On Bullshit. Harry Frankfurt.

Frankfurt, Harry. On Bullshit. Princeton, Princeton NJ 2005. NF; 06/11.

How surprised I was when this funny little smaller-than-CD-package-sized book arrived from Amazon, looking like a jokey junior version of a Princeton or Oxford academic tome. 61 pages. Took me less than an hour to read.

Frankfurt, an at least superficially serious emeritus philosopher, makes this interesting distinction between bullshit and lying:

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

The fundamental metaphysic here is the idea that certainty (“determinacy”) lies in external objects, and that it is silly to ascribe it to human beings. I’m not so sure about that, but I like the idea that, in the limited context of common sense, daily activity, and science, there are provisional truths that everybody accepts and that “bullshitters” aren’t interested in at all, preferring their own interest or the sound of their own voice.

Having ordered, paid for, and received this little book, I had to cope with the possibility that I was the butt of an elaborate joke by the author. As someone who occasionally gets taken in by practitioners of bullshit, after paying out over $10 for what amounts to an essay, taken in was how I felt. Maybe “Bullshit” is bullshit. 7.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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