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On Bullshit [Hardcover]

Harry G. Frankfurt
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
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Book Description

30 Jan 2005

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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 80 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (30 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691122946
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691122946
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 11.3 x 1.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 28,165 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Winner of the 2005 Bestseller Award in Philosophy, The Book Standard

"[Frankfurt] tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound, St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask some of the preliminary questions--to define the nature of a thing recognized by all but understood by none. . . . What is bullshit, after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth."--Peter Edidin, New York Times

"The scholar who answers the question, 'What is bullshit?' bids boldly to define the spirit of the present age. . . . Frankfurt's conclusion . . . is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created. Eureka! Frankfurt's definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed."--Timothy Noah, Slate

"Immediately, I must say: read it. Beautifully written, lucid, ironic and profound, it is a model of what philosophy can and should do. It is a small and highly provocative masterpiece, and I really don't think I am bullshitting you here."--Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times (London)

"This is what the world has long needed. . . . Bullshit is now such a dominant feature of our culture that most of us are confident we can recognize and rebuff it. But Frankfurt shows the reader just how insidious (and destructive) it can be. . . . This book will change your life."--Leopold Froehlich, Playboy

"Frankfurt's book should be required reading for anyone whose speech or writing are intended for public consumption. Despite his subject, he is definitely not full of it."--Kevin Wood, The Daily Yomiuri

"On Bullshit offers a tightly focused, telling critique of a political and cultural climate that seems positively humid with mendacity, obfuscation, evasion and illusion."--Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

"There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal correctness. . . . Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analyzed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt's little book is a nice starting point."--Petter A. Naessan, Philosophy Now

"[On Bullshit's] calm, clearheaded deconstruction of everyday deceit is without parallel."--Gordon Phinn, Books in Canada

"With its relevance to contemporary issues and culture, On Bullshit is well worth the read. . . . The analysis is strict and philosophical with the clear intention of seeking the truth."--Karen Boore, The Michigan Review

"Harry Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, presents a scholarly and formal essay on inflated truth, purposeful obfuscation, and pretentious duplicity. . . . I'm sure he had a blast writing it, and the droll prose is a tasty treat."--Richard Pachter, The Boston Globe

"Professor Frankfurt concludes that bullshit is a process rather than an end product. . . . If you are fed up with hype, spin and bullshit this book will provide insight - and therapy."--Australian Doctor

"Terrific. . . . Has anything truer ever been written?"--William Watson, Montreal Gazette

"If you want to read a succinct, stylish piece of argument that will make you think far beyond the points it makes, you could do no better than invest ten dollars on Professor Frankfurt's handsomely bound essay."--Christopher Jary, British Army Review

From the Inside Flap

"A gem of psychological insight, social commentary, philosophical analysis, and good humor. This is the work of an extraordinarily acute, attentive, and versatile philosopher who has succeeded in addressing an audience comprised of both other philosophers and the general public on a topic of considerable human interest in a characteristically wry and engaging way. It is one of the most enjoyable and humanly illuminating short pieces of philosophy produced in the past fifty years."--Raymond Geuss, University of Cambridge

"The most audacious of the ancient alchemists desired to transmute lead into gold. They never succeeded. Who would have known that they should have started not with a base metal, but with bullshit? Harry Frankfurt offers a philosophical analysis of bullshit that is golden. The prose by turns employs irony, broad humor, and tongue-in-cheek high seriousness while at the same time manages to have a rigorous logical coherence that is always impressive. One leaves the essay not merely thinking it was a delight. One leaves it realizing that one has engaged the accomplishment of a great analyst and thinker."--William Chester Jordan, Professor of History, Princeton University

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two Key Points -- No BS 2 Jun 2011
By John M. Ford TOP 500 REVIEWER
This book has serious points to make, although the reader may wander through a few pages before becoming confident that it is not attempting a self-parody. Stay with it and glean at least two key concepts.

First, BS is not lying. A liar knows the truth and carefully crafts an alternative to it to further some agenda. The BSer operates without regard for--perhaps even knowledge of--the truth. The BS is created to achieve an effect, to please the ego or ear, or perhaps just to fill some conversational space the speaker feels unable to neglect with silence. To the BSer, the offered BS even has some non-zero chance of being true--if it were only worth the bother to check.

The second insight is that certain organizational roles create pressure to engage in BS more than others. The author points to leaders who have frequent opportunities or demands to speak about their organizations' accomplishments without being very involved in the planning, production or evaluation of said accomplishments. Much of what these leaders say will be BS, to the sorrow and pain of those who must live with the consequences.

I'll close with a recommendation and a plea. I recommend that you buy a copy of this book for your own intellectual and moral development. It is brief, readable and encourages us to think seriously about both the truth and consequences of what we claim to know. Satisfied readers will also value an encounter with the author's related book, On Truth.

I then plead with you to purchase a second copy and mail it anonymously to the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia where Senior Executives for the Federal government are trained.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable 31 Mar 2013
Precise, compact and hilarious. Excellent use of language. Perfect gift for colleagues that leave your company before you! I have bought multiple copies and they have all loved the concept.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A much needed work 19 Feb 2010
When I first saw this book referenced I thought that it must be a novelty and, to be honest, didn't think that it actually existed. A quick search, and there it was. What is, as first sight, a humourous essay has a serious point to make. Extremely well written, it makes for a very informative, and entertaining, hour long read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars And the prose is a joy to read 5 July 2014
By Mac59
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This works unmaks the spin doctors, politicians and other nafarious b**********s for what they are: people who make up untruths and try and pass them off as truthful and factual. And the prose is a joy to read.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 4 July 2014
By Viara
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Great read, prompt delivery.
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is 'the s***' - 'no bull' 14 Mar 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A very accessible, plain talking, and very short, 'academic read'. Some good theorising around BS, and 'timely' whichever decade you read this book - as there is evidently so much BS in the man-made world.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars mildly entertaining 3 Mar 2011
By sanyata
mildly entertaining, ok written, but only two small points in the entire book
its more the concept that is fun than the book
it probably should have been a blog post, not a book
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth a look 24 Jun 2010
By M. Ho
Just found this book so fascinating that I read it so many times.
Plus, it's not that heavy and thick, so you can bring it anywhere easily.
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