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Book Review: “On Bullshit” Is True to Its Title

Posted on May 04, 2005 by Sarah Eaton.

Editor’s note from Susan E. Fisher: What ever you want to call it, “bullroar,” “ca-ca,” or “malarkey,” marketing is up to its collective knees in boastful, foolish talk intended to deceive.

E-newsletter designer Kat O’Connor is one soul that simply won’t put up with a lot of crap. So, as part of the BeTuitive book club assignment we asked Kat to read the popular, slim business book, “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.

The book, published this year by Princeton University Press, is an academic essay on "bullshitting." It points to the expansion of the practice in recent years and explores the implications of its spread (pun intended).

Reading Kat’s review, I see three lessons for the straight-shooting business person:

1. We should be aware of how the practice of bullshitting has expanded.
2. We should recognize bullshitting for what it is.
3. Not exactly lying can be worse than telling a falsehood.

Kat says,

A pocket book sized at 4x6 inches, consisting of a sum total of 67 pages, you’d expect “On Bullshit” to be a little light reading with perhaps a couple of salient points on the topic, without taking itself too seriously.  Instead I found a book that was humorless, dull, and – believe it or not – pretentious.  Yes, a book “On Bullshit” was itself a never-ending stream of the same, apparently crafted more to give a specific impression of the author than to discuss any significant points of the topic, with no detectable hint of irony.

His language, rather than being straightforward and accessible, was a dry, overly-intellectual, and academic discourse of the finer, hair-splitting definitions of bullshit.  (I’m no slouch in the vocabulary department, and could on occasion even be accused of using too many big words myself, but I was reading with this book in one hand and a dictionary in another.  Quick – use “pleonastic” in a sentence!)

I was looking forward to reading this book – how could bullshit fail to entertain? – but I was expecting a relatively no-nonsense discussion of a political and social phenomenon, not a linguistics lesson.  His misdirection begins in the first paragraph, where he asserts that “one of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” yet any examination of the cultural significance of bullshit fails to materialize anywhere in the book.

He dissects the word “humbug” as an entry into parsing the character and quality of bullshit.  The two words are not absolutely interchangeable, but he declares “humbug” as a more genteel version of “bullshit.”  (I would tend to dispute this in general, since when someone calls, “Humbug!” I get more of a sense that the speaker himself is defensive and attempting to redirect/misdirect blame or responsibility from himself, while a speaker calling “Bullshit,” while perhaps having a vested interest in calling his subject out on the carpet, is also calling it like he truly sees it.  That is, the true bullshitter in either situation is not the same person.  But perhaps I’ve watched “A Christmas Carol” one too many times.)

He then states the obvious by proposing there is a continuum of misrepresentation and deceit, with humbug and bullshit falling somewhere above outright lying.  Bullshit is akin to bluffing, in that the method of deceit does not necessarily rely on representing false facts or events as true ones, but misleads by attempting to disguise what exactly the speaker is up to. 

He concludes that bullshit is an unconcern for truth, though with the pretense that such concern is still there: it may be either true or false, but nevertheless spoken with the intent to deceive.  As opposed to lies, where the speaker presumes that a certain fact or statement is true, and then speaks deliberately to contradict that truth.  He fails to address the idea that the most convincing lies are the ones that contain a kernel of truth.

On a scale of outrage, why does bullshit (true or not) get more of a pass than a lie crafted around a truth?  He acknowledges only briefly the fact that our culture and attitudes tend to be more benign and tolerant toward bullshit than toward lying, but then leaves any scrutiny of the whys or wherefores behind this mind-set as “an exercise for the reader.”

In effect, “On Bullshit” was itself an exercise in pleonasm (did you look it up yet?): you could spare yourself the time-suck of wading through 67 pages by turning to the dictionary:

Function: verb
intransitive senses
1 usually vulgar : to talk foolishly, boastfully, or idly
2 usually vulgar : to engage in a discursive discussion
transitive senses, usually vulgar : to talk nonsense to especially with the intention of deceiving or misleading

This book was shelved in the humor section of the bookstore, so it’s possible that it was intended to be taken, as a whole, as an amusing lark in the sense of “Hey look!  I’m bullshitting on bullshit!”  However, if the irony was there, it was buried under the sheer dead weight of its intellectual masturbation and the boredom it inspired.

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The reviewer has missed the fact that this book is written by a world-renowned Ivy-league philosphy professor and not a late night comic. The shelving of the book in the humor section is undoubtedly the fault of bookstores run and staffed by people who know nothing about books. "On Bullshit" was never meant to be a quick self-help book on the subject. Nor does it pretend to be anything other than what it is. A serious and intellectual discussion on a pervasive problem in our society.
Why is such an academic book so popular? Maybe because people have become fascinated by seeing themselves, and their society reflected in a way that most are aware of but have just not been able to put their finger on. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, I think the reviewer should probably do some more homework next time.

Posted by: kate frankfurt | Jun 15, 2005 3:35:53 PM

I agree wholeheartedly with the comment above, in that the reviewer should not be so quick to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about a particular work or its purpose(s). Additionally, I submit that if books were judged solely on their prima facia value, there would be no reason to have literary critics. However, I disagree with the former comment (although knowledgeable about the author's intent I'm sure she is) on the point of stocking the book in the humor section. The fact that the reviewer was compelled to buy and read a 63-page book, all the while expecting to find something she didn't, is pretty amusing to me. It happened to me as well, and I found it very funny. In fact, I'm disappointed to learn that wasn't the point of the book, but I will still treasure it for my perception of it.

Posted by: Ben Yelverton | Jul 16, 2005 8:21:56 PM

Actually, I was aware that the author is an Ivy-Leaguer, and it was one of the primary reasons I found the book so disappointing. I don't expect much in the way of intellectual discourse from a late-night comic. I DO expect some thoughtful insight and intelligent craft from someone who is supposed to be smart.

Posted by: Kat | Feb 13, 2006 2:43:44 PM

So the book's spose to be about "a pervasive problem in our society" Ummm, could someone clue me into whether bullshit is a problem ONLY in OUR society. As opposed to all those other societies out there. Do each and every one of those other societies manage to avoid any and all forms of bullshit? Are they all PURE, while we saps in this society are the doofuses?

I tend to avoid books that claim to be about "pervasive problem[s] in our society" when that's in fact not what they're about. It is accepted wisdom nowadays in the Ivy League division of our society to say there's nothing to the idea of 'human nature.' Has the author found that there's any diff between the nice little society we have here and all those other societies? Is is there really something called 'human nature' that makes everyone bullshit somtimes?

Posted by: Noo Yawka | Jul 15, 2010 4:26:29 PM

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