On Bullshit

ISBN: 0691122946
ISBN 13: 9780691122946
By: Harry G. Frankfurt

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About this book

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."Frankfurt, one of the world's most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory here. With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Reader's Thoughts


This very short book is a philosophical essay on the nature of bullshit. The main question that Frankfurt appears to be answering is, "Is lying always bullshit and is bullshit always lying?". The answer appears to be no and no. Frankfurt's distinction between the two is essentially this: The liar is conscious of the difference between the lie and the truth. In order to deceive you must have a grasp on where the truth lies. The bullshitter is not interested in the truth. He loses all connection between the truth and the lie.This is the basic revelation in Frankfurt's essay although it is much more fun reading his ideas on this than mine. He does an admirable job in setting up his points and giving a working definition to lying and bullshit. Surprisingly easy to read, this is well worth the 20 minutes you will need to read it. I will also call your attention to the last four words of this essay. While not technically a spoiler I will avoid quoting them in order to give you the pleasure of reading them and discovering that Frankfurt has hit upon a major truth.


[...] Stronzate è un libro importante, che celebra l’impegno e condanna il permissivismo, la noncuranza e il lassismo di chi «cerca sempre, in un modo o nell’altro, di passarla liscia». Mentre lo leggevo pensavo ai Greci, il cui modo di fare politica, insieme etico e tecnico, si basava sul “dialogo” fra le diverse parti del corpo sociale. Essere politici, insegnano i Greci, non significa soltanto legiferare o intraprendere la carriera di politico, perché “politico” è in primo luogo chi sa far bene il suo lavoro (mica come certi editori). Se il fabbro fabbrica, il medico medica e il giudice giudica, allora anch’essi sono politici. Platone chiamava “temperanza” la virtù che fornisce la misura del proprio sapere e delle proprie competenze. Ovvero: è bene che ognuno faccia quel che sa e lasci fare ad altri quel che non sa. Pensateci su, perché questa non è una stronzata.Per leggere la recensione completa, segui questo link:http://www.temperamente.it/saggistica...


What is bullshit? The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt lies here some good foundations to a better understanding of bullshit -so widespread nowadays yet, surprisingly, poorly understood because not properly defined or theorised. Such a short philosophical essay is thus necessary; it's also punchy and very pertinent. Indeed, framing bullshit as something very precise and peculiar (that is, different from bluff or lies in its key relationship to truth) the definition offered by the author encompasses not only bullshit per se but, also gives an hint towards the reason for bullshitters to think the way they do and, the impact not only on the gullible but society at large. I insist on 'gives an hint' because, sadly, Frankfurt just flies over his topic without going deeper than I think he should. Nonetheless, it's punchy enough for examples to spring in the mind while reading his concerns. Indeed, from alternative medicine to conspiracy theories and antievolutionary stances, what is the future of a society where, a complete lack of concern with truth (e.g. to the point of affecting one's whole way of thinking to suit the bullshit being entertained) is accepted, tolerated and spread even by our 'elites' (medias, politicians etc.)? A tiny little book, but a great food for thoughts.


This slim, elegant little book looks at first like an elaborate joke, but I think it is actually quite serious. What is "bullshit"? asks the author, a distinguished moral philosopher. He examines and discards various plausible hypotheses, for example that bullshit is merely lying or careless use of language. As he points out, the bullshit artist often lies, but need not do so: some bullshit is, more or less by accident, perfectly true. And similarly, although much bullshit is hasty or careless, some of the worst bullshit around is crafted with exquisite care and attention to detail; one need only think of commercial advertising and political campaigns. The rest of this review is in my book If Research Were Romance and Other Implausible Conjectures


Frankfurt capitalizes on the potential for absurdity inherant in 'philosophical' texts. What philosophy sometimes comes down to, or rather, what critiqing it comes down to, is how well you can dissect what someone is actually saying, moving past all of the bullshit of language. The language used in this book is so dense at times that you might find it to be bullshit. The funny thing is, that's the point. He uses the language against itself. He describes how something can be bullshit if it sounds legit. More to the point, he proves that what may sound like bullshit is actually truth. Dig.


I snubbed this book when it came out, deciding the author was just trying too hard to be provocative, but I found out that Rebecca Goldstein uses it in her Intro to Philosophy courses to introduce philosophical methods, so I looked at it again. It is VERY short (I read it aloud to my husband in about an hour.), and I think it might make a fun discussion for a group: Do we all agree on what bullshit is? Does Frankfurt do a good job of exploring what it really is and how it differs from lying or humbug? I would have rated it higher if he had come to more definitive conclusions, but it is still worth reading if the concept appeals to you.

