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Gypsy & Willy - The Original Libertarian Bloggers

How Can You Laugh at a Time Like This?

Gypsy & Willy

No. 422

A Book Review

April 25, 2005

Last Wednesday was Gypsy's 62nd birthday putting her over the age threshhold to receive Social Security benefits. One of her gifts was a (very) short book called On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt, a distinguished Princeton professor of the philosophy of morality and ethics. This book...really an essay...was written in 1985, but has recently gained a lot of notoriety, especially from an appearance of Dr. Frankfurt on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It has also been reviewed extensively elsewhere on the Web, at (Slate, Gawker, Authentic Voice, New York Times, Feld Thoughts). Amazingly, only the last of these thought to question whether or not Frankfort's essay was an example of "self referential or recursive bullshit"? The rest treat it uniformly as scholarly and serious stuff.

Gypsy came to this (obvious?) conclusion after reading only a few pages, bursting out with laughter every few pages thereafter. It took Willy a bit longer to come to the same conclusion...it only takes about a half hour to read this entire "book" of 67 small pages...but he, being a scientitst, insisted that we use the good professor's own words to "prove" this assertion.

One of the essential qualities of bullshit, opines Frankfurt, is that it is deceptive. However, the deception does not necessarily reside in the content itself as in a lie, but rather in concealing some unspoken quality of the bullshitter himself. So is Frankfurt concealing something about himself? There is no way to tell for sure without his admitting it, but one might wonder why he chose such a loaded word...the New York Times could not bring itself to even reprint the TITLE of this tome, much less its many references to its main subject...instead of choosing, say, "balderdash" or "poppycock" or some lesserly loaded linguistics. Harry gives a hint of his true intentions when he explains to Jon Stewart after the audience giggles for the unteenth time at his open use of the "forbidden" term...Comedy Central dutifully bleeps it...when he asserts that they find it especially funny when issued from the mouth of an Ivy League professor! And, of course, we all know that professors of ALL types gain professional status from the publication of endless series of articles and books. Having a best seller could hardly damage this particular professor's credibility, right? If nothing else, he is bound to be a cocktail party favorite for some time to come.

A second quality of bullshit is that the emitter, again unlike the liar, is unconcerned with the truth value of his emission. Frankfurt claims that this is the most harmful quality of bullshit, that it is unconcerned with whether or not reality can be properly represented by words. Instead, the bullshitter is only interested in conveying a certain sincerity...on his or her own part...on the subject about which the bullshit is spewn. In the very last pages of the book Frankfurt takes on this notion by asking whether or not sincerity itself is bullshit...and concludes that it is.

So, is Professor Harry Frankfurt sincere, or is he a bullshitter? Frankfurt himself admits, in the very last sentence of the book, that it matters not. Thus, On Bullshit is itself...BULLSHIT about BULLSHIT!

Talk to you later...

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To contact Willy or Gypsy and comment on what they have written...or anything else...write to willy@dreamagic.com or gypsy@dreamagic.com.

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