Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review: On Bullshit

On Bullshit On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last few weeks seem to have thrown Leonard Cohen into the heart of the zeitgeist. His music just seems to capture the mood of a great many of us. I was listening to him – for the first time, really – in the weeks before he died, and his death coincident with the recent election just seemed to stamp him as the musician of the moment.

In that light, this brilliant little book feels like the perfect book of the moment. I’d read some or all of it before – and I’ve seen it paraphrased many times – but there’s an excellence to its thought, a sharpness from it in the face of, well, bullshit, that makes it seem perfectly timely.

Frankfurt’s thesis is pretty well known: bullshit differs from lying in a crucial way. A liar depends upon the truth for his or her untruth to have any effect. A bullshitter opposes the possibility of truth. He is intent not so much on deception as in undermining the medium (of language) through which it’s possible to determine truth. When we discover a lie, we can move on to the truth. When we find ourselves covered in bullshit, we have nowhere to turn that isn’t itself already covered in bullshit.

Fareed Zakaria very effectively applied that concept to our President-elect’s mode of communication, and it’s certainly worth reading his piece on-line. This “book” – it’s a single essay printed on small pages that still runs only about 60 pages (so roughly 25 real pages) – feels like a foundation, like a place you can put your foot when so much of the world is slippery with, again, bullshit.

It’s also a breath of fresh air in itself, a clear-eyed measuring of a world that seems, in this moment, overwhelming.

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