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Up From Bullshit

On Truth
By Harry Frankfurt
(Alfred A. Knopf, 101 pp., $12.50)


In his prime, and without benefit of a keyboard, Samuel Johnson could write twelve thousand words a day. I doubt that there are many more than half that number in Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere. Evidently the commercial giant Knopf wanted to get in on the act, and the result is this almost equally tiny book, nicely positioned for a similar success this Christmas, since there is an announced first printing of 200,000 copies. Its appearance and its design make it almost identical to its hot little predecessor: at 101 baby pages, On Truth appears to be fractionally longer, but On Bullshit buttressed itself with as many as nine footnotes and this book contains none.

One can see why publishers love the miniature, especially when such mouth- watering sales are in their sights. Production and editorial costs must be almost invisible. Even the tardiest author can be expected to produce this amount of copy to a deadline, since one would need a thick skin to trot out the standard excuses of illness, family, competing duties, and the rest to explain delays in what could scarcely be more than a week’s work. And there are some subjects well-suited to treatment in a short essay, subjects on which a brief meditation is all we require. We enjoy a few carefully chosen reflections, an aphorism or an insight we might not have managed for ourselves, perhaps a dusting of academic icing in the shape of a quotation or two, and so to bed. The tone of such writing is fairly uniform: confidential, humane, amused, civilized, and leisured. The Oxford Book of Essays, which I have open in front of me, includes such titles as “Thoughts in Westminster Abbey” (Addison), “The Plumber” (Trollope), “The Departure of a Guest” (Belloc), and “Well Informed Circles and How to Move in Them” (Waugh). It also contains Swift’s acidic take on the meditations of Robert Boyle: “A Meditation Upon a Broom-Stick.” But it reminds us that the great essayists include philosophers too, such as Montaigne and Hume, as well as the various masters of satire and whimsy.

Bullshit is a paradigm of an essay-sized subject. Frankfurt’s first book worked so well because it maintained a tone of clinical academic gravity in dealing with an essentially ludicrous topic. The oratorical rotundity with which it chased an Aristotelian definition of bullshit increased the humor, and was perfectly matched by the schoolmasterly rebukes it issued to previous authorities for getting it wrong. And then, perhaps to our surprise, the quest succeeded. Frankfurt put his finger on the essential characteristic of the bullshitter, which distinguishes him from the liar. The latter is concerned to communicate something false as if it is true. The former is indifferent to whether what he communicates is true or false. It is this blithe unconcern that distinguishes the bullshit artist; whether as a result he is merely amusing or a serious menace varies from case to case. We might not have been able to formulate this difference for ourselves, but we recognize it as true when we see it. So the meditation was successful, the balance of amusement and insight was perfect, and we parted company with the author, perhaps an hour or so after picking up the work, happier and wiser than before.

HAS THE TRICK BEEN REPEATED with the current essay? Truth is bigger game than bullshit. Truth and its agent, reason, are the kings of the philosophical jungle, and their capture has excited the finest minds. It is a brave thing for a philosopher to try to bring them down with a little essay—like hunting an elephant, or, better, a herd of elephants, with a pea shooter. Frankfurt explains that his book arose because he had failed to explain in the previous book why truth is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it, and hence had failed to explain why indifference to truth is such a bad thing. This is the task he now undertakes.

But he also sets himself some quite definite limits in so doing. In his introduction, he first disclaims any intention of confronting directly those who represent themselves as denying that the distinction between true and false is a “valid” one or that it “corresponds to any objective reality.” It seems from this that postmodernists, who are supposed here to make just this denial, can breathe freely. Second, he is going to avoid any engagement with attempts to define truth, instead just taking for granted a commonsense understanding of the notion. Third, he is going to avoid meditating upon the pleasures of settling questions or the joys of seeing that a theorem holds or that a conclusion follows, that a question is now done and dusted. Taken together, these represent a fairly dramatic shrinkage of the boundaries of the discussion. It is a contraction that might be regretted as excluding such diverse predecessors as Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, Peirce, Tarski, Foucault, or Richard Rorty. It is not clear to what extent Frankfurt then operates entirely within the limits he has set himself: at any rate, the villainous postmodernists are vigorously assaulted and roundly dismissed immediately, in the very first chapter, and there is subsequent work on the joys of truth, based on Spinoza.

