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

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.

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.


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.


"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."


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.


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.


[...] 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.


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.


On first reading, this book/essay is enormously compelling and entertaining. But subsequent readings raise serious worries about Frankfurt's account. For example: On Frankfurt's account, there are two necessary conditions for something to count as bullshit:(1) The speaker must be indifferent to the truth of what he says.(2) He must intend to deceive his audience about his indifference to the truth of what he says. Who would count as such a producer of bullshit? Maybe the Fourth of July Orator who makes a bunch of patriotic claims which he doesn't care are true or false, and who aims to convince his audience of patriots that he actually believes. But that seems like a special case. Many other kinds of things we would intuitively call "bullshit" don't have those features. Even Frankfurt's example involving Wittgenstein and Fania Pascal lacks one of these two features: Pascal does not, in any obvious sense, intend to deceive Wittgenstein about her indifference to the truth of what she says ("I feel just like a dog that has been run over"). Moreover, it is unclear why Frankfurt thinks that the bullshitter is a greater enemy of truth than the liar, as he famously claims. He may be indifferent to the truth of what he says, but he clearly cares about giving his audience false beliefs about his own attitudes. So he isn't completely indifferent to the truth.


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


Not a book of earth-shaking significance, but it looks good on my shelf between Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" and the directory of the Minnesota Legislature.


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.

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."

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