Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

On Bullshit*

Originally posted on December 29, 2010

Sorry, but that is the title of this tiny book by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt and  published in 2005 by Princeton University Press. To save your sensibilities, I’ll just use the term b.s.  It has some good ideas, but the idea of selling as a book that which more properly should be a longish article in something like the Atlantic or Harper’s Magazines is khutzpah, monumental gall, perhaps a kind of b.s. in itself! (I’m referring to the cost of a small book.)

Aside from this, my concern is that Prof. Frankfurt misses a rather large category that should be recognized as also being part of this general phenomenon. The speaker is kidding, he’s flirting, throwing out blarney, telling tall tales, joking, exaggerating—he knows it, and the chances are you know it, too, and he knows you know it. Well, maybe not the newbies or tenderfoots or other initiates or kids—but even they hear the ghost stories within a context of general protection. They may be scared but also know their camp counselor is there to protect them. It’s the thrill of the roller coaster or the Halloween haunted house.

Then there’s another category, as described elsewhere on this blog under the category of Zordak’s essays. Science fiction, play, fantasy, mythmaking, metaphysical or philosophical speculations—when toying with ideas that verge on what some might imagine to be heresy, sometimes it’s better to put them in story form, where you can find these ideas either stimulating or easy to discount.

My objection to “On Bullshit,” slight as it is, serves the point that being serious and sincere can get to be a drag. Lighten up a little, throw in some playfulness! On the other hand, I also agree with Prof. Frankfurt that we must be more alert to the machinations of the real target of his discussion—those who deceive even as they act sincere. (And, in fact, they may think they are sincere! Many people believe their own b.s.!) Another way to say it is that however we may be playful, there are other domains where we need to exercise critical thinking and not let statistics, rhetorical devices, logical fallacies, and the manipulations used by politicians as well as various salesmen and con men cloud our minds. I talk more about some of those manipulations elsewhere on my blog about “follies.”

In summary, Prof. Frankfurt raises an eyebrow about the whole realm of published or spoken discourse—challenges us to bring a heightened “b.s. detector” to the process. I agree, but also note this attitude can be overdone and used to discount the playfulness of verbal foolin’ around or the myth-making that is intended to be taken as metaphor.

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