On Bullshit

by Harry G. Frankfurt

by Ted S. McGregor Jr.

We're full of it. At least that's what Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt thinks of the way we communicate. But after reading this odd little book, you can't help but wonder if he's full of it, too.

What are we to make of this minor work? It's tiny, at just 68 pages; perhaps Frankfurt has simply published his go-to lecture. But his minimalism has caught on, and apparently people are willing to part with a 10-spot on the allure of the title alone.

I've been fascinated lately with the idea that Americans don't want to accept facts -- they're smarter than all that book-learnin' -- so I was intrigued. And Frankfurt does elaborate on why we find ourselves at this strange, anti-intellectual moment. The BSer, you see, doesn't worry about truth, for he is sincere. He actually believes he knows what he's talking about, which is why BSing is not the same as lying. "These 'antirealist' doctrines," Frankfurt writes, "undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false..." This, he believes, leads to vast swaths of people for whom truth is not important. Maddeningly enough, however, the closest Frankfurt will come to placing his theory in current reality is when he writes, "The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of [BS] so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept." It would be more fun if he'd name names -- I can think of a few politicians and pundits who could fill chapters.

As I made my way about halfway through his book -- in about 20 minutes -- I began to wonder if he might be testing out some theory dreamed up over one too many cognacs with his tweed-jacketed colleagues. Could his book be an attempt to prove that we are so conditioned to accept BS that we'll even buy a 68-page hardback and discuss it with friends, all without ever getting that the joke's on us? I don't really think so, because he does seem to want to open a new discussion with his pithy observation. But in the end, that's all it is -- an observation one might toss off at a cocktail party.

Somebody really could write a book on this subject; it's a shame that Frankfurt didn't.

Publication date: 04/28/05

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