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


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 actually really liked this. At first it's just fun how seriously it takes the subject, but the analysis itself is surprisingly deep and interesting. It's more than just finding a more discrete definition of the word, it also expands into it's cultural significance and it's relative values as compared to lying. It's explantation of the intent of bullshit, the reasons for it, who uses it and why we seem to generally accept it a certain level, I think says a lot about the cultural context in which the bullshit takes place and is allowed to take place. It's weird that the dumb little profanity of 'bullshit', and this strange little booklet dedicated to it, could explain so much of what makes me feel uncomfortable about the world at a large scale. It also has a surprise twist ending that totally caught me off guard. It carries all the momentum its built up against bullshit and at the very last second diverts it all against the idea of sincerity. The general conclusion about bullshit is that it is made with disregard for truth and reality (whereas lying is in opposition to truth) and is made solely to give some desired impression of the bullshitter. It then says that when confronted with the difficulty of maintaining an objective understanding of truth and reality, instead of trying to discover the reality, we remain "true to [ourselves]". But since we as individuals are fluid and changing and even harder still to know and understand, that holding to ourselves in this way is in itself a disregard for an objective truth and thus a form of bullshit. I admit that my initial reaction to this assertion was negative, but as is typically the case with writing these reports, the act of thinking about things more deliberately has moved my feelings about it. I think the issue is just the use of the word sincerity. I understand better what is being said, and I may even agree, but I don't think sincerity means, at least not to me, what is being described here. Or maybe sincerity is too large a word which both of our understandings is true. For me sincerity is the opposite of affectation, meaning that the impression given matches exactly the intent, whereas with affectation the intent is to give an impression. Using these meanings, sincerity stands in opposition to bullshit, with affectation being almost a synonym for it. I can't imagine how someone could sincerely bullshit, as the two very ideas are so opposed, so I can't agree with the closing statement that "sincerity itself is bullshit". I agree with the sentiment presented, but not with it's misappropriation to the virtue of sincerity.


[...] 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...

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.


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


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.

Richard Bullington-mcguire

Given the prevalence of bullshit in modern life, it should surprise no one that this topic could rate a 67 page essay. The author roves from St. Augustine to Wittgenstein in an attempt to classify and distinguish bullshit from its close relatives, such as humbug and outright lies.This book has a special personal meaning for me, it is one of the last gifts I received from my father before his death. He inscribed it thus: Just a reminder of our philosophy, Orlando, 6/7/05 Love, DaddyHe was a champion bullshitter.


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.


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.

Sharif Farrag

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.Everyone knows this. Each contributes his share". So begins Frankfurt's explanation of the nature of bullshit (the cultural artefact, not the waste product). It turns out that Frankfurt gives an analysis of only one sort of bullshit; namely, the type characterized by a speaker's indifference to the truth or falsity of what he says. Unlike the liar, the bullshitter does not state untruths intending the audience to take them as true. What the bullshitter says may be false or true, but he does not care either way. G.A. Cohen later pointed out that this is an analysis of "one flower in the lush garden of bullshit". Some statements are bullshit quite independently of the speaker's stance toward them. An ever-so-earnest speaker may still believe, and want others to believe, in complete bullshit. A statement is bullshit of the latter type if it is "unclarifiably unclear"; if you could put a negation sign at the start of the statement and it would not be any more or less plausible. So Frankfurt bullshit is constituted by the attitude of the bullshitter whereas Cohen bullshit is a bullshitter's product. Or, as he puts it, in a send up of 1950s Oxford English, in Cohen bullshit, the bullshit, not the bullshitter, wears the trousers. With Cohen bullshit in hand, it's a fair question whether Frankfurt bullshit is useful at all for identifying instances of bullshit. I tend to think that normally, one identifies bullshit as Frankfurt bullshit only after having identified it as Cohen bullshit. For example: someone says something which, despite your best efforts, you find immune to clarification. You don't know what has to be the case in the world for the statement to be true (i.e. it's Cohen bullshit). Since you don't know that( and you have tried), you begin to infer that the speaker doesn't know either. If he doesn't, he's a Frankfurt bullshitter...However...I think that Frankfurt bullshit does help pick out at least one class of bullshit that Cohen bullshit does not. That is the bullshit of the ridiculously precise statement, spoken by the person in no position to know. Q: How many people do you think were at Tahrir Square today?A: (without having heard media reports etc). 2,465,307That bullshit. But it's Frankfurt bullshit, not Cohen bullshit.


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.


Don't be fooled by this book's small size -- it's not an easy read. Frankfurt, a Princeton professor of philosophy, defines bullsh** and distinguishes it from lying, demonstrating how it can actually be more insidious and dangerous.Kind of interesting if you're not put off by the academic language and convoluted sentences, although in the final analysis I'm not sure Frankfurt really said all that much. Eh.

Dave Russell

I was wondering how this book ever got published but then I read the "About the Author" section. Turns out Harry Frankfurt is a "renowned moral philosopher." I didn't know I was reading a renowned moral philosopher. I'm guessing he went to the publishers and was all like, "I'm a renowned moral philosopher, bitches, and I got this here essay on bullshit. Now are you gonna publish it or am I gonna have to get all categorically imperative on your asses. Respeck." I can't explain this book's existence in any other way.


"When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit."In this very short work, perhaps essay, Frankfurt makes concise and believable distinctions between concepts that many people think to be interchangeable (ie. Lying, humbug, bluffing, joshing in regards to bullshit). An enjoyable and thoughtful read for people who tend to break down certain expressions (such as me) and wonder where the hell said expressions originated. Recommended.


"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about". --Harry G. Frankfurt, 'On Bullshit', p.62."The traditional disputes of philosophers are, for the most part, as unwarranted as they are unfruitful." --A.J. Ayer, 'Language, Truth, and Logic", p.33."A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes." --Ludwig Wittgenstein.'On Bullshit' is fun. And short. It taught me the word "pleonastic", which means 'to use more words than are necessary to express an idea'. The topic of "bullshit" didn't need to be subjected to (irreverent) philosophical analysis. Though unorthodox, 'On Bullshit' still falls prey to the sentiment expressed above by A.J. Ayer. Very little is learned by book's end. So most of the book is pleonastic, a needless, pointless, and unedifying exposition of a mostly useless conceptual distinction; and as if trying to justify my assessment of it as unnecessary, the book takes a strange, preachy turn at the end when, in the final three words of the 69-pages long book, it states summarily that "sincerity is bullshit". I call bullshit on that. The main take-away from this book is the distinction between ordinary lies, which "are told only because they are supposed to be indispensable means to some end that is distinct from the sheer creation of false beliefs" (p.56), and bullshit, "the lie which is told solely for the pleasure of lying and deceiving, that is, the real lie" (p.57, quoting Saint Augustine). Now, define sincerty as 'honesty in the expression of true feelings; freedom from hypocrisy'. Note Frankfurt's correct assertion that "one who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable" (p.60-61). A liar, because he acknowledges truth and true feelings, can choose to ignore them and act contrary to them and thus be insincere. But a bullshitter, one who "pays no attention to [truth] at all" (p.60), cannot place himself in opposition to truth and thus can't be insincere. Sincerity, by Frankfurt's definitions, can't be bullshit. So much for that.

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