Philosopher seeks truth in sequel to On Bullshit

Bullshit sells but can truth do as well?

First there was On Bullshit, a slim philosophical treatise whose phenomenal success took the publishing industry by surprise. Then came a succession of books with the word “bullshit” in the title.

And now there is On Truth, a sequel to On Bullshit that its author, Princeton University philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, says is meant to plug an analytical gap in his first book—why does truth matter?

In the introduction to On Truth, Frankfurt revisits his premise that “bullshitters ... are fakers and phonies who are attempting by what they say to manipulate the opinions of those to whom they speak.”

Those engaging in bullshit do not care whether what they say is true or not as long as it is effective in manipulating those who listen.

“I had entirely omitted ...
any explanation of exactly why truth actually is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it.” On Truth is meant to provide the explanation.

Since On Bullshit was published, reviews in learned journals and debates on the Internet have tried to resolve a question still not fully answered: did Frankfurt’s first book owe its success to compelling reasoning, clever marketing, a provocative title, or a growing public distaste of the verbal nonsense most people encounter daily?

There is no dispute over its success. “Nobody expected it,” said Andrew DeSio, a spokesperson for Princeton University Press, its publisher.

“The first print run, in March last year, was 3 000 copies. Since then, we printed another 460 000 and most of them were sold.”

On Bullshit has been translated into 25 languages and stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for months.

On Truth hit bookstores in November with an initial print run of 115 000 copies, said Sarah Robinson of the book’s publisher, Alfred Knopf, a division of Random House.

Backlash against bull?

It is too early to gauge whether On Truth will match the success of its predecessor. None of the other books carrying provocative word in the title rose to 400 000-plus best-selling heights.

To name a few—Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit; The Business of Bullshit; The Dictionary of Corporate Bullshit: An A to Z Lexicon of Empty, Enraging and Just Plain Stupid Office Talk; Bullshit and Philosophy; 100 Bullshit Jobs ... And How to Get Them; The Dictionary of Bullshit.

Judging from online discussions about the subject, a good many Americans see the profusion of titles playing on the word word as evidence of a gathering backlash against what those prone to euphemisms call BS or bull.

In his new book, Frankfurt notes that, “We live at a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect.

“It is well known, of course, that a cavalier attitude towards truth is more or less endemic within the ranks of publicists and politicians, breeds whose exemplars characteristically luxuriate in the production of bullshit, of lies and of whatever other modes of fakery and fraudulence they are able to devise.”

Frankfurt quotes the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant to bolster his central argument—societies that disrespect the truth are bound to decline.

“Any society that manages to be even minimally functional must have, it seems to me, a robust appreciation of the endlessly protean utility of truth. After all, how could a society that cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed judgments and decisions?”

Packaging truth in gold

DeSio, of Princeton University Press, ascribed the popularity of “On Bullshit partly to timing. “Society was ready for it, the time was ripe.” But, he added, “packaging helped.”

Like its predecessor, On Truth has an unusual format for a serious work. It is hard-cover and, at 10cm by 15cm, it fits into a coat pocket.

The cover of the slim volume, 101 pages, is in gold of precisely the same shade as an upscale make of chocolate sold alongside books in major US chains.

But getting impulse buyers to pick up the book in the mistaken belief it was a box of chocolates was not the intention of designers at Knopf, according to Paul Bogaards, the company’s executive director of publicity. “They wanted to create an image that suggests weight and import.”

Frankfurt, who is 77 and has an impish sense of humour, has deadpan responses to remarks about the brevity of his two books.

On Bullshit was all of 67 pages, On Truth is not much longer.

“What I think is that a shorty book can contain a lot of bullshit, but a long book almost inevitably contains a lot of bullshit,” he told an interviewer from the New York Times recently. - Reuters

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