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On Humbug

In form, if not substance, Harry G Frankfurt's On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005), is a tract. There used to be many such small books of essay length, on subjects religious, political, and satirical. On Bullshit is philosophical, but even for a tract it is short. It is, however, serious and useful.

The title makes the best of a bad mess. On Bullshit is tractlike in its plain descriptiveness, and similarly old-fashioned. (Candid titles used to be the rule in the West, as they still are in China.) But the tonic is not strong enough to calm my discomfort at typing out a vulgar word. I am not squeamish, but because I associate four-letter words with anger and frustration (the conditions that provoke me to shout them), Dr Frankfurt's title triggers cognitive dissonance. Attentive readers will have noticed my home-grown euphemism, torosplat, which "means" the same thing but doesn't sound anything like bullshit. I shall not avail myself of it here. Dr Frankfurt has his reasons.

As Dr Frankfurt points out, bullshit can be true. But it is never precise, and therefore the task of fixing the concept with precision is also a matter of cognitive dissonance. What exactly are we doing here? Thankfully, Dr Frankfurt is a lucid, sensible writer, and he explains his purpose succinctly:

Continue reading "On Humbug" at Portico.


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Some random thoughts on reading the On Bullshit entry on Portico and seeing Professor Frankfurt interviewed on TV twice (Jon Stewart and CBS Sunday Morning): I think it's interesting to consider the motivation of the bullshitter, different, as both Wittgenstein and Frankfurt would agree, than that of the liar. Why does someone become a bullshitter, even briefly? I think it's because they want to be accepted/loved or to feel significant. The kind of bullshit that is advertising is not so much bullshit, as being defined, but rather persuasion, a means to a desired end. The bullshit part of advertising appears when the product or service or idea wouldn't otherwise be desired were it not for the persuasion (you "need" this trip to Paris). (On second thought, I do need a trip to Paris.) The disconnection from truth with bullshit has to do with skewed self-perception, the defense of simplified view of oneself, and fear of being discovered as... a bullshitter. Truth doesn't even enter the equation when signifance and acceptance are at stake.

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