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On Bullshit Hardcover – Jan 30 2005
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"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit," Harry G. Frankfurt writes, in what must surely be the most eyebrow-raising opener in modern philosophical prose. "Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted." This compact little book, as pungent as the phenomenon it explores, attempts to articulate a theory of this contemporary scourge--what it is, what it does, and why there's so much of it. The result is entertaining and enlightening in almost equal measure. It can't be denied; part of the book's charm is the puerile pleasure of reading classic academic discourse punctuated at regular intervals by the word "bullshit." More pertinent is Frankfurt's focus on intentions--the practice of bullshit, rather than its end result. Bullshitting, as he notes, is not exactly lying, and bullshit remains bullshit whether it's true or false. The difference lies in the bullshitter's complete disregard for whether what he's saying corresponds to facts in the physical world: he "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."
This may sound all too familiar to those of use who still live in the "reality-based community" and must deal with a world convulsed by those who do not. But Frankfurt leaves such political implications to his readers. Instead, he points to one source of bullshit's unprecedented expansion in recent years, the postmodern skepticism of objective truth in favor of sincerity, or as he defines it, staying true to subjective experience. But what makes us think that anything in our nature is more stable or inherent than what lies outside it? Thus, Frankfurt concludes, with an observation as tiny and perfect as the rest of this exquisite book, "sincerity itself is bullshit." --Mary Park
"A #1 New York Times Bestseller 2005"
"Harry G. Frankfurt, 2017 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecturer, American Council of Learned Societies"
"Winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy, The Book Standard"
"Listed on the 2017 War on the Rocks Holiday Reading List"
"[Frankfurt] 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 bullshit, 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."---Peter Edidin, New York Times
"The scholar who answers the question, 'What is bullshit?' bids boldly to define the spirit of the present age. . . . Frankfurt's conclusion . . . is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created. Eureka! Frankfurt's definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed."---Timothy Noah, Slate
"Immediately, I must say: read it. Beautifully written, lucid, ironic and profound, it is a model of what philosophy can and should do. It is a small and highly provocative masterpiece, and I really don't think I am bullshitting you here."---Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times
"This is what the world has long needed. . . . Bullshit is now such a dominant feature of our culture that most of us are confident we can recognize and rebuff it. But Frankfurt shows the reader just how insidious (and destructive) it can be. . . . This book will change your life."---Leopold Froehlich, Playboy
"Frankfurt's book should be required reading for anyone whose speech or writing are intended for public consumption. Despite his subject, he is definitely not full of it."---Kevin Wood, The Daily Yomiuri
"On Bullshit offers a tightly focused, telling critique of a political and cultural climate that seems positively humid with mendacity, obfuscation, evasion and illusion."---Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle
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This is not a funny book. Nor is it something that was written as a satire. Mr. Harry G. Frankfurt looks closely at BS as a concept and analyzes it. Also, he distinguishes this common phenomenon from lying and other similar notions. It is a guide for anyone who has ever heard and used this popular and widely used word. It is short and it is excellent!
First, BS is not lying. A liar knows the truth and carefully crafts an alternative to it to further some agenda. The BSer operates without regard for--perhaps even knowledge of--the truth. The BS is created to achieve an effect, to please the ego or ear, or perhaps just to fill some conversational space the speaker feels unable to neglect with silence. To the BSer, the offered BS even has some non-zero chance of being true--if it were only worth the bother to check.
The second insight is that certain organizational roles create pressure to engage in BS more than others. The author points to leaders who have frequent opportunities or demands to speak about their organizations' accomplishments without being very involved in the planning, production or evaluation of said accomplishments. Much of what these leaders say will be BS, to the sorrow and pain of those who must live with the consequences.
I'll close with a recommendation and a plea. I recommend that you buy a copy of this book for your own intellectual and moral development. It is brief, readable and encourages us to think seriously about both the truth and consequences of what we claim to know. Satisfied readers will also value an encounter with the author's related book, On Truth.
I then plead with you to purchase a second copy and mail it anonymously to the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia where Senior Executives for the Federal government are trained. Only good can come from some of them reading it. Members of the Senior Executive Service are selected based on general leadership ability and assigned jobs under the theory that specific technical program knowledge is far less important than this general ability. These conditions make them particularly likely to become chronic BSers. Let's try to help them--and ourselves.
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