Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Harry Frankfurt's (sort of) new book

Harry Frankfurt, an Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton, recently republished an essay of his as a stand-alone short book: the provocatively titled On Bullshit. I read it yesterday. His thesis is 1) that bullshit is a prevalent feature of our culture, and 2) that purveyors of this unique art have no regard one way or the other for the truth, because it is irrelevant to them. Bullshit is, for him, not defined by what it is, or whether or not it is true or false, but instead by how it is made and used. His helpful analogy is that of a counterfeit artifact. We could put specifics in here: a Rollex or a fake Stradivarius might function perfectly and even be more rare than the real thing. But anyone who thought they were getting the real thing would not be satisfied with a counterfeit. Though Frankfurt never gives real life examples, it would seem that he is talking about the politicians, intellectuals, managers and others in our society who are forced constantly to talk on subjects about which they may know little. Everything they are saying might end up being true, but they are not talking in order to make true statements: hence the difference between bullshit and lies.

I agree with all of this and like 1) his formulation of bullshit as 'phony' and 2) his description of bullshitters as those for whom truth or falsehood is irrelevant. That is powerful. Thus, what I want to address here is the jab he could not resist taking at post-modernism in the last few pages of the book. He decries anti-realist philosophers and intellectuals who have given up on 'correspondence to reality,' and implies that it is they who are the most guilty of bullshit; after all, why would they not be? They no longer think that truth or objectivity are important.

Richard Rorty has devastated this argument in multiple places in his writings, and the nice thing is that you do not have to buy everything he is selling and give up on Plato, Kant, and objectivity to see the truth of this sepcific comeback. Rorty says that most people would like to insist on a tighter connection between a person's political views and their views on sweet metaphysical topics like truth, freedom, absolutes, morality, and objectivity. However, he says that looking for this bond is futile, because there is no reason why a pragmatist could not be a fascist, or a classical realist a totalitarian dictator. His analogy is how British commanders in colonial India would choose native Indian rulers based not on how fit to rule they were but on whether or not they were a good Anglican: how many hymns they knew, etc. While we in the 21st century can see that an Indian's ability to rule his fellow citizens in a just way was irrelevant to his having embraced the British religion, so Rorty says that our views on 'truth' do not dictate our politics. I agree with him: intellectuals have run the gamut of political views in the past, from Voltaire to Malraux to Sartre to Dewey to Hook to Rorty, just as have average citizens without six honorary PhDs. The bullshitters are always those who have the most power, and they are the ones we need to hold accountable.


At 9:38 AM, Blogger Mair said...

Ok, first of all, I couldn't help but notice that this blog was posted at 5:55am. That is crazy. How early do you wake up??!?! Of course, this coming from the gal who sleep while my husband drags himself to the gym every morning.
Anyway...this book sounds intriguing and I will have to add it to my list. I like the concept. And, as my professor PK says, "A good title goes a LONG way in academia!" Thus, On Bullshit is guarenteed at least a breezethrough bt wayward bookstore shoppers.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

wow, Josh goes to the Gym now? That's great!! You should change your description to say you're married to the "Soon to be Svelte" J. Morgan Caler.

Anyway, Nicky Baby, that sounds like a good book, but I'm worried about what you said at the end: "the bullshitters are always those with the most power". Why do you say that? Why is that? Maybe it's that the most visible and noticed bullshitters have the most power, because they're the most critically observed. I have a few friends who are full of BS. No one cares because they haven't been elected to office or promoted to management. Maybe we're talking about a different sort of bull shit - a soft and slimy sort instead of the chunky cowpie kind - but I don't think the degree to which a person disregards the truth of their words necessarily has anything to do with their authority. The degree to which they're pressured to do so might, but I know several really insecure people who say all sorts of ridiculous things to be seen as smart, interesting or cool. Their bullshit is motivated by a desire to be liked and accepted; not to gain or maintain any real authority.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Good point, redhurt. I guess I needed a caveat separating bullshit for the (usually) harmless purposes you identified, like talking about a sport you don't play or trying to impress a woman at a bar, from the ends that those in power have in mind when they do it. With that distinction about ends left unclear, what I said is probably not true. Good call.


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