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On Bullshit
by: Wes

On Bullshit In these depressingly unenlightened times, I never thought I'd see a philosophy book manage to become a best-selling title, but lo! -- Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit has done just that, presently occupying the #3 slot of the New York Times' Hardcover Nonfiction list. Moreover, with Frankfurt being a renowned moral philosopher and Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton (so sayeth the author's blurb), the author's reputation alone suggests that this is a book worth reading -- a book that, given its title (which no doubt accounts for some measure of the book's popularity, for there is some childish pleasure to be derived from owning a scholarly work by a renowned philosopher with the word "bullshit" in the title), will not only make the reader more aware of the various forms of bullshit, but might furthermore arm the reader with the mental Mickey Mouse poncho necessary to keep one's clothes clean amidst the thick torrents of bullshit that daily rain down from the clouded skies of the society in which we live.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. In On Bullshit, Frankfurt primarily undertakes to define the term "bullshit" in comprehensive fashion -- comparing it to other similar terms and analogues ("humbug", for example), discussing its relationship to lies proper, and even going so far as to draw comparisons between the term and excrement -- shit -- itself, which admittedly leads to a couple of laughs:

Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape... but it is in any case certainly not wrought. (p. 21-22)

However, while it may be amusing to read the writing of a renowned philosopher pontificating here and there about fecal matter, despite the philosophical style and tone of the essay -- it hardly deserves to be called a book, topping off at just under 70 pages -- there really is very little of substance to be found here. To be sure, Frankfurt does finally offer up a solid definition of "bullshit" (as opposed to a fluid or diarrhetic one), but was it really necessary that such a definition be submitted? Of course, we often use the word "bullshit" in our speech, and it is always good to know what a word means when we use it, but -- in truth -- the term "bullshit" is, in most instances in which it is used, little more than an empty criticism -- along the lines of saying that a thing "sucks" or is "dumb." For while when we use such terms, while we do mean something by them -- namely, what we say at face value -- for these criticisms to be understood in a more significant sense, further information is necessary.

If I say that a film is "weak," for example, you may understand that I did not like the film, but you have no idea why I didn't like it (unless you do, in which case it is not the term "weak" itself that communicates this information, but outside knowledge that you had already acquired by other means) and must inquire as to my meaning in order to understand my critique in a deeper sense. Similarly, if I refer to a politician's comments as being "bullshit," even if we do have a definition of the term (as we do with words like "awful" and "horrible"), my audience has no idea what I mean specifically by that term without making a further inquiry as to my meaning in employing it. Arguably, this is a problem that extends to all unqualified judgments in general, but I merely mean to point out either that we need only have a general understanding of such terms like "bullshit" in order to understand the speaker's meaning or that further inquiry is required. And insofar as this is true, 60+ page essay that attempts to comprehensively define the word "bullshit" adds nothing to our understanding of the term as it is used in spoken language, for it is very unlikely that the term "bullshit", as it is commonly used, is meant to communicate much of what Frankfurt discusses during the course of his treatise.

Of course, I doubt that Frankfurt seriously believed that deriving a comprehensive definition of "bullshit" was a worthwhile enterprise (except in the financial sense, given the popularity of this little treatise). Part of the joke, no doubt, is that in presenting himself as one who truly believes that "bullshit" must be so defined, Frankfurt is himself "bullshitting" the reader (though, as with the participants in a bull session, the readers are aware of the context of the commentary). That the book seems primarily intended to make the reader chuckle is not my main problem with it. Perhaps I'd have more appreciation for it if it had been something I'd read in an intro philosophy course as an undergraduate, or if I'd encountered it among the musings posted on a philosophy professor's weblog. Perhaps I'd even like it better if it cost less than $10 -- which, to my mind, is far too expensive for a tiny little treatise that was likely written in an afternoon, that I read in just under an hour, and that taught me nothing of substantive value. But my main concern is that to a public that already believes that the realm of philosophy consists largely of bullshit and has no relevance whatsoever to everyday life (case in point, I hold an undergraduate degree in philosophy from fucking Yale University and am, at the moment, unemployed, because who wants to hire a useless philosophy major?), On Bullshit will serve as just another reason for people to view philosophy as a joke. And for a number of reasons (some of which, admittedly, are selfish!), I cannot endorse a book that will undoubtedly have that effect on a number of its readers.

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