Though The New York Times never printed its whole name, “On Bullshit” leapt to the top of its bestseller list last year, surprising nobody more than its author, Harry Frankfurt. A distinguished moral philosopher who taught at Princeton before retiring in 2000, Frankfurt was at Penn March 23 to deliver the 2006 Dean’s Forum Lecture.
Frankfurt became intrigued by the concept of bullshit, he told a capacity crowd, because he realized he “wasn’t really sure what it meant.” Writing “On Bullshit” helped him clarify its meaning as well as its role in modern society.
Bullshit, as defined by Frankfurt, pays no heed to truth or falsehood. Those who practice it are more interested in affecting feelings or attitudes than in either conveying information or directly deceiving people. Just as students of rhetoric in ancient Greece were trained to speak with hypnotic eloquence about any subject, today’s politicians and advertisers try to sell us their policies or products by saying whatever will help them achieve that goal.
Frankfurt sees bullshit as a more insidious threat to our values than lying because it not only keeps us from getting the facts we need but it undermines the importance of truth in our lives.
Why is bullshitting so pervasive? Because, suggested Frankfurt, “there are a large number of people in our culture who can’t stop talking and there’s an assumption that it’s the duty of citizens in a democracy to have an opinion about everything.”
Whenever people keep talking beyond their level of knowledge, said Frankfurt, “the result is bullshit.”
Originally published on March 30, 2006