On Bullshit (Harry G. Frankfurt)

I found this book while looking for books on ethics in the Campbell County library.

It is by Harry G. Frankfurt, and published in 2005 by Princeton University Press. The author is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, and is called a "renowned moral philosopher" in the "About the author" section at the end of the book.

It begins thus: "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit."

This small slim volume belies the quantities of bullshit in our culture, but this book is about beginning a "theoretical understanding of bullshit" (and perhaps a slim volume is all that an understanding of bullshit requires).

  • p. 19: "Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:
    1. In the elder days of art
    2. Builders wrought with greatest care
    3. Each minute and unseen part,
    4. For the Gods are everywhere.
  • p. 20: "The point of these lines is clear. In the old days craftsmen did not cut corners…. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit."
  • p. 22: "The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves…a certain inner strain…. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept."
  • p. 24: "Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating wht he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of "nonsense." He was apparently like that in his personal life as well. This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridget in the 1930s: 'I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: "I fell just like a dog that has been run over." He was disgusted: "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like."
  • p. 32: "The point is rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying."
  • p. 33: "It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as the essence of bullshit."
  • p. 46: "It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie."
  • p. 47: "For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony."
  • p. 48: "In Eric Ambler's novel Dirty Story, a character named Arthur Abdel Simpson recalls advice that he received as a child from his father: "Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say…. One of the first things he taught me was, 'Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.'"
  • p. 52: "…a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular."
  • p. 55: "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction."
  • p. 63: "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about…. This discrepancy is common in public life…."
  • p. 63: "Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs."
  • p. 65: "One response to this loss of confidence (in knowing true from false) has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself."
  • p. 66: "…there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."
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