THE GROUND FOR FRANKFURT’S defense of the value of truth lies, as he himself admits, in a banal thought, which is that truth is useful: “How could a society that cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed judgments and decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business?” Or, as he later puts it, the problem with ignorance and error is that they leave us in the dark, merely guessing, flying blind, mindlessly groping. They leave our vaunted rationality useless, since without information to work on we can make no reliable inferences and no worthwhile plans, and sooner or later we will get tripped up. From this banal thought it is but a short step to appreciating truthfulness as indeed a virtue, and to recognizing the dangers represented by the liar or even the bullshitter.

And that’s pretty much it. Frankfurt adds a little, but that is the core of his message. One thing he adds is a thought from Spinoza, who argued that the augmentation of the ability to live and to fulfil our nature is felt as a joy, and joy in turn begets love; hence we are driven to love truth because it increases this power to live “authentically,” or in accordance with our nature. And conversely we will be driven to distrust and dislike people who are out to deceive us, or just careless of the truth, since they represent a threat to that ability, and therefore a threat to our very selves. Frankfurt nicely expands on this, talking of the sense of assault that we experience when we find that we have been deceived, or even the sense of becoming a little crazy. A useful thought experiment in this connection, which Frankfurt does not mention, is Robert Nozick’s “experience machine,” which hooks us into a virtual reality or a fool’s paradise in which we wrongly take all our desires to have been fulfilled and all our wishes to have been met, and continuously experience life as if they have been. Spinoza perhaps explains why most of us would choose not to step into such a machine and live the resultant lie. Yet if we lived in a world in which such machines existed and were so carefully designed that the joy they gave us enhanced our vitality to the utmost, and if there were no moment of rude awakening, we might abandon our reluctance as an outdated prejudice.

Another addition comes very late, in fact six pages before the end of the book. Frankfurt recognizes that the instrumental defense of truth may only get us part of the way. It is too piecemeal. It defends truths in the plural, one at a time. The engineer or the doctor wants particular discrete facts, without which he cannot design a structure or cure a patient, but he need not care about “truth as such.” Having raised this question, and with only four pages left, Frankfurt embarks on a chase to find out what might be meant by caring about truth as such. It might mean valuing curiosity, or “appreciating that truths are important to us,” or in other words, once more, caring about truth because of its utility. But there is more than that. In the final lines of the book we learn that it lies in the link between recognizing stubborn factuality, the part of the world that cannot be molded by our wills or wishes, and recognizing ourselves: “It is only through our recognition of a world of stubbornly independent reality, fact, and truth that we come both to recognize ourselves as beings distinct from others and to articulate the specific nature of our own identities.” And this makes it impossible not to care about truth as such.

I was not sure about this final peroration. I quite see that to get a sense of itself the baby or the infant needs to recognize some difference between the bits of the world over which it can exercise immediate control and those which are by contrast annoyingly stubborn. Selfconsciousness requires this contrast between self and world. But I couldn’t see why this immediately supported a concern for “truth as such,” going beyond the quotidian concerns for facts, one at a time, that are essential to the doctor or engineer. Moreover, it seems to me that when they are “articulating the specific nature of their own identities, “ people are particularly prone to fantasy and wishful thinking, and truth scarcely gets a look in. In Truth and Truthfulness, Bernard Williams argued that the very notion of historical truth itself has a history, arising some time between Herodotus and Thucydides, so that ancient Greek identity was largely articulated through stories that straddled the gap between myth and history, with the question of factuality and truth lying comfortably fallow. Religious identities evidently do the same, not only when they clash with science, but typically with the story of how God gave us—and us in particular, rather than those inferior folks next door—his message. These stories inhabit exactly the same uncultivated field where people avert their eyes from the question of whether it is true or why they think it is true, in favor of being swept up by the myth and entering a relaxed collaboration with the flattering elements of the story.

National identities are similarly notorious playing fields for fiction and myth. The Scottish short kilt and clan tartan are integral to many peoples’ conception of themselves as the glorious inheritors of a wild, free, romantic past, although neither existed before the eighteenth century. These are areas where what it is useful to believe may part dramatically from what is true, and where large swaths of humanity prefer to go with the first.


READING FRANKFURT’S BOOK, I worried that without chapter and verse the unnamed postmodernists who are so enthusiastically vilified might feel they have not been given their day in court. Of course, postmodernism is something of a whipping boy these days, and many readers may feel that no insult is too gross to heap on it. It arouses the same horror that used to be directed at idealism and skepticism. The same Samuel Johnson who could write so prolifically thought that he was making a sound philosophical point by kicking a stone and declaiming: “Thus I refute Berkeley!” G.E. Moore got the same effect by holding up his hand and declaring that he was more certain of his hand than of any philosophical argument that purported to cast doubt on it— which allegedly prompted Wittgenstein to remark that Berkeley had never intended to deny that his underpants continued to exist after he had put his trousers on over them.