Chris Pariseau

I heard somewhere once that the three most essential traits of good writing are brevity, clarity, and honesty. This book has all three as well as focusing in on an important distinction in our current verbal masturbatory culture: the difference between a liar and a bullshitter. The distinction is made by the writer through a journey in personal conviction in both primary sources and experience, but it is which one of these Frankfurt posits poses the most sincere threat to our collective grip on reality that the reader will find most surprising. An entertaining and insightful read.


Elegant little book on bullshit - is it lying, is it humbug, what is it really. The question of whether the whole essay is bullshit, remains in the end unanswered - precisely, methinds, what Frankfurt intended the whole time.


Brief (67 small pages) analysis by a professor of philosophy regarding what is meant by the title term. It was funny (to me) to consider the range of terms (e.g., hot air, hogwash, balderdash, drivel, and one I hadn't come across before, "imposture") resembling "bullshit", but most of the discussion is given over to differentiating BS (indifference to the truth of what you are saying, phoniness) from lying (intentional misrepresentation, which is necessarily false). Wraps it up with the surprising claim that "sincerity itself is bullshit", based on the premise that we don't really know the truth about ourselves, and that truth is unstable anyhow, so purporting to be sincere [to be telling the truth about oneself) shows callous indifference for the truth.At the risk of sounding like one of my own students casually dismissing my carefully constructed research or argument, I'm not sure I buy that last part. Seems as if there's at least an important difference in degree between perhaps-misguided but sincere commentary and garden-variety BS.Overall, an interesting topic to take on, but given the topic I was surprised how little contact he made with ordinary conversation, examples of BS from public figures, etc. Seems as if it would be a subject on which at least your examples/anecdotes could be quite accessible. Instead, there's a lengthy dissection of an incident involving Wittgenstein taking someone to task for saying (when very sick) that she felt like a dog who'd been run over. Apparently, W. called BS on the grounds that she couldn't possibly know what a dog who had been run over feels like. Ummmmmmm, besides revealing Wittgenstein as a little lacking in social skills, I can't really see the woman's comment as a prototype of bullshit worthy of being highlighted here.


When setting out to read a scholarly philosophical work on the nature of "bullshit," I expected some degree of humor. But I thought that this humor would solely come from the process of reading a boring essay where I happen to get to read the word bullshit regularly. But this essay was funny, like really really funny. At first I thought it was unintentional, but as I went along I started thinking that it was just too perfectly crafted to be unintentional humor. And yet, at the same time, Frankfurt elucidates a really import feature of human communication. The conceptual issues surrounding the nature of bullshit end up being far more important than you ever imagined. This was a fantastic little book, and I promise, I'm not bullshitting you when I say that.

John Wiswell

Yes, the subject is a funny word. But the text is dry, and the substance is suspect. Frankfurt spends most of his (admirably few) pages examining causes for bullshitting, in very dry and highly speculative fashion. While it is interesting to read exactly how "bullshit" is different from "nonsense," "lies," and "deception," the term can be used to mean just those things. Like other popular swears, it's a broad word. Frankfurt is more interested in a phenomenon that he believes can only be described under this word, though, which hurts a treatise that ought to encapsulate the word entirely. This book could easily be used to condemn all art and human emotion as "bullshit," and while that might make you or Mr. Frankfurt feel clever, it's not useful. His speculation on precisely what makes people bullshit is useful, though it misses the gravity of the biggest cause: that people don't care.


"Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial--notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."


I didn't finish the book, so my review is bullshit anyway.


If you can get through this without a dictionary, you are a professor. I just took to circling the words and sighing and looking them up in a fell swoop at the end. So much on bullshit vs. humbug, that he lost me. Also it seemed to be a meta essay, like philosophical bullshitting about bullshitting. I encourage someone to create at least three one man shows from this text. Here are some great ideas:a) Being Harry G. Frankfurt writing this book.b) Three different people attempting to read it a la the three bears from Goldilocks.c) Someone on a desert island with only this book."Pleonastic" was the straw that broke the camel's back.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio

A very quick read. The book is a mere 67 pages and the pages are very small. It's a pocket book. Well, I have to say it was a fun read but hardly worth buying. I would have rather bought another of the many books I have lined up and would like to own. Worth reading, but don't pay for it. You could read it in the bookstore in about 20-30 minutes. I read it while waiting for the bus tonight. I now know the difference between lying and bullshitting and really don't care all that much. I still look forward to reading more substantial works of Frankfurt's though. I like his style. I hear Reasons of Love and On Truth are rather good. Shoulda bought one of those instead.

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