Never has a write written such a perfect set of books while also having the absolute perfect name to do so.
On Bullshit – 4 Stars
This book would be the perfect book to read with a class of high school seniors as a transition to college. It fits the tone, the necessary, and the precision of language as they move on. It’s also perfect for kids not going to college, but that’s a separate issue. If only he didn’t swear so much! But he has to because, as he argues in the text, it’s impossible to really capture the various definitions of “bullshit” and “bullshitting” and the multivalence of the by using any other word. He spends some important moments early on explaining what various possible synonyms are not up to the task and why even attempts to edit or change the word fail to capture what is necessary about it.
The book is a perfectly distilled language game, told through academic structure and language, and borrowing so heavily from common experience, while also being a straight subtweet of current discourse, even as he saw it in 1986 or so when he first wrote this. It’s the OG version of “On Smarm” but with a different target of course.
So alas, I don’t think I can teach this book, at least not yet. I will however read through Max Black’s “The Prevalence of Humbug” and see where that gets me.
much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his
share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people
are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to
avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused
much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In
consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is,
why there is so much of it, or 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. I
shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My
aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how
it differs from what it is not, or (putting it somewhat differently)
to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.
Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary
and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be
somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is
often employed quite loosely — simply as a generic term of abuse,
with no very specific literal meaning. For another, the
phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and
perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.”
Truth though…well, what do you even talk about when the subject is the full history and breadth of philosophy? And how do you winnow it down into something manageable? Well, the truth is, you can’t. Or I can’t, but neither can Harry Frankfurt.
The issue begins with two failures upfront. He begins with a misread (willful or otherwise) of postmodernism. I think it’s directly false to claim that postmodernists basically argued that there is no truth, or that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Postmodernism is the interrogation of power and especially the power of language. So it’s not saying that truth is in the eye of the beholder, but that systems of power influence or sometimes control the nature of truth through the exercise of power. Truth is contained within competing discourses. So the fact that Frankfurt finds himself within one of those discourses, Western education/society/culture, doesn’t mean that he isn’t demonstrating the very thing he’s supposedly critiquing.
The other issue is that Frankfurt basically defines truth in three ways: factuality (something no one really disputes), consensus (again, see postmodernism), and by refencing as many different philosophers discuss “truth”, well at least in English. Even just discussing different definitions of truth within specific cultural contexts would have made this more interesting.