One of my favorite books to read during election season—or any other time—is a little book by Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy at Princeton, Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit is a little book, about 4 inches square and 80 pages. Frankfurt’s contention is that the public forum has been corrupted by bulls**t, a much more serious corruption than that of lying. At least when someone lies, there’s the tacit agreement that truth is important, in fact important enough to be covered up with lies to hide it from public view. Bulls**t, on the other hand, shows no such concern about the importance of truth; it is the antithesis of such concern, whether the concern is to reveal or conceal the truth.
Frankfurt’s notion is similar to Stephen Colbert’s concept of “truthiness,” though not an exact equivalent, even when used to connote political expedience. Truthiness remains concerned with the semblance of truth-telling, an admission that we are perhaps more likely to be persuaded by something that at least shows a family resemblance to the truth. Bulls**t is different than truthiness in that there is not even a vague wave toward the value of what is true. A public sphere awash in bulls**t leaves no purchase for intellectual or moral inquiry on that which should be of utmost concern to us.
While I find Frankfurt’s caustic analysis of certain strains of contemporary public (and, often, private) discourse very satisfying, I was disheartened when he soon after published another little book, On Truth. He felt compelled to write the second piece because so many readers of the first commended him on his subtle deconstruction of the last vestiges of an archaic and useless commitment to truth. Sigh…Frankfurt had to go back one level deeper to champion the value of truth before his critique of bulls**t could make any sense at all.
As we head into the presidential and vice-presidential debates, I recommend taking a look at Frankfurt’s work. Whatever your political commitments turn out to be, let’s hope concern for the truth is central to them.
By Elizabeth Baeten
Associate Professor of Philosophy