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on 6 July 2009
In brief: this book has nothing to say, is atheoretical, doesn't break any new ground....

I found it frustrating and by half way through was convinced I had been conned. So I tore it up and tried to flush it down the toilet. But the cover got wedged.

I can only assume the author was having a laugh!
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on 19 October 2015
Having had this book on my virtual shelf for a little while, I sat down to read it today. It turned out to be much shorter than I expected—not sure why I had't paid attention to the number of pages before. It was also rather disappointing: there was much tedious dross about humbug and eventually a somewhat self-evident conclusion that people bulls*** when they don't know what they're talking about.
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on 26 September 2008
This surprising essay opens with the kind of observation one would expect to emanate from a disaffected teenager's bedroom rather than an Ivy League university. "One of the salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit." The difference here, of course, is that few adolescents will follow up their judgement with sixty-seven pages of awesome prose. Not a word is wasted.

The early part of the essay explores links with words such as "humbug" and "quackery", and to questions of truth and falsity. We all think we know what lying is - telling an untruth - but "a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true, as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends by making it to deceive." Intention matters. "Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth... The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values." What if this concern is absent? What about someone who couldn't care less about "how things really are"? Frankfurt sees this indifference to the truth as "the essence of bullshit." Someone who is not even trying "to provide an accurate representation of reality" is bullshitting. "The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves," Frankfurt deadpans, "a certain inner strain."

We've all done it - in the pub or at dinner parties - in the hope of making an impression rather than reaching a well-argued conclusion. At work, however, it's our job to know what we're doing. The success of even the darkest arts of advertising - professionally geared to creating impressions - ultimately depends on objective facts: sales figures and profits. Someone who relies too much on bullshit will be found out in the end, if only by resentful underlings with no powers of dismissal. (Unfortunately, as Ben Goldacre documents elsewhere, bullshitters who peddle quack remedies can still make a fortune - a case of bullshit feeding off itself?)

What if our work demands that we have opinions on a diverse range of subjects, from local educational policies to global warming? Pity then our poor politicians, not always the sharpest tools in the box, whom - it often seems - we expect to bullshit for a living. The current global financial crisis is a marvellous opportunity for bullshitters, who can't resist calling for confidence in something they don't understand. Such calls are really pleas for us to leave bullshit alone - but sometimes we just need to bully bullshit that little bit harder.

The one area where we are (supposedly) undisputed experts is of course self-knowledge. We may not know much about particle accelerators but we know about ourselves. Our supremacy is unchallenged. We are masters in our own universe (however tiny). What matters is not being true to the facts but being true to ourselves. Frankfurt is sceptical. The surprising conclusion of the essay is that, insofar as such confidence is unwarranted, "sincerity itself is bullshit".

