POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

On Truth...No BS

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Truth, Knopf, 2006.

[Disclaimer - this review features discussion of a book entitled "On Bullshit" and its companion volume "On Truth" - I realize this word is offensive to some and want to let you know up front that it is coming.  Hopefully the review is not in this category.  Thanks]

A few short years ago I ran across a book with a somewhat odd title which was written by a Princeton philosopher (emeritus) named Harry G. Frankfurt.  At the time was climbing the Amazon.com best seller lists and creating some pretty big buzz.  The book was titled On Bullshit and I clicked my friendly Amazon "add to cart" button and wanted to learn what the philosopher had to say.  Much to my delight (and to the chagrin of others) the book was an actual philosophical essay which was seeking to develop a theory of BS - just WHAT it is and WHY it is so harmful to truthful discourse...even more harmful than lying.  Let me let Frankfurt describe it in his own words from the introduction

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."

As far as the person engaged in the activity of BS his description about it being worse than lying is quite compelling:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose...

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

On Bullshit, 56, 60-61

So I ordered 10 more copies and sent them to friends and kept some in the office as gifts. I think it may be that I am a closet philosophy geek that I found it somewhat hilarious...and truthful. So that book took up the task to give the world of theory of what our world of spin, media, pandering, politicking and profiteering has come to know; our world is full of it.   

What Frankfurt failed to anticipate is that people may not feel why truth is so important to a culture at all.  Maybe there are so many people among us spouting BS because we do not see the importance of truth for our lives together in our society.  So a sequel was in order and that sequel has arrived in the form of a shiny little gold volume in the same diminutive 154x106mm hardback. In this installment Frankfurt goes back to lay some ground work to bolster his bullshit argument in the previous volume.  In On Truth, his goal is to explore just why truth is so important to a society.  Let me allow him to explain his purposes.

At the time (of writing On BS), that seemed like enough.  I realized later, however, that I had paid no attention at all in my book to an issue with which any adequate discussion of bullshit must certainly deal.  I had made an important assumption, which I had offhandedly supposed most of my readers would share: viz., being indifferent to truth is an undesirable or even reprehensible characteristic, and bullshitting is therefore to be avoided and condemned. 

On Truth, 5.

Dr. Frankfurt, boy were you wrong...welcome to my generation.  You ever watch Big Brother or the Real World?  Not too much truth loving my friend. 

The book does a good job in exploring the issue of why truthfulness is so important while calming down the postmodernist and the truth deconstructors along the way.  Some unfamiliar to philosophical essays may struggle with why he takes so long to state the obvious, but hey, this is actually fun stuff to many of us.  About a third of the way through the book, Frankfurt does a good job at summarizing his conclusion.  It reads as follows:

For these reasons, no society can afford to despise or to disrespect the truth.  It is not enough, hwoever, for a society to merely acknowledge that truth and falsity are, when all is said and done, legitimate and significant concepts.  In addition, the society  must not neglect to provide encouragement and support for capable individuals who devote themselves to acquiring and to exploiting significant truths.  Moreover, whatever benefits and rewards it may sometimes be possible to obtain by bullshitting [like winning big brother], by dissembling, or through sheer mendacity, societies cannot afford to tolerate anyone or anything that fosters a slovenly indifference to the distinction between true and false. Much less can they indulge in shabby, narcissistic pretense that being true to the facts is less important that being "true to oneself." If there is any attitude that is inherently antithetical to a decent and orderly social life, that is it.

On Truth, 33.

Pairing this with his explanation of what bullshit is in the first volume and why it is injurious to truth, we now know once again that we should cut the BS and as Jan Hus, my old dead friend from Bohemia, once said "search for Truth, hear Truth, learn Truth, love Truth, speak the Truth, hold the Truth, and defend the Truth til Death." 


Interestingly enough Frankfurt, while beginning with a rather consequentialist view of truth, does attempt to move past this to penetrate the concept of Truth and why it brings such utility to life.  In a great pass at boldness he seeks to call us all into the light of truth:

The problem with ignorance and error is, of course, that they leave us in the dark. Lacking the truths we require, we have nothing to guide us but our own feckless speculations or fantasies and the importunate and unreliable advice of others.  As we plan our conduct, we can therefore do no better than to spin out uninformed guesses and, shakily, to hope for the best.  We do not know where we are. We are flying blind.  We can proceed only very tentatively, feeling our way.

On Truth, 60-61

This reminds me of the words of the word who is called Truth "Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit" and again "So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."

For those who know the names, there are treatments of some philosophers in the work.  Kant is featured of course, what modern philosopher can't mention the patron saint.  Aristotle, as in most works of philosophy, gets a little guest appearance in a discussion of why lying is hurtful. Strange enough there is an odd little chapter on Baruch Spinoza's view of joy, love and their relationship to truth. Interesting enough, but to be honest I find Augustine's meditation on the supreme good of human beings to be a much better treatment on these subjects than Spinoza.  But I digress.

So in the tradition of On Bullshit, I found Frankfurt's companion essay On Truth to be both helpful and hilarious.  Though when it gets right down to it he and I might find one another's major views and positions on life and reality...well, quite full of it.  He and I both seem to be the children of western thought - with the understanding that reality and truth is "out there to be discovered" not simply who I am or what I wish the world to be.  The Secret is not dominated and domesticated by us; it is found elsewhere and must be found.  Or it might just find us.  In this we discover who we really are and what we are here for. 

So let me say that though I enjoyed these two essays and find some common ground with them I do find one major issue with Frankfurt.  He is caught in a world of facts, truth, bullshit and "society."  For him truth has value to the person and to the society as it allows us to live in reality and pursue what we are.  Yet I feel he does not go far enough, for truth is more than simply "reality" - it is the reality as seen and known by the one who is the Truth.  The rabbit hole is much deeper than he thinks for truth is lived not only in relationship to facts or bullshit, but in relationship with the one in whom there is nothing false...and if you give me the liberty to say so, no bullshit either.  In him we move past truth living into worshiping the one who is the Truth.  It is here that our eyes are opened, the chains fall off, and we are set free.  So, as a third volume I suggest to my readers "On Jesus" which is the subject of another set of books, the ancient Scriptures.  This book, I suggest we all read.  John's writing on the life and meaning of Jesus is a good place to begin.