Harry G. Frankfurt has declared war on bullshit. And he means it.
“The bullshitter does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does. He pays no attention to it at all,” the retired Princeton University Professor writes in his latest book, On Bullshit. “By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
The tiny book, which attempts to define bullshit and why it’s a problem in our society in 67 pages, has had enormous success since its publication in January, riding on The New York Times Bestsellers List for more than 20 weeks. With the public interest sparked over this unlikely topic, Frankfurt, who himself also gained national attention, will be giving a speech Sunday at the Miami International Book Fair on the topic of bullshit.
Frankfurt says the book, which is actually an essay he wrote 20 years ago, was not necessarily written with a public-spirited motive, but it turned out to be that way on its own.
“I regard bullshit as an evil that needs to be corrected,” says Frankfurt, who taught philosophy at Princeton. “I wrote it as an analytical philosopher, [but] I think it captures something in our culture in order to clarify it.”
According to his analysis, which he describes as a “serious scholarly inquiry,” bullshit is a concept that falls in between truth and lying. He writes that it is a lack of concern for finding the truth.
Part of what makes Frankfurt’s book unique is the dead-serious conviction he uses to approach the subject. He says the idea came to him in 1985 at a small faculty meeting during his years at Yale University. Every meeting, one person was selected to present on any subject they pleased.
It was here that Frankfurt thought, “bullshit.”
“It had occurred to me that I had been using the word loosely and I wanted to know what it really meant,” he says.
It was a topic that no one had really seriously researched up to that point. In fact, the book’s humor comes from its honest search for an original definition of bullshit and the poignancy of his findings.
The essay was published several times, appearing first in the journal Raritan in 1986 and later in Frankfurt’s own collection of philosophical essays, The Importance of What We Care About, in 1988.
In January, the Princeton University Press transformed the essay into book form. Frankfurt says not a word was changed.
That begs the question: if his views on bullshit are the same, does that mean there is still so much bullshit in our culture?
“It’s part of the ideology of our society as a democracy to have an opinion on everything,” says Frankfurt, who describes the phenomenon as the contemporary proliferation of bullshit. “We set up situations where we’re forced to talk about things we don’t know.”
After the book was published, he says the response was incredible, so much so that he has divided his e-mails into three categories: first, the complimentary e-mails, second, the suggestions-for-improvement e-mails and third, the insulting e-mails.
“These people say that they see through my trick and recognize that by writing the book I was writing an instance of bullshit and that I intended it to be as such,” he says. “This is not at all true. That was not my intention.”
Instead, Frankfurt says he is dedicated to promoting the search for truth. His current work in progress is actually on the subject of the importance of truth, which he calls the “sequel” to his latest book.
It’s another chapter in Frankfurt’s crusade against bullshit.
“We accept [bullshit] fairly passively. Our passivity makes it hard to control,” he says. “We spend a lot of time bullshitting each other, [but] people just don’t feel like fighting it because they can’t figure it out.”
And he ain’t bullshitting.
Be sure to catch Harry G. Frankfurt at the Miami International Book Fair starting Wednesday. His speech will be on Sunday.
Rafael Sangiovanni can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.