Harry Frankfurt was once a guest on the Daily Show. His appearance was incongruous in that he broke the golden rule of fast-talking television by thinking too much before he answered a question. But in the greater project of exposing bullshit in public life, he fitted right in. One of the Daily Show's trademark bullshit-detecting strategies is to juxtapose two speeches in which the same politician says opposite things. Separated by several months, each may well be plausible. Put together and they collapse into you know what.
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on 9 May 2016
I now know the true meaning of bulls***! It's a very interesting read. I would recommend it!
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on 2 June 2011
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. Only good can come from some of them reading it. Members of the Senior Executive Service are selected based on general leadership ability and assigned jobs under the theory that specific technical program knowledge is far less important than this general ability. These conditions make them particularly likely to become chronic BSers. Let's try to help them--and ourselves.
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on 13 April 2013
this was recommended to me by a friend and I was expecting something relating the authors ideas to the times that we live in.
Instead I was treated to a philosophical journey into logistics which was heavier than I wanted to go when I purchased the book.
I'm not saying it isn't a good book, just that it was not what I wanted.
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on 10 March 2005
My first surprise about this book (other than the title, which I cannot add to this review due to the propriety involved) is its brevity. Given the vastness, at least in potential, of the subject matter, the book could fill volumes. Of course, the author Harry Frankfurt might argue that there are indeed already volumes and volumes of balderdash. He states at the beginning that 'One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much', er, humbug. 'Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.'
Frankfurt claims that the issue has not attracted sustained inquiry (he obviously has not been part of the committee meetings I've attended in the past few decades). This book, or rather booklet, is more of a brief essay or primer on the subject, looking at the issue from a linguistic standpoint as well as conceptual framework. There are many synonyms that come close; words such as humbug and balderdash (already used in this review) approximate the title term. Quoting Max Black's essay, 'The Prevalence of Humbug', Frankfurt suggests other closely related words such as claptrap, hokum, drivel, and such. Drawing from the OED definitions, he analyses the key elements of humbug, including misrepresentation just short of lying, elements of pomposity and pretentiousness (loosely applicable), and a possibility of embodiment in feeling or in thought.
Frankfurt also explores the issue of the title term in relation to an incident between Ludwig Wittgenstein (whose philosophical work reaches great heights in clarity and precision, particularly with regard to language and locution) and Fania Pascal. Wittgenstein's substitute term for the title term might have been 'nonsense', and he was diligent at working against such forms of language that might fall into disarray. When is a joke not a joke? Perhaps when it is uttered by Wittgenstein. Or perhaps when it is misinterpreted by Pascal.
Frankfurt looks at the title term in pieces. He looks at the term 'bull' and the later half separately, seeing what difference they make to each other. A 'bull' session is generally unstructured, personal, emotion-dominated. The other term is similarly unstructured for the most part, indicative of waste and odour, and generally not useful, save in very particular circumstances. There is a general lack of importance about it. But is this really true?
Frankfurt quotes the OED's use of the title term as verb (previously he had been looking at it from the standpoint of a noun), drawing Ezra Pound's Cantos into the mix, and the Bible as well. There is a sense of bluffing - one could easily use the title term in regard to something someone says that probably is not going to be true, or not going to be done.
Frankfurt even draws St. Augustine into the mix, attaching the title term to the rarest form of lying among Augustine's construct of the eight types of lying. It isn't necessarily lying to attain a goal, but rather for its own sake. But then, what becomes of the definition of humbug, offered earlier, that claims to stop just short of lying.
Frankfurt claims that the title term, perhaps as a thing or an act, 'is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.' This comes close to being a universal truth. Frankfurt proceeds to talk about anti-realist doctrines, sincerity versus correctness, and finally, to making a declaration that makes the reader wonder, was this entire thing an exercise in seeing just how much of the title term he could get away with as an author? If so, he is brilliantly tapping into the postmodern ethos.
Or perhaps that is all hokum, too.
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on 17 November 2014
What a disappointment. This book fails on so many levels:
1. As a philosophical essay, it has no discernible flow, tries to bamboozle with references here and there and the logical thread is interrupted so many times by the hazy turn of phrase and confused perspective. Reading it, you sweat to get to a definition of what "bulls***" is, you anguish to get the distinction between "bulls***" and other synonyms, and you feel that someone thinking they are smarter than you tries to make you feel stupid by throwing at you badly written argumentation.
2. As an entertaining read, it fails to even remotely benefit from the obvious hilarity that could be explored here, and it comes across as stuffy and self important
3. As a commentary of our times, it fails to make a connection to the realities of "bulls***" in today's society, from the medi to celebrities to pseudoscience, etc. there is no real commentary or even basic "setting the scene" for the book, which results in only making the endeavour redundant and irrelevant.
A good idea, well packaged (lovely hardbound tome), with a spiffing title, (the self explanatory, aforementioned "bulls***")that doesnt quite make it and makes you feel cheated.
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on 29 January 2018
I read this because so many books I'm reading refer to this book as some sort of definitive text on bullshit. How many times have I read "Harry Frankfurt wrote an entire book on the meaning of bullshit!". Well... it's an okay essay, certainly not as good as it's made out to be. Also, it's just that, an essay, not a book. It may have a hard cover, but the book is TINY, the text big and even the margins are generous. Well done Harry, you've made a mint out of an afternoon's work XD
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on 30 July 2017
Essential reading in today's climate of misinformation, memes and Trump. This short guide walks you through the grey zone between truth and lies with precision, wit and humour.
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