ON TRUTH by Harry G. Frankfurt


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The author of On Bullshit (2005, not reviewed) returns with an itty-bitty disquisition on the personal and societal importance of truth.

Frankfurt (Emeritus, Philosophy/Princeton Univ.) takes a common-sense approach. Although there are some allusions to Spinoza and Kant and Shakespeare, and although he drops into his text a quotidian here and a prolegomenon there, the author addresses throughout the average educated reader who perhaps needs some pages to turn on the New York–Boston shuttle. He begins by admitting an oversight in his surprise bestseller Bullshit: He didn’t really discuss therein what truth is and why we should care about it. Frankfurt has no interest in esoteric arguments about the nature of reality, no concern (here, anyway) with the peculiarities of quantum mechanics. No, he’s interested in verifiable, everyday fact. It’s true that the moon orbits the earth; it’s false that the moon is green cheese. He notes we cannot live without the truth (red lights really do mean stop) and argues that “it is nearly always more advantageous to face the facts of which we must deal than to remain ignorant of them.” He discusses lying (it’s almost always bad) and shows how both liars and lie-ees are damaged—the former because their lies create enormous loneliness (they can tell no one), the latter because lies confine them to a world unreal and thus unpredictable. Frankfurt detours briefly to look at lies that everyone knows are lies and uses as illustration Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”). Here, Frankfurt turns gentle and even compassionate—though he ought to have addressed the Bard’s layered meanings of lie and habit. Frankfurt ends by showing how we develop our sense of self by banging up against reality—against the truth. He declines all comment on an enormous condor named Religion