Book Review: On Bullshit

I must have a fascination with books with the word bullshit in the title, as On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt is the second I’ve read in the last twelve months (the other one was Another Bullshit Night in Suck City).

Frankfurt, a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, has written a delightful half-book (half-book =< 100 pages). In this book, Frankfurt proposes to “begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit.”  You know you are in for a good time when the first sentence of the book is “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  Frankfurt asserts that even though bullshit is all around us, “the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.”

Given the massive proliferation of blogging, this seems like a highly relevant topic to explore, as anyone that reads blogs knows that bullshit is everywhere.  The basis of Frankfurt’s discussion is that lying and bullshit are different constructs, as a liar cares about the “truth-value” (e.g. the notion that what he is saying is false) while the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truthfulness of the statement or idea he is discussing.  Frankfurt suggests that “bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.” 

Sound familiar – or is this just more self-referential or recursive bullshit?