[Homestead] On Bullshit
genegerue at ruralize.com
Mon Feb 14 09:52:13 EST 2005
Between Truth and Lies, an Unprintable Ubiquity
By PETER EDIDIN
Published: February 14, 2005
Harry G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation
and a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book
recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in
the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most
newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is
called "On Bull - - - - ."
The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and
composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much
[bull]. 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 [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the
phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much
The essay goes on to lament that lack of inquiry, despite the universality
of the phenomenon. "Even the most basic and preliminary questions about
[bull] remain, after all," Mr. Frankfurt writes, "not only unanswered but
The balance of the work tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound, St.
Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask some of
the preliminary questions - to define the nature of a thing recognized by
all but understood by none.
What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor
fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they
liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common,
if not identical, regard for the truth.
"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,"
Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the
truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."
The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood.
The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr.
Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to
[bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and
oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."
And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any
liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull] is one
in danger of rejecting "the possibility of knowing how things truly are."
It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or
commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive.
There is no other court of appeal.
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