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OT: Book recommendation -- On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt

August 18, 2011
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Published by Princeton University Press in 2005.

A number of years ago this book on a bookstore shelf caught my eye. It is a small volume, measuring 6.5" by 4", and has 67 pages. The author, Harry Frankfurt, was (and presumably still is) Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University.

I don't believe that anybody reading this post, regardless of their political orientation or their allegiance to any particular investment style or belief, would dispute that there seems to be a lot of bullshit flying around nowadays, although we may disagree as to who is producing the vast majority of it (usually it's the other guy.)

I recently reread my copy of the tome, and I am still amazed at the author's ability to bring clarity to what is otherwise a very murky subject matter. Whether it's applied to politics, economics, investing, etc., or just, well, sitting around bullshitting, the author brings a disciplined approach to his analysis and sheds light on the function of bullshit in discourse. Here is one of many tasty morsels that I found: "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligation or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic."

I highly recommend this book. IMO it provides the reader some understanding of the motives of the bullshitter (not always innocent, but almost always ignorant) with some tools to help identify bullshit when it's flying around. My takeaway is that it is almost certainly a waste of time to attempt reasonable discourse with a bullshitter simply because the bullshitter's motive does not include the engagement in reasonable discourse.

This excerpt is the first two paragraphs of the book:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

"in consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply toggle a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not--or (putting it somewhat differently)to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept."

Here is the link to Amazon's offering of On Bullshit:


If you follow this link you will find a much more articulate description of the book, some reviews, and the opportunity to read a portion of it with the "click to look inside" feature.

Rating: 3.0/5 (2 votes)


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