Friday, October 26, 2007

On reading "On bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt

I am presently, as you may already have intuited, reading On bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt, "renowned moral philosopher [and] Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University." It is on many levels a wonderful book.

To begin at the beginning, the book is physically lovely: very well made, of a nice size and shape, with a pleasant and highly readable layout; the typography is excellent. To be quite honest, I might well have bought the book on these grounds alone. I am afraid (nay: I am proud, I boast) to say that I do judge books by their covers: if the publishers didn't think it worth their time to engage a good designer, if the typographers didn't care enough to do good work, if the printers were slipshod, then the book's content is unlikely to be much better.

I didn't read "On bullshit" when it first appeared in 2005; I usually don't, but rather wait a few years to see which books survive the bestseller mindset of publishers and journalists to earn a measure of renown. I expected the book to be yet another fashionable item with a half-life measured in days; instead it has become something of an underground classic, one finds references to it in other places, by trusted sources.

Frankfurt begins:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.
From where I stand on page seventeen, it's not yet clear where Harry is intending to take us. He sees a significant distinction between lies, humbug and bullshit: they are related but quite dissimilar. The relation and the point of difference is in the speaker's attitude to the truth.

A liar makes a statement that he believes to be untrue*, with the intention of causing his listeners to believe that his statement is true and thus concealing the truth. A recent and typical example is: "they have weapons of mass destruction." The significant point is that the liar is someone to whom the truth is very important, he is aware of it and cares greatly that it not become known.

Humbug is saying something that one knows is untrue, and which one's listeners know to be untrue, but with no intention on either side of believing or causing to believe, as (Harry's example) when a politician rises to his hind legs to say "our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind." A humbugger's relationship to the truth is tangental: he knows that what he says is not actually true, but does not seek to convince anyone of its truth.

A bullshitter tries to improve upon himself and the world by saying things that make him look better, his experiences more exciting, his pleasures more exalting, his defeats more crushing, his enemies more terrifying and his friends more angelic. An example is to say "my joke had them all falling out of their chairs with laughter" when in fact a few people chuckled. A bullshitter's relationship to the truth is one of blithe disregard. He truly does not care, at this time and in this case, what the truth is. In Harry's eyes, this makes him the worst and most dangerous of the three.

It's a fascinating book and I may well write about it again in a few days when I finish reading it. Recommended.

The thought for the day comes from Terry Pratchett's "Thud", which I've written about before.
"What? Tawnee says that what she does is art, sarge. And she wears more clothes than a lot of the women on the walls around here, so why be sniffy about it?"

"Yeah, but ..." Fred Colon hesitated here. He knew in his heart that spinning upside down around a pole wearing a costume that you could floss with definitely was not Art, and being painted on a bed wearing nothing but a smile and a small bunch of grapes was good solid Art, but putting your finger on why this was the case was a bit tricky.

Today's Friday Favourite is from an album that I often play for a while, then set aside and re-discover a year later. The song is a hit from my university days. Musically aware listeners will detect the presence of Messrs Rodgers and Edwards (aka Chic) on guitar and vocals. Enjoy.

Happy Friday and Shabbat shalom, my dears.

* the actual truth of the statement is not relevant: before 1492, a person saying "the earth is flat" would be wrong but not a liar because they were stating something they believed to be true.

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Blogger Pacian said...

'On Bullshit' sounds like one book that could change the world!

October 27, 2007 at 12:08:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Anonymous ann marie said...

/me waves while listening to "I'm the One", easily iTuned, and thanks you. I did not order On bullshit when it came out after giving it some thought. Maybe it sounded too bullshitty, or was its too large a readership making the provocative semi-academic title sound phony? Not sure, just that it did not make its way here. Thanks for the review. I did, however, order at that time some of its friends, namely Freakonomics and Blink. Could not beat myself into writing a review and hid myself under a pile of Hunter Thompson books. There's anti-bullshit for you in a big way. See you, Corkscrew Specialist!

As a sidenote, lucky you to live in Europe and being able to write the word "bullshit" without further BS abbreviations.

October 27, 2007 at 9:55:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger Udge said...

Yes, being required to say "BS" really is bullshit.

October 27, 2007 at 10:53:00 p.m. GMT+2  
Blogger May said...

I wonder how baby R is doing. He's probably happy to spend his days eating and sleeping. He doesn't have to worry about abbreviations.

October 28, 2007 at 4:42:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Blogger Udge said...

Well, I shall be seeing him tomorrow or Tuesday. I shall pass on your implicit greeting and good wishes :-)

October 28, 2007 at 5:57:00 p.m. GMT+1  
Anonymous May said...

Thank you. A little kiss on his little cheek from my part.

October 29, 2007 at 10:41:00 p.m. GMT+1  

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