December 11, 2006
Harry Frankfurt's 'On Bullshit'. A definition, a defense, or dizzy dialectic?
The title "On Bullshit" is no doubt an eyecatcher, as is the compactness of the book: a 67 page 7"x5" book; the single reason I picked it up. As they say, appearances are often deceptive, and this one surely was. The 67 page book is a piece of dense non-fiction that took me over three hours to read and another some to comprehend. Every page is dialectic so coherent, so convincing that the reader, manacled in argument, is lead into a maze where the only way out is to suspend disbelief and go where the author leads you.
The term 'bullshit' is not merely a reference to a British expletive but also to an activity that millions of us, world over, are engrossed in. Harry Frankfurt, after admitting that 'bullshit' is a British coinage, goes on to define bullshit in many creative ways: 'humbug','hot air', a male cow's 'corpse of nourishment', and many such more. That's when the reader wonders why he's reading an entire treatise about something that is 'short of lying', is an irreverent and colloquial usage, and is as hard core British as 'bull shit'. At this point in the book the author may very well lose his reader who might choose to abandon the book for its lack of real substance. Well Frankfurt didn't lose me. Not so much because of his creativity at defining bullshit, or his defense of it thereof; it was because I needed to find out the relevance of 'bullshit'. I was piqued by the newly established importance of 'bullshit' that makes a professor at Princeton say "although it (bullshit) is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false". Having said that, the reputed professor then decides to write an entire book about it.
Whether Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" is able to give 'bullshit' its rightful meaning and place in our world, is not immediately discernible. However, it's interesting that Frankfurt chose to write a sequel to this book soon after, and titled it "On Truth".
The 'Truth' is out there somewhere, and I must pause till it comes to me.