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A well-fertilised discussion
on December 9, 2005
My first surprise about this book (other than the title, which I cannot add to this review due to the propriety involved) is its brevity. Given the vastness, at least in potential, of the subject matter, the book could fill volumes. Of course, the author Harry Frankfurt might argue that there are indeed already volumes and volumes of balderdash. He states at the beginning that 'One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much', er, humbug. 'Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.'
Frankfurt claims that the issue has not attracted sustained inquiry (he obviously has not been part of the committee meetings I've attended in the past few decades). This book, or rather booklet, is more of a brief essay or primer on the subject, looking at the issue from a linguistic standpoint as well as conceptual framework. There are many synonyms that come close; words such as humbug and balderdash (already used in this review) approximate the title term. Quoting Max Black's essay, 'The Prevalence of Humbug', Frankfurt suggests other closely related words such as claptrap, hokum, drivel, and such. Drawing from the OED definitions, he analyses the key elements of humbug, including misrepresentation just short of lying, elements of pomposity and pretentiousness (loosely applicable), and a possibility of embodiment in feeling or in thought.
Frankfurt also explores the issue of the title term in relation to an incident between Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose philosophical work reaches great heights in clarity and precision, particularly with regard to language and locution) and Fania Pascal. Wittgenstein's substitute term for the title term might have been 'nonsense', and he was diligent at working against such forms of language that might fall into disarray. When is a joke not a joke? Perhaps when it is uttered by Wittgenstein. Or perhaps when it is misinterpreted by Pascal.
Frankfurt looks at the title term in pieces. He looks at the term 'bull' and the later half separately, seeing what difference they make to each other. A 'bull' session is generally unstructured, personal, emotion-dominated. The other term is similarly unstructured for the most part, indicative of waste and odour, and generally not useful, save in very particular circumstances. There is a general lack of importance about it. But is this really true?
Frankfurt quotes the OED's use of the title term as verb (previously he had been looking at it from the standpoint of a noun), drawing Ezra Pound's Cantos into the mix, and the Bible as well. There is a sense of bluffing - one could easily use the title term in regard to something someone says that probably is not going to be true, or not going to be done.
Frankfurt even draws St. Augustine into the mix, attaching the title term to the rarest form of lying among Augustine's construct of the eight types of lying. It isn't necessarily lying to attain a goal, but rather for its own sake. But then, what becomes of the definition of humbug, offered earlier, that claims to stop just short of lying.
Frankfurt claims that the title term, perhaps as a thing or an act, 'is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.' This comes close to being a universal truth. Frankfurt proceeds to talk about anti-realist doctrines, sincerity versus correctness, and finally, to making a declaration that makes the reader wonder, was this entire thing an exercise in seeing just how much of the title term he could get away with as an author? If so, he is brilliantly tapping into the postmodern ethos.
Or perhaps that is all hokum, too.