‘On Truth’

‘On Truth’ is a treatise of distinction
Author says lies toy with grasp of reality

By MICHAEL JANAIRO, Staff writer

Harry G. Frankfurt has followed up his 2005 best-seller, “On Bull—-,” which was a philosophical inquiry into “hot air” statements that reflect an indifference to truth, with an equally thought-provoking (and equally slim) volume.

“On Truth” (Knopf; 101 pages; $12.50) aims to explain what he neglected in his previous book: why truth is important.

The book begins slowly, with some obvious arguments (he calls them “commonplace suggestions”) about how facts and the ability to differentiate between truth and falsity help people make decisions about “mundane yet vital matters,” such as what to eat and what to wear.

Perhaps the least effective chapter is the one on the explanation of the nature of love, according to 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza. Frankfurt agrees with Spinoza that “people cannot help loving the truth,” but he doesn’t offer concrete examples. Instead, he writes generally about how an anonymous individual would act.

The book picks up in the discussions of “ugly” truths and lies.

To those who would argue that some truths are too much to bear and should be ignored, he writes: “Hiding our eyes from reality will not cause any reduction of its dangers and threats; plus, our chances of dealing successfully with the hazards that it presents will surely be greater if we can bring ourselves to see things straight.”

Ignoring, or denying, truths are also ways of allowing solipsistic fantasies to flourish (and thus separate a person from the “real world”). He later argues our very notions of who we are, our identities, are dependent upon truths, “our appreciation of a reality that is definitively independent of ourselves.”

Nothing, he argues, can be more harmful to that appreciation than lies from people who are close to us. He writes, “Lies are designed to damage our grasp of reality. So they are intended, in a very real way, to make us crazy.”

Learning of a close friend’s or relative’s lie, Frankfurt argues, “exposes to us something about ourselves — something far more disturbing than merely that we have miscalculated, or that we have made an error of judgment. It reveals that our own nature (i.e., our second nature) is unreliable, having led us to count on someone we should not have trusted. It shows us that we cannot realistically be confident of our own ability to distinguish truth from falsity — our ability, in other words, to recognize the difference between what is real and what is not.”

Though Frankfurt is careful to limit his discussion to “friends” and “individuals,” I couldn’t help but infer a national application to his ideas. That is, America’s leaders have placed their citizens in a fantasy world in regards to war, terrorism and truth that have made an entire nation crazy. The revelations of the Bush administration’s fabrications and disinformation are only beginning to get us out of this craziness, but the process will likely take decades.

Other readers of Frankfurt’s book are certain to come away with their own thoughts — either personal or political — about the implications of this genuinely stimulating book.

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