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


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.

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.


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.


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.

Aaron Maurer

This is a very short read of around 70 pages in a tiny book. The title grabbed my attention, but what I took away from this book was more than just a definition on bullshit. The author wrote an eloquent dissertation and argument why no other word could possibly be as good as the word bullshit. I studied this book to learn how to argue and find ways to looking at the whole issue and being able to create active dialogue. Read this book for nothing more than how to articulate your ideas and thoughts.


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.

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.

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.

Ryn Shane-Armstrong

When I first retrieved On Bullshit from the reserve shelf at my local library, I thought someone was surely playing a joke on me. This 67-page essay, written by renowned Princeton professor and analytic philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, is comically contained in a diminutive hardback roughly the size of a passport and no thicker than a slice of bread. It's an unexpected form, to say the least, for a piece of writing with such a grand endeavor: to defend truth through deliberation on bullshit.Frankfurt is a keen thinker, and his writing reflects the depth and enthusiasm with which he engages the work. On Bullshit should not, therefore, be perceived as some sort of playful exercise in intellectual hedonism; it is an honest exploration into the nature of bullshit, particularly as it relates to lying. And there is most definitely a difference between the two! Where one seeks to deny truth through overt falsity (thus acknowledging the existence of truth the way shadow proves the presence of things), the other, bullshit, is completely indifferent. Bullshit simply doesn't have a horse in the race. It serves only itself, and for Frankfurt this is the truly insidious aspect of bullshit: it's a practice of utter carelessness. Bullshit just doesn't give a damn about anything. Ultimately, On Bullshit is a call for greater concern with how we understand and represent human knowledge. Frankfurt wants us to continue to believe in the possibility of establishing truth. In a nod to the ideals of the Enlightenment, Frankfurt dismisses the contemporary (perhaps postmodern?) skeptics of "objective inquiry" and reminds the reader that should we fail to honor truth over bullshit we risk losing touch with what it is that makes us human. Or, as Frankfurt explains, "As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we can not know ourselves at all without knowing them... Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial -- notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things."

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.


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.


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


"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 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.


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.

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