Philosopher digs into … (a word we can’t print) - The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
By Peter Edidin
The New York Times
PRINCETON, N. J. - Harry Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation. He is a professor emeritus at Princeton University.
And he is the author of a book recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first in the publishing house’s distinguished history to carry a title that most newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print.
Let’s just say the book’s title - printed in spare, distinguished fashion on a plain gray cover - is “On Bull—-'’ (80 pages, $9.95).
The opening paragraph is a model of reason and composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much (bull). 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 (bull) and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.'’
The essay goes on to lament this lack of inquiry and - with the help of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ezra Pound, St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others - to ask some of the preliminary questions, to define the nature of a thing recognized by all but understood by none.
What is (bull) after all? Those who produce it certainly aren’t honest, but neither are they liars.
“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth,'’ Frankfurt writes. “A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it.'’
The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is “getting away with what he says,'’ Frankfurt writes.
An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to (bull) “does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it,'’ he writes. “He pays no attention to it at all.'’
And this makes him, Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than any liar, because any culture that is rife with (bull) - and he means our culture - is one in danger of rejecting “the possibility of knowing how things truly are.'’
It follows that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.
Frankfurt is an unlikely slinger of barnyard expletives. He is a courtly man, with a broad smile and a philosophic beard, and he lives in apparently decorous retirement with his wife, Joan Gilbert, in a lovely old house near the esteemed New Jersey university.
On a visit there earlier this month, violinist Jascha Heifetz was on the stereo, and good food and wine on the table. But appearances can be misleading. Frankfurt spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn. He sees himself as one who still speaks of the Dodgers as “having betrayed us.'’
And, in any event, Frankfurt is not particularly academic in the way he views his calling.
“I got interested in philosophy because of two things,'’ he said. “One is that I was never satisfied with the answers that were given to questions, and it seemed to me that philosophy was an attempt to get down to the bottom of things.'’
“The other thing,'’ he added, “was that I could never make up my mind what I was interested in, and philosophy enabled you to be interested in anything.'’
Those interests found expression in a small and scrupulous body of work that tries to make sense of free will, desire and love in closely reasoned but jargon-free prose, illustrated by examples of behavior that anyone would recognize.
“He’s dealing with very abstract matters,'’ said Sarah Buss, who teaches philosophy at the University of Iowa, “but trying not to lose touch with the human condition.'’
Frankfurt’s teaching shares with his prose a spirit Buss, who was once his graduate student, defines as, “Come in and let’s struggle with something.'’
The essay on (bull) arose from that kind of struggle.
In 1986, Frankfurt was teaching at Yale, where he took part in a weekly seminar. The idea was to get people of various disciplines to listen to a paper written by one of their colleagues, after which everyone would talk about it over lunch.
Frankfurt decided his contribution would be a paper on (bull).
“I had always been concerned about the importance of truth,'’ he recalled, “the way in which truth is foundational to civilization. … I’d been concerned about the prevalence'’ of (bull), he continued, “and the lack of concern for truth and respect for truth that it represented.'’
“I used the title I did,'’ he added, “because I wanted to talk about (bull) without any (bull), so I didn’t use `humbug’ or `bunkum.’ ‘’
Frankfurt recalled that it took him about a month to write the essay, after which he delivered it to the group.
“I guess I should say it was received enthusiastically,'’ he said, “but they didn’t know whether to laugh or to take it seriously.'’
It was later published in academic circles and has been passed along from one aficionado to another for years.
“In the 20 years since it was published,'’ Frankfurt said, “I don’t think a year has passed in which I haven’t gotten one or two letters or e-mails from people about it.'’
One man from Wales set some of the text to music; another who worked in the financial industry wanted to create an annual award for the worst piece of analysis published in his field (an idea apparently rejected by his superiors).
It was Ian Malcolm, a Princeton University Press editor, who finally approached Frankfurt about publishing the essay as a stand-alone volume.
“The only way the essay would get the audience it deserved was to publish it as a small book,'’ he said. “I had a feeling it would sell, but we weren’t quite prepared for the interest it got.'’
It came out in book form this past January.
For Frankfurt, who says it has always been his ambition to move philosophy “back to what most people think of as philosophy, which is a concern with the problems of life and with understanding the world,'’ the book might be considered a successful achievement.
But he finds he hasn’t quite gotten to the bottom of things. “When I reread it recently,'’ he said, “I was sort of disappointed. It wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was. It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject.'’