In connection with my just-posted rant on Steve Jobs and his silly reaction to an unauthorized biography -- "iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business" -- I looked up the Amazon sales rank for "iCon." Four weeks before publication, it's either at No. 92 or Number 131, depending on which Amazon page you believe. Not stunning, but not bad, either.
Then I started looking at what books are on top of Amazon's sales chart.
A "Harry Potter" title is Number One, natch. "He's Just Not That Into You: The No-Excuses Truth to Understanding Guys" -- yeah, right -- is No. 6 ("Be Honest -- You're Not That Into Him, Either" is No. 210). A couple Malcolm Gladwell titles, "The Da Vinci Code," G.E.'s Jack Welch telling the world, yet again, how great he is, Jane Fonda. I'm getting to the mid-teens on the list when I see a title that prompts me to see what it's about:
Knowing nothing about the book -- though I see it has been featured in The New York Times, feted on "The Daily Show," and there appear to be more than 20,000 Google references to it -- I was curious.
The writer is an emeritus professor of philosophy from Princeton named Harry Frankfurt. He says, in a video interview on the Princeton University Press site, that he's interested in bullshit because he believes it "poses certain dangers to the foundations of our civilization." Bullshit involves "a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity," Frankfurt says, and it's thoroughly woven into the world we've built:
"The increase in the amount of bullshit in contemporary life ... is because of the intensity of the marketing motive in contemporary society. We're constantly marketing things -- selling products, selling people, selling candidates, selling programs, selling policies -- and once you start out by supposing that your object is to sell something, then your object is not to tell people the truth about it but to get them to believe what you want them to believe about it, and this encourages the resort to bullshit."
So what's the danger to "the foundations of civilization" to which Frankfurt refers? The Times story summed it up:
"...Any culture -- and he means this culture -- rife with [bullshit] 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, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.
"The reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance. 'All that is solid,' as Marx once wrote, 'melts into air.' "
"On Bullshit" started out as an essay in the 1980s. It has long since spawned a sort of school of philosophical bullshit-parsing (for instance, a rebuttal entitled "Deeper Into Bullshit," by G.A. Cohen of Oxford).