Monday, January 29, 2007

"On Truth"

If font size is a measure of profundity, Harry Frankfurt's sequel to "On Bullshit" is even deeper and more insightful than its predecessor.

Its question is: what is wrong with bullshit, anyway, in its indifference to the truth? The proper response, according to Frankfurt, is that "truth often possesses very considerable practical utility." The obvious rejoinder is not quite ignored, but it is rather scandalously deferred to a final "chapter":
[What] can be said about the value of truth itself, as distinct from the rather commonplace suggestions I have already offered concerning the value of individual truths?
What Frankfurt goes on to provide, however, is not a reason to care about getting it right when doing so is not of practical use or is useful only to other people, or a reason to care about truth for its own sake, but a reason to be glad that there are truths to be acknowledged, even when those truths conflict with one's desires. The argument is that
our recognition and understanding of our identity arises out of, and depends integrally on, our appreciation of a reality that is definitively independent of ourselves. In other words, it arises out of and depends on our recognition that there are facts and truths over which we cannot hope to exercise direct or immediate control. If there were no such facts or truths, if the world invariably and unresistingly became whatever we might like or wish it to be, we would be unable to distinguish ourselves from what is other than ourselves and we would have no sense of what in particular we ourselves are.
Even if Frankfurt is right about this, one has to admit that it's pretty lame. We might have hoped for fireworks, as at the end of the earlier book: "sincerity itself is bullshit"! But the fireworks themselves were quite indifferent to the truth. And this book, too, instantiates its theme. However much he may have wished for his topic to be interesting, and its examination fruitful, the facts were not in his control.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two points:

1. It's a problem for the kind of view that Rorty is putting over in Consequences Of Pragmatism that it is simply not true that each and every scientific theory or datum has "practical utility". That's just the vulgar scientistic version of science, the one that exalts nuclear reactors and space rockets and doesn't take much notice of ornithology or astronomy. As Richard Braithwaite argued, it's the engineers who get things made, but they aren't very good at generating new theories. What the scientists do isn't mostly of any particular value except for the further refinement of theories, and the only value being pursued there is truth - but to admit that is to break the rules of Rorty's system, in which we're supposed treat "truth" as reducible to some utility function or other (though not the same in all cases).

2. If the argument about identity and truth were correct, it would follow that an omnipotent being would have no identity.


10:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, no fireworks at the end. I was kind of hoping for a redeeming finale as well. Alas, 'On Truth' is pretty consistently bland. It seems that the change in font is there to mask a transition from profound and latent to profane and patent bullshit.

I suppose that's what happens when you do what my grandfather told me once not to do. What he said was: 'Don't bullshit the bullshit.'

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of my undergraduate students came across 'On Truth' in the bookstore (attracted by the shiny cover? by the title of its predecessor?) and seem to have really liked it. One emailed to ask me why we can't read 'Dr. Frankfurt's book "On Truth" instead of the course readings on truth'.

I admit I feel somewhat tempted to email 'Dr. Frankfurt' and ask him whether he'd put that book on his own syllabus; and if not, why not?

Any former students of Frankfurt? What do you think he'd say?

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is curious: I have a similar experience as the previous poster (though, perhaps, worse). "On Truth" must have been too obvious in the university bookstore here too, despite its size (or because of it).

A student of mine turned in a paper on truth "generally", an exposition of what students call "my own views", without much reference to the course readings. After getting his paper back he emailed to tell me (and the note caught me off guard somewhat) that he thought my comments were "unfair" since neither has, "prof. Frankfurt referred to any philosophers in his latest book 'On Truth'".

Indeed, if prof. Frankfurt can get away with it, why can't they?

9:03 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

It's not just the size that's attractive, surely, it's the gold lamé cover. As Jon Stewart said in his recent interview about the book, one expects to find chocolate inside.

And no, as a former student and passionate admirer of Frankfurt, I don't think he would assign it as a text in a course on the nature of truth, or encourage its adoption as a model by undergraduates!

10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for Jon Stewart link. I had missed that episode. Also, I enjoyed the moment in which Stewart says to Frankfurt: "Are you high? What's this lag time here?" It reminded me of a conversation which I had with my younger brother years ago.

My brother (then 15) said: "Do you know what I like about talking to you?" I: "What?" My brother: "That every time I ask you a question, even if I've asked you the same question 5 times already, you start thinking about it again and never give the same reply. Most people would call that 'being slow' but I, personally, like it."

I then thought my brother's remark endearing and funny. As I was watching the Comedy Central show tonight - I thought he was actually right: I didn't notice Frankfurt's "lag time" before Stewart mentioned it. So it must be that we are just used to a tempo which most people would call... "slow".

10:33 AM  
Blogger "Q" the Enchanter said...

Fare thee well. I hope the Will to Work-Avoidance draws you back, at least from time to time.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was a pleasure reading your posts. I would have never imagined off the cuff musings can be so thoughtful. And since I don't like spending time with unthoughtful musings, I was not in the habit of 'blogging'; not until someone forwarded me the link to Ideas of Imperfection.

I suppose that now I will just go back to my old blog-free life. Till, perhaps, the indefinite future point at which there is a new issue of Ideas.

Between now and then - good night, and good luck.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Gardner said...

I'm not sure I understand the charge that the ending you quote is "pretty lame." It's a condensed version of an argument philosophers like Francis Jacques have made: integrity, identity, and alterity are mutually sustaining (not mutually defining, mind you). Seems quite a good argument to me, though the first commenter is right that it raises questions about an ultimate being's identity. Milton has worked out an argument, in poetry, that I find very compelling, though it is admittedly very subtle and hard to grasp if one goes in to "Paradise Lost" assuming one already understands Christianity.

Anyway, I'm coming late to all this, but I did enjoy your blog and would be happy to hear a fuller explanation of why you find the peroration lame.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

9:02 AM  
Blogger Kieran Setiya said...

Thanks for the comment, Gardner. In saying that Frankfurt's closing argument was "lame" I didn't mean bad, just not especially new or striking - unlike the conclusion of his earlier book.

10:36 AM  

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