Book review: Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On B.S.’

The following book review originally appeared in the July 31, 2005, edition of the Albany Times Union. A recent op-ed in The Washington Post by Fareed Zakaria called “The unbearable stench of Trump’s B.S.” references the book in describing the extreme lack of concern for the truth in statements from the Republican presidential candidate. The book, though, isn’t about Trump in general; rather, it is a challenge to everyone to examine how we may add to the world’s B.S. through our own contributions or by allowing others to get away with it.

k7929‘Hot air’ philosophy brings world into focus
By Michael Janairo

For reasons that will be obvious, the title — and thus the subject — of the book in this review cannot be printed in its entirety in a family friendly newspaper such as the Times Union.

That word (think bovine excrement), the author writes, is sometimes replaced by humbug, balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture or quackery . But the book rightly calls these words “less intense” and suggests they have more to do with “considerations of gentility” than the phenomenon to which they refer. They lack the sharpness and subversion inherent in the vulgarity.

The author, however, suggests one term comes close: hot air. “Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content,” the Princeton University philosophy professor writes, “so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.” For purposes of this review, “hot air” will be used as a substitute. But keep in mind that it lacks the original word’s impact.

The bestseller “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt (Princeton University Press; 80 pages; $9.95) is at once ridiculous and sublime: a funny, thoughtful, elegant and provocative philosophical attempt at a sustained inquiry into something that, the author asserts, is prevalent in our culture and which most people are confident they can detect.

This slim volume is a rare wonder. (When is the last time a book of philosophy has stayed on The New York Times bestsellers list for months?) It turns the attempt to map a theory of a vulgar term into something like a detective mystery. The writing is concise and the pacing is quick. Red herrings pop up in the form of lesser (though more polite) terms. Counterarguments arise like an antagonist trying to thwart a protagonist, but they are swiftly set aside by cutting and concise applications of logic. And a crucial passage even relies on the influential philosopher of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein.

The pleasure of this book is watching how Frankfurt leads to some of his most powerful assertions.

For example, he defines the titular word as statements made mindlessly, “unconnected to a concern for the truth.” Though this definition may seem applicable to lying, Frankfurt swiftly dismisses that notion by arguing that a liar must be concerned with the truth, because a person can only lie if he thinks what he is saying isn’t true.

The “hot air” emitter, on the other hand, just doesn’t care.

What is startling about this theory is the example Frankfurt uses to develop his definition. Though many people could easily imagine the realms of advertising, media and politics as rich sources of examples, Frankfurt turns to an anecdote in a memoir by Fania Pascal in which she describes to Wittgenstein how she feels after having her tonsils removed.

She writes: “Wittgenstein called. I croaked: `I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’ He was disgusted: `You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.’ ”

With this example — so localized, so mundane — Frankfurt suddenly opens up his theory to examinations of day-to-day settings to help people evaluate the things they hear.

How often do we ask how someone is, only to hear, “Fine”? How often do we mindlessly use a word like that ourselves? How can we know who we are and the people around us if we mindlessly rely on stock phrases and pointless similes, as if tossing hot air back and forth has anything to do with the truth of our being?

By theorizing the vulgar term of the title, Frankfurt is offering a new way for us to look at the world around us. Anyone concerned about clarity, conciseness, truth and the uses of language will find this book a joy to read and the beginning of a necessary conversation.


 

Harry Frankfurt followed up “On B.S.” with a book called “On Truth,” which I also reviewed in 2007 and wrote, “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.” You can read the full review here.

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