Similarly, I do not think there was any recent philosophical movement that could have been stopped in its tracks by pointing out that it is easier to find your way about in daylight than in the dark, or that if someone tells you that a bottle contains gin and you act accordingly, you have a beef against him if it contains kerosene. Individuals, on occasion, might have carelessly let loose remarks that seem to imply the opposite, but I think these were rhetorical lapses rather than central doctrines to which they were wedded, and they probably misspoke themselves as they tried to say something more interesting. Easy triumphalism is always to be avoided in philosophy.

The doctrines of individual postmodernists may have varied, but the epicenter was surely the idea, as old as Protagoras, that man is the measure of all things. This means that there is no single way the world requires to be understood, and no process of science or history that is free from the engagement of the prepared mind. Even if the world were an open book—which it is not—books require reading; and reading requires intelligence; and intelligence requires language, learning, acculturation, tradition, and their innumerable influences on our resulting nature. Postmodernism recognizes that many of these influences can be expected to vary from person to person, place to place, time to time, class to class, gender to gender, tradition to tradition. Books require reading, and what they can then expect to get are readings, in the plural. What postmodernism then does with this thought is itself open to interpretation. Some may conclude that “anything goes,” but that is unwarranted and untenable. Others may merely counsel increased awareness and toleration, a message with which it is hard to disagree, as is the message—in the light of what William James called the trail of the human serpent everywhere—that dogmatism, and the bigotry of certainty, might be soft-pedaled a little.

Why is it not true that anything goes? The answer is that among the cacophony of different readings there may be some that are better tuned to the way the world is or better adapted for finding that way. To take a fairly clear example, geologists derive their knowledge of the age of things from a principle of uniformity—that where a feature is explicable by processes that happen and take time now, then it is right to suppose that it happened in the same way and took a similar amount of time then. A creationist may contest this, but the creationist will rely on the same principle—to judge the age of the white-haired gentleman in front of him, or to date his holy texts, or to say how long ago was the landing on Plymouth Rock. In rejecting the geology, he is making exceptions from rules that he generally accepts. And this cannot in turn be a habit adapted to finding the way of the world, since such habits will lead to inconsistent results—the holy text that for you trumps scientific method will likely disagree with the sacred oracle that for another person does so. Reliance on uniformities, without arbitrary exceptions, emerges as the only rational option.

Scientific method is one thing, and in spite of this fairly simple example it is a very complex one. But it gives us a field where we can hope for rational convergence. The pressure of experience is itself enough to flatten out any differences in the variously prepared minds that come to the problems of science. The political importance of all this may be more evident when we consider matters with more human content: not so much Berkeley’s underwear, or the gin or kerosene in the bottle, but religious, political, moral, and historical interpretations of who we are, where we have been, and where to go. Here convergence is less certain.

CONSIDER THE VERY NICE STORY Frankfurt deploys against the dreaded postmodernism, of Clemenceau’s comment when asked to speculate what future historians might say about World War I: “They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” A good remark, and here we have, it is suggested, a stick of certainty planted in Heraclitus’s river, a fixed point imagined to be immune to the vagaries of historical interpretation. It may be so. But if so, it is lucky. Compare that remark with one that across some of the world would appear just as immovable, that Iraq did not invade the United States. I, certainly, affirm that. But I can imagine contexts in which it is contested, and indeed inflammatory. I can certainly imagine historians, albeit ones with whom I have issues, denying it, and claiming instead that September 11 constituted an invasion, and one from a force in which Iraq had, in their view, a responsible role; and that therefore it is not wholly false, but perhaps insightful and suggestive, to say that it did.

We are all aware that one man’s pre-emptive strike is another man’s unprovoked attack, one man’s theft is another man’s just restitution, one man’s terrorism is another man’s struggle for freedom, one man’s law is another man’s state oppression. Which side to take may be obvious to you and me, here, now; but there is no description to be made while escaping the human plight of having to take sides. There is no evading the burden of judgment. And if that is true even when quite sober—some might say empirical—questions of history and political fact are at issue, do not expect it to go away when questions of ideology, of morals, of religion, or of destiny are on the platform. We often deceive ourselves if we think that they have left the platform, as Foucault’s The History of Madness, that founding postmodern text, made abundantly clear.

