Mon, Mar 21, 2005 - Page 7 News List

Philosopher's book examines role of bullshit in society


To some, a lot of philosophy could be considered bullshit. Now one academic has turned the tables. In fact, he says, bullshit is philosophy.

Harry Frankfurt, one of the world's most esteemed moral philosophers and a professor in the hallowed halls of Princeton University, has published a book on the philosophical implications of bullshit. On Bullshit is a serious examination of the role of bullshit in modern life.

Woe betide anyone who thinks Frankfurt could have used the word "lying" instead. In philosophical terms, he believes the two concepts are worlds apart. "The liar knows what the truth is and he is concerned with trying to keep people away from the truth," Frankfurt says.

"[This] shows a respect for the truth and the value of truth. Whereas the bullshitter does not care at all," he says.

Frankfurt's 67-page work is written in the same vein. It is an honest account of the implications of bullshit and its meaning for how society understands the concepts of truth and falsehood. Written in an easy, accessible style, the book is also a lament for the lack of philosophical study of the subject. "Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked," Frankfurt writes.

The book uses sources as diverse as St Augustine, Wittgenstein and spy novelist Eric Ambler to construct its study into the harmful impact of bullshit on modern life. It argues Frankfurt's belief that bullshit is far more dangerous than simple out-and-out lying.

Frankfurt also believes that bullshit is a more modern cultural phenomenon which has exploded in recent times. He puts this down to the prevalence of marketing in modern society, whether in the commercial arena or the world of politics. "The tendency to bullshit is encouraged," he says.

The book has its roots in an essay Frankfurt wrote almost 20 years ago when teaching at Yale. Published in a collection of essays and a philosophical journal, it attracted a cult interest, but only now has the decision been taken to publish it as a book unto itself.

Frankfurt believes his concept of bullshit, though nearly two decades old, has even more relevance now in all walks of life. Though he denies wanting to spark controversies, he believes Senator John Kerry's attempts last year to build up his security credentials by citing his Vietnam experience was a prime example of the genre. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was bullshit.

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