reasons. He may announce in order to "make a statement." Truth does not really factor in. He speaks with other goals in mind. As Frankfurt observes, "The production of bull**** 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, of course, is not uncommon today, especially when journalists push microphones in front of people’s faces indiscriminately.
Frankfurt lucidly explains that there are philosophical reasons for this problem. Some philosophies "undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry." Therefore, some people abandon the disciplined pursuit of the correctness (factual accuracy) of their beliefs and instead strive only to be sincere about their own beliefs. "Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world," Frankfurt notes, "the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself." Thus autobiography and psychology replace objective reality in the scheme of things. At worst, this kind of intellectually irresponsible behavior can devolve into the barbaric. As Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared, "We do not talk to say something but to obtain a certain effect."
In The Culture We Deserve, Jacques Barzun lamented that philosophy has been "confiscated by scholarship and locked away from the contamination of cultural use." This little volume may help to reverse that trend (since it is a genuine piece of philosophical reasoning, despite its earthy title). May it also deliver us from the fecal contamination of a bullish sort.