By now you have probably heard about the retired Princeton University philosophy professor’s essay “On Bullshit,” selling out at Barnes & Noble, selling briskly at the Princeton University Store (where at least one buyer was said to have a difficult time even describing the work since he couldn’t bear to utter the title), briefly hitting the No. 2 spot on the Amazon.com bestseller list (behind Harry Potter), and reviewed in the New York Times in a piece titled “Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity,” a widely E-mailed review that never once mentioned the complete title of the work being reviewed.
Harry G. Frankfurt’s book, the Times noted, is the first in the “distinguished history” of the Princeton University Press “to carry a title most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print.”
I wish I could join the Times and “most newspapers” in this parade of propriety, but I cannot. To my way of thinking, dodging the word even as we contemplate the subject just adds to the bullshit. As the professor writes, “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”
Exactly. Given that I am a 40th year post graduate student in the Ernest Hemingway School of Journalism (“What every newspaperman needs is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector”), my first thought was whether or not “On Bullshit” was itself a piece of bullshit. Why not? A professor specializing in moral philosophy (his other books include such titles as “The Importance of What We Care About” and “The Reasons of Love”) could sling a lot of bullshit in the 9,000 words contained in this slim volume.
I thought I was on to something when I came across this: “The phenomenon [of bullshit] is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.” Say what, professor?
But then I came across a deft analysis of a piece of verse by Longfellow and a discussion of whether bullshit is analogous to shoddy goods, or is it (or has it become) a minor art form in itself. Don’t we all know someone who is a true bullshit artist?
So I think Frankfurt is on to something. And I would have kept on reading if the book had been twice as long. As Frankfurt points out, bullshit has become more acceptable than lying. One interesting point to me is that you can be a bullshitter without ever being a shit. For example, many of us have crossed some wise guy whose response to a perceived insult is to proclaim: “I don’t take shit, I bury it.” But in the next breath you can respond with some piece of extreme bullshit: “Gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything personal.” Chances are your antagonist will take that and wallow in it.
Bullshit has all sorts of cousins that have their own distinct characteristics. In some areas we don’t know jackshit, which leaves us shit out of luck (SOL). But of course that doesn’t trouble us provided that we don’t give a shit. Sometimes people attempt to force us to give a shit, at which point we might say, with great sincereity: “Oh thanks, let me just punch another hole in my ‘give-a-shit’ card.”
In my first fulltime job after serving as editor of my college newspaper, I was the environment reporter for Time magazine in New York. The editors wanted to do a story on the urban nightmare of sidewalks polluted by dog excrement. In this pre-pooper scooper era, it was a real problem, though still a pretty faint story line for a national magazine article. Nonetheless I tried, and submitted a call for anecdotes to the company newsletter. Back came an anonymous missive: “To think, Rein, a couple of months ago you were chairman of the Daily Princetonian. Today you’re doing stories on polluted sidewalks. Hot shit has turned to dog shit.”
But it was all bullshit, I wanted to tell my smart-alec colleague.
Bullshit is a cheap lubricant that keeps us going. “Have a nice day,” we will say, half sincerely. Only my friend Pierre won’t go along: “Sorry, but I have other plans,” is his response.
Frankfurt’s essay asks “why is there so much bullshit?” He lists the obvious reason — that people are often compelled or feel obliged to speak on some subjects of which they are largely ignorant. But he also cites a possible deeper cause — a philosophical argument that suggests that an individual’s lack of confidence in his ability to determine what is true and what is false has led to “a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. But, argues Frankfurt, there is nothing to support “the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.” Given our elusive and insubstantial natures, he concludes, “sincerity itself is bullshit.”
Frankfurt dedicates the book to his wife with this considered phrase: “To Joan, truly.” That is the truth, we suspect. The New York Times review includes a photo with a caption calling the professor’s book an “essay on the art of hokum.” That is bullshit, we know.