Perhaps postmodernism, at least in the popular mind, included the idea that what I have called the burden of judgment must inevitably paralyze judgment, as if awareness of the dark contingencies that help mold the ways we make up our minds must inevitably undermine any attempt to do so. This essentially adolescent idea is most notoriously represented in the philosophical tradition by some of the more spittle-encrusted bits of Nietzsche, although the line of thought goes back to the Greek skeptics. But at his best even Nietzsche drew rein and acknowledged that we must carry on, and carry on responsibly, advancing our best interpretations of the world in the light of the best our histories and traditions have left us. Nietzsche can be interpreted as a light ironist, unable to put his shoulder to any conclusion about anything, but only by ignoring some of his most impassioned and engaged attempts to understand what was implicit in his own metaphor of our perspective on the world.

After all, a perspective is a good thing. The adolescent mistake is to suppose that with perspective comes illusion, or that with the recognition of the inevitable presence of perspective comes the conclusion that no view is as good as any view. Plato himself saw that the uninformed view, the mere glimpse afforded to the sightseer, is inferior to others, such as our most careful view formed by the methods that have proved themselves, over time, to be better at representing how things stand. Postmodernists may protest that these methods at best select beliefs which happen to commend themselves to us, or which enable us to cope, not ones that have any additional virtue of truth. That is an elephant that requires more than a pea shooter to bring it down. And even if we manage that in some places, we still face those awkward patches where illusions appear to serve us well, and truth and utility diverge.

SPINOZA IS THE ONLY PHILOSOPHER or writer named or acknowledged in Frankfurt’s book. I found myself made uncomfortable by this, even given the demands of miniaturization. Frankfurt does not mention that the same Clemenceau story was deployed with the same purpose by Bernard Williams, in the landmark book that I have already mentioned. It has been repeated, with due acknowledgment, in at least one book on the topic of truth published since then. Frankfurt may not have read Williams’s book, and he may have found the anecdote elsewhere, or he may simply have forgotten where he learned it, but I found the omission unfortunate. It is a discomfort similar to that arising from the way the unnamed postmodernists are treated. And when I think of Frankfurt’s resolute silence about the philosophical tradition from, say, Protagoras onward, I confess to scenting a whiff of something like—well, negligence with the truth, an affectation of amateur carelessness adopted to mislead or manipulate the audience, and which therefore, by Frankfurt’s own account, characterizes the bullshitter.

This is undoubtedly too harsh. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” as Pope rebuked himself when he talked of Lord Hervey. The essayist has privileges that the philosopher cannot claim. And I am not asserting that truth is so extensive and well-ploughed and contentious a subject that it must never be treated with abbreviation, let alone with a light touch, elegance, or wit. In fact, the very first essay in the Oxford anthology is called “Of Truth.” It is only a line or two short of two pages long. And on its first page Sir Francis

Bacon approaches the question that occupies Frankfurt at the end of his book, cutting to the chase with a vengeance (not that Bacon was unaware of the banal pragmatic properties of truth, as he in fact coined the aphorism that knowledge is power). Bacon approaches the value of truth as such by asking the reverse question of why some people sometimes love falsity, telling us that one of the later school of the Greeks “examineth the matter, and is at a stand to think what should be in it, that men should love lies, where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant, but for the lie’s sake.” Bacon says that he cannot tell, but he then points out that “this same truth is a naked and open daylight, that doth not shew the masks and mummeries and triumphs of the world, half so stately and daintily as candlelights.” We need an admixture of falsehood, and there are things about which we are ignorant, and fortunately so: “A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure.” And then to illustrate what he means, he poses the great question: “Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds of a number of men poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?”

I certainly do not doubt it. I know of a very good man, described by many as a holy man, a former chaplain of my college, who lost his faith through meditating on John 16:13: “When he, the spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth,” which he called the most terrifying words in the New Testament. We pay lip service to the value of truth as such, but we also fear that too much might not be good for us, or might actually destroy us. Again, utility sits uneasily with truth; we need an explanation of how the virtue of truth can take on a life of its own and stand opposed to pragmatism, or of how we first learned to separate the question of whether a signal represented how things stand from the question of whether it was a signal that it was expedient for us to hear. But such questions would provoke more than a cute diversion to pick up at the exit to a bookstore.

This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.