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In Brief: On . . . Prevarication?

Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page BW15

The first thing one wonders about Harry G. Frankfurt's book is how a treatment of so rich a subject -- On Bullshit (Princeton Univ., $9.95) -- could be so brief. Bullshit is, as Frankfurt notes at the outset, "one of the most salient features of our culture." Yet the book is the length of a magazine article, stretched over 67 pages through liberal use of white space.

The answer is that Frankfurt's publisher is guilty of something that, while not meeting Frankfurt's strict definition of his subject, might pass for its cousin: flimflam. Princeton's promotional package ("FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE!" it screams) puts the naughty word in huge font but neglects to mention that the author wrote the material 19 years ago as an essay and that it has been published twice before.

Frankfurt is no bullshitter himself: A philosophy professor emeritus at Princeton, he has serious credentials and, even in this light treatise, invokes St. Augustine, Pound and Wittgenstein. He distinguishes bs from other forms of misrepresentation, arguing that it is distinguished by an "indifference to how things really are," in contrast to lying, which is by necessity false. The bs artist "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."

That sounds like an important argument at a time when Americans have little faith in the credibility of their political, business and religious leaders -- not to mention the news media. Frankfurt says the rise of bs has been aided by "forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality." In addition, he observes that "the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts." On cable news, that's just about all the time.

But Frankfurt seems unable to decide just how much bs is out there; at one point he cites a "contemporary proliferation," but at another point he says he is not assuming that the "incidence . . . is actually greater now." His judgment would be of little use anyway, given that it's 19 years out of date. Indeed, the problem with his argument is its lack of modern examples. "The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated," he writes, "that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept."

Certainly. But what would Frankfurt say about the relative bull on "Crossfire" versus Hannity and Colmes? And into which category would Frankfurt put President Bush and his claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction: Is he an "honest man," a "liar," or that third type who "does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly"? Wittgenstein is fine, but a real bullshitter must answer the larger questions. •

Reviewed by Dana Milbank, who covers politics for The Washington Post.


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