As reading experiences go, philosophy essays fall somewhere between life-threatening boredom and pulse-racing tedium. If something vital emerges between pages, it’s usually during a second reading.
Then there’s “On Bulls—t,” a 67-page tour through what its author Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, calls a loosely employed “generic term of abuse.” If you think you know bulls—t, you haven’t read Frankfurt’s essay.
“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bulls—t,” Frankfurt wrote in 1986. Frankfurt rightly pointed out that, “we have no clear understanding of what bulls—t is, why there is so much of it or what functions it serves.”
The man is obsessed by the word, delineating its origin through the terms “humbug,” “short of lying,” and straight into the heart of darkness called “misrepresentational intent.” He’s obsessed by the word because he’s obsessed with truth. A liar at least knows he’s hiding or twisting the truth, and in that, at least, he has a grudging respect for it. The “bulls—t artist,” meanwhile is the freewheeling creative type who works over a much wider field. As a result, Frankfurter feels such a person is far more dangerous and troublesome. Bulls—ters can comment about all and sundry without worrying about truth or falsehood. So we find ourselves at sea in a hue of grays, where nothing means much of anything, and all’s in flux. Practitioners of the art of bulls—t find fertile ground in the widespread notion that truth is elusive anyway, and all we can really trust or know is our own personal nature. But to rely on ourselves is to put our trust in a feeble instrument, Frankfurter points out, because, “As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.”
If you find yourself saying by now that this is more than you ever cared to know about bulls—t, you’d be well within your rights. All Frankfurter really means to say, it seems to me, is that we’d all be better off with less bulls—t, both from ourselves and the company we keep. But even Frankfurt, in a recent discussion with The New York Times marking the publication of his essay into book form, spoke of how dissatisfied he is now with his almost 20-year-old essay. He failed to answer the big question of why we tolerate so much bull—t, despite its harm. “It [bulls—t] is almost outside the realm of serious moral criticism. Why is that?” he asked.
The answer may lie in the way we treat some truths with a cool disdain. When President Clinton and Al Gore admitted to once having smoked marijuana, inhaled or not, they were criticized. But when President Bush seems to admit drug use in a secret taping, we treat that as a truth that should be brushed aside. And just listen to our Legislature bulls—t its way through another reason to pass up hate-crimes legislation. They don’t hate homosexuals, they say. Meanwhile, the truth is so much harder to own up to when you’ve got bulls—t to fall back on. Why do we tolerate it? Because bulls—t is easy, lazy and sometimes even fun. The truth, after all, hurts.