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.