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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

On Bullshit — Book Review

Harry G. Frankfurt offers up a formal “development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit” in his essay/book On Bullshit. Yep, you’re reading that correctly. We’ve apparently exhausted enough things to write about that developing a theoretical understanding of bullshit sounded like a good idea.

By the way, this wasn’t a self-published job. No, the Princeton University Press put this out. The guys with the twead, elbow-patched jackets walking around the Ivy League campus decided to take a serious look at BSing. Shakespeare has apparently lost his appeal after all these years.

Frankfurt spends almost half of this very short essay comparing bullshit to humbug. And you thought “humbug” was merely part of a Dickens’ Christmas, didn’t you? Well, humbug has apparently made the intellectual rounds, and Frankfurt points out some key differences for us. The key seems to be that humbug is meant to intentionally decieve, while bullshit offers a “lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are — that [Frankfurt regards as the] essence of bullshit.”

Don’t know about you, but settling that was sure a load off my mind. Now, when I scream, “That’s a bullshit call” at some poor ol’ referee, we can both know exactly what I meant.

Are they serious?? This has to be one of the dumbest ideas for a book I’ve ever encountered. Did we really need a deeper understanding of bullshit? Have I missed some widespread confusion on the subject?

Bullshit is something that “you know it when you see it.” Intellectualizing it completely misses the point. It is the ultimate gut reaction. A title of On Bullshit could’ve offered humor, a witty examination of just how much BSing is done, or, if the writer was hell bent on a serious mode, a look at public relations or advertising, which barely got a mention. I have little doubt it reached the best-seller list based because readers assumed Frankfurt had taken at least one of these avenues.. Instead, Frankfurt offered an all to serious look at a psuedo subject that barely works as a mildly interesting mental exercise. Skip it.

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