Monday, April 18, 2005

Book #13: On Bullshit - Harry G. Frankfurt

Frankfurt writes:

"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. 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, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

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 short, we have no theory."

On Bullshit is a funny book, but it is no joke. In 67 tiny pages (literally: the above quote is almost the entirety of the first page), Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, parses the meaning of bullshit, distinguishing bullshitting from both lying and truth-telling, and posing one of the greatest unanswered questions of any recent philosophy book: why does our culture value bullshitting more than lying?

Working as I do in state government, I wish I'd been issued this book on my first day. Not that it seeks to reduce bullshit, but by identifying the relationship of bullshit with the truth, it provides clarity on the function of bullshit in communication (with special, albeit unmentioned in the book, relevance to government communications). Highly recommended. This is philosophy that everyone could appreciate and understand, and its brevity lends itself to those with a short attention span.


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