Books — On Bullshit
On Bullshit

By Amy Diaz

An ode to good ol’ B.S.

The conclusion: it happens, it occurs, it’s a fine art

On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 2005, 67 pages.

There is something a bit snarky about writing an essay on the existence of bullshit.

It smacks of the tricks philosophy students play when they haven’t done their homework. You can’t answer the essay question so you explain, instead, why the mere act of writing an essay is meaningless. Sometimes it works and sometimes you just have to live with the chuckle you get out of the professor as he hands you back your C minus. Harry Frankfurt is so precise, so literate, so microscopic in his examination of the phenomenon of bullshit that his essay, a breezy but deadpan 67 pages, frequently seems like bullshit itself.

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” thusly Frankfurt opens his treatise. This is indeed very true. In fact, in a world where most statements passed off as truth are themselves bullshit, the fact that we are inundated with bullshit is often the only fact that can be believed. Bullshit, as Frankfurt explains its etymology, is not a lie — which is at times easier to spot — but some far-fetched interpretation of the truth. Bullshit puts a better or more acceptable spin on the truth. Massages truth to a more pleasing form. Extends the truth past what you know into the land of what you want or (in the case of college students writing essays or employees giving presentations) what you hope but do not know to be true. Bullshit is a widely recognized part of daily social commerce. We may not like it but we know we need it.

Any examination of this basic necessity is therefor bound to be (a) hilarious, even when hilarity is not obvious and (b) full of its own bullshit. After all, examining the history of bullshit is, in itself, something of a bullshit move as knowledge of bullshit is not necessary to become an expert at its practice. And so does Frankfurt seem to snark at us as he snarks with us. Every word of his bullshit-musings is true and yet some inherent sarcasm caused by giving academic treatment to our rhetorical fakery keeps that truth from ever feeling sincere. (Of course, as Frankfurt himself concludes “sincerity itself is bullshit.”)

In fact, so clever is Frankfurt’s examination of bullshit that it not only skirts the line between earnest seriousness and intellectual goofing off but it requires, by its very nature, of anyone who talks about it to engage in a fair amount of bullshit themselves.

- Amy Diaz

 
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