Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A Bunch of Bull

With the press that Harry G Frankfurt's tiny book On Bullshit has gotten (here, here and here) I had expectations when I opened the cover and began to read. I expected an analysis of bullshit, examples, critiques, value judgments. What I got was a long, boring essay seeking to define just what bullshit is. Personally, I think a 67 page definition of bullshit, is, well, bullshit. We all do it. We have all encountered it. We all pretty much know what it is. So why is it necessary to use the OED and and extended definition and discussion of humbug versus bullshit? Then on page 50, just when I thought we might finally be getting somewhere, he tosses this out: "The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader." What the? I know what I think of the problem, but I'm reading the essay because I wanted to know what Frankfurt, a philosopher, thought about it. He gets paid to think after all. Then in his concluding paragraph he writes,

As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing is experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is 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.
Whoah. Did he get some other essay mixed up with this one because this just zooms in from left field and brings so supporting evidence with it. Has this man not read Montaigne whose mission was to know himself? has he not read Descartes whose motto was cogito ergo sum? Or does Frankfurt subscribe to the post-structuralist idea that there is not self? If he does, then he is taking a big ol' leap of assumption here in thinking his audience is going to follow along. If you are thinking about purchasing this little book, don't bother unless, of course, you like reading bullshit essays on bullshit.