This book is a hit. As an intellectual treatise, it's risible; but as a cultural phenomenon, it's worth consideration, if only as an example of how very low American discourse has fallen in the past few years.
After a lifetime of toil in the Monty-Python world of Anglo-American philosophy, aged Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt has suddenly become rich and famous with the publication of this little book. Frankfurt is one of a band of academic philosophers who specialize in discussing language by the rules of Anglo-American common-sense philosophy, which means roughly "without admitting context or intention in any way." They've been convening for decades, putting out little books on metaphor theory which are characterized by a fierce ignorance of the entire post-Nietzschean tradition in philosophy. This means that they look at language as if they were the first ever to think about it, and their norms - of ethics, of psychology, of historical and scientific ignorance - held for a prototypical "person," without consideration of time, place, gender, class, or any other factor that would complicate their nursery-school approach.
A review of "On Bullshit"
by Harry G. Frankfurt
Princeton University Press, 2005
They remind me very much of Byron's apostrophe to Southey:
You, gentlemen, by dint of long seclusion
From better company, have kept your own
...through still continued fusion
Of one another's minds...
There is a narrowness in such a notion,
Which makes me wish you'd change your lakes for ocean.
Come to think of it, Frankfurt reminds me of Southey in lots of ways. Depressing - cuz we ain't got no Byron to tell him where to go.
To be fair, the willed ignorance of the Lake Poets was nothing compared to the utter obscurantism of Frankfurt and his gang. They have pursued their little squabbles completely unnoticed by the world, for decades.
I used to imagine how great it would be if Nietzsche could appear in a sulphurous cloud at one of their conclaves and give them some X-treme remedial lessons. But as the reactionary bumpersticker says, Nietzsche is dead and God is alive - growing like a brain tumor on steroids.
The death of Nietzsche and the horrible return of God is why, late in his life, Frankfurt's little book has suddenly become a hot property. "He's the man for his time and place" - alas. All his ignorance and obscurantism have found a readership desperate for them.
And he did it with a simple formula. Here, get a pen - I'll give it to you, in case any of you aspire to a career in "moral philosophy." There are only four little steps to follow:
1. Come up with a title mixing academic and populist diction, like "On Bullshit." The rubes love a cheap oxymoron. They'll giggle and blush: "Oooo, Professor Frankfurt said 'bullshit'!"
2. Then mention other professors, sound like you know what you're talking about. You don't actually have to know anything about your field. In fact it's probably better if you don't. For example, Frankfurt writes 80,000 words on the notion of truth and sincerity in language without so much mentioning Nietzsche's name. Don't worry; your audience is so pig-ignorant they won't even notice.
3. Amplify, amplify, amplify! Pad your little sermon as if it were an offensive lineman with gout, till your little sermon can fill a book. There's a whole genre of rhetoric, Copia, devoted to ways of turning short utterances into grand, meandering sermons. Frankfurt combines two closely related, equally disreputable branches of rhetoric: the ars predicandi, the art of preaching, and de copia. For a man who explicitly excludes rhetorical considerations from his inquiry early on, he has a strange familiarity with the art's most seedy sub-genres.
4. End the book with an attack on that old familiar straw man, Moral Relativism. This line of attack is so familiar to America's militant hicks that they won't even ask for evidence. So Frankfurt is able to discuss "the contemporary proliferation of bullshit" without bothering to prove that the level of bullshit is in fact greater than it was in the past. He actually admits that his historical argument about language cannot be proven: "Of course, it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it now than at other times."
That's all he says. It amounts to saying, "I have no idea whether my argument has any basis at all, but never mind, let's continue with it." It's typical of Anglo-American philosophy to discuss "the past" without ever mentioning what past you mean. When Frankfurt makes this contrast between present and past, what past is he using? Just try using any real time and place as that glorious "past" and see what you get:
*16th-century Spain checks in: "Lo siento, senores, the level of mierda seca is actually pretty high here, what with everybody sucking up to the aristocracy and them sucking up to the king, and everybody trying to seem very devout so they don't get burned..."
*19th-century England is next: "Sorry, chaps, humbug abounds here! Patriotic humbug, Christian humbug, 'charitable' humbug, capitalist humbug, all manner of xenophobic, vicious humbug!" [In fact, I've always wanted to require British philosophers to use the Irish Famine as their standard example of evil, rather than the usual Nazi era, which lets them off the hook. Now that would yield some real revelations - which is why they'll never do it.]
But of course there is no era in which the level of bullshit could be said to be clearly lower than ours. Try some: 5th-century Burma: what was the level of bullshit there? The Kalahari Desert in the 11th century? Antarctica 10,000 years ago? Antarctica would get my vote - until it was colonized by humans. Because where we go, bullshit goes.
Even that assertion is doubtful, actually, because the term doesn't translate properly from time to time, culture to culture. To study these things, you have to deal with language as it is used by particular people in particular places. But getting down to particulars is something Frankfurt and his ilk avoid at all costs, since their goal is to "mummify" culture and language, as Nietzsche said.
Well, there it is: your four-step recipe for Philosophical Phame. But there's one thing you need above all, if you're going to follow the Frankfurt path: you must have no shame, no conscience, no intellectual rigor. You must be able to discuss language without citing any actual samples of it, denounce Continental philosophy without knowing a thing about it, and discuss historical changes without so much as mentioning historical evidence.
