[Homestead] On Bullshit

Gene GeRue genegerue at ruralize.com
Mon Feb 14 09:52:13 EST 2005

Between Truth and Lies, an Unprintable Ubiquity


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 
sustained inquiry."

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.

The rest of the review may be found at:

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