Can you do that, prospective sages? Or are you one of those buzzards who, despite themselves, gag now and then when the carrion they ingest is too foul even for them? If so, abandon all help of following the Frankfurt path to glory. For the key to his intellectual enterprise is a fierce, determined know-nothingness.
Frankfurt's enterprise involves talking about language without thinking about how it's used. If that seems a little bizarre, it is. But whole departments of highly-paid academic philosophers trained in the British common-sense tradition maintain this strange tradition because their lives, incomes and emotional well-being depend on it.
This willed ignorance extends to every possible field of knowledge. One of its most comical aspects is its implicit psychological theory, which is the most puerile, unimaginative idea of human psychology. According to Frankfurt, we are all sensible tweedy Anglos who would never lie just for the sake of lying: "'[L]iars' and 'real lies' are both rare and extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively from a love of falsity or of deception."
He really thinks people don't lie out of love of the game itself? Jesus, where do these people spend their lives? The world is full of people who lie for the fun of it. Every folk-tale tradition celebrates a great liar; that's the trait for which Odysseus was most admired by the Greeks, for God's sake! But here again, I'm breaking the rules by mentioning actual times and places. Open the door like that and the whole house of cards might blow down.
Then there's the notion of evidence. As in, he ain't got none. How do we know people don't lie for fun? We just do. No evidence whatever is supplied. In fact, nothing resembling evidence blots the bland calm of Frankfurt's mummified landscape. Like Ratty in Wind in the Willows, he simply doesn't want to know anything about the big, wide, scary world.
The high point of Frankfurt's willed ignorance is his outright exclusion of rhetorical considerations from his inquiry: "I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit." This is like excluding the issue of use from a discussion of the ways in which people use pistols. How is it possible to discuss a term like "bullshit," which is used solely as abuse - as a weapon - without considering the rhetorical context in which it is deployed? Well, it isn't, of course. But that doesn't stop Frankfurt. He devotes the body of his book to an unintentionally hilarious quest for a true, clear, stable meaning of bullshit - as if this word had a "meaning" distinct from its context, any more than a battle-axe or Uzi!
Then - and this really shocked me, it was so crude - Frankfurt proceeds to devote his entire conclusion to the rhetoric of bullshit, which he previously excluded. As if that weren't bad enough, he then misreads the rhetoric of bullshit appallingly, concluding that "modern" bullshit is intended to make the speaker look good.
Just for your information, Professor Frankfurt, this little notion is called "ethos" and it was named as one of the three branches of rhetoric in a little booklet called Rhetoric, written by a guy named Aristotle. You may have heard of him. You might also be interested to know that the fourth-of-July speeches you use as examples of modern bullshit would fall into the category of "epideictic" rhetoric, which Aristotle also discussed at length in that same little booklet. After that, these concepts were argued and refined for, oh, a couple of millennia. So you just might have a little trouble patenting this great discovery of yours.
This might be news to you, Professor Frankfurt, since you don't so much as mention Aristotle in this book. That's right, folks: Frankfurt doesn't even MENTION the man who founded the discipline grounding his book.
Along with Aristotelian philosophy, Frankfurt also seems to be ignorant of...well, let's see: literature, all non-British philosophy, world history, anthropology...the list goes on and on. One of the funniest examples of ignorance is Frankfurt's discussion of the definition of "humbug," which takes up half his book. He propounds an elaborate definition of the term, carefully contrasting it with "bullshit," without so much as noting that the obvious difference between the two terms is that "humbug" is archaic, not part of any contemporary dialect of English, while "bullshit" remains in use. For contemporary speakers, "humbug" has one meaning: it's what Ebenezer Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol. The word comes into use once a year, around December 20, and vanishes again on December 26. Frankfurt doesn't even notice this fact. It's too particular, you see; it implies a notion of language as something that changes over time, that is particular to time, place and context. And that is a notion which terrifies the Frankfurts of the world.
What would Frankfurt say if you raised your hand in a lecture and said, "But nobody uses the word 'humbug' in contemporary American English! The difference between that and 'bullshit' is simple: one's part of our dialect and the other isn't!"
I suspect the old professor would simply deploy one of his grand exclusions: "We're not concerned with linguistic history here." It's as if a professor said, "We will assume the earth is flat," and a student replied, "But it ISN'T!" only to be coldly informed, "We are not concerned with astronomy here."
Why would anybody not desperate for a grade fall for such drivel? Because they want it. The American public is desperate for reactionary certainties, yet vaguely aware that the intellectual trend of the past several centuries (several millennia, if you include the Rhetorical tradition) has been highly corrosive to the notion that a culture's rules and taboos emanate from a divine, or at least universal, standard. It thrills them to hear a professor, one of the hated "elite," reassure them that this is in fact the case. They don't care about the gaping holes in Frankfurt's argument; all they know is that he huffs and puffs in a convincingly professorial manner at convincingly dreary length, then delivers a sermonic conclusion blaming it all on Relativism, the concept they love to hate.
It's a savory irony, really. Frankfurt, an old man, has spent a long career holding the fort, determinedly not learning about anything - denying every significant intellectual current of his lifetime. And now, for reasons which have more to do with Osama bin Laden and Karl Rove than Frankfurt, this ridiculous essay (honestly, I would fail a student who handed this in) has hit the charts. What a strange reward for a lifetime of willed ignorance!
John Dolan is the author of the comic novel Pleasant Hell. To order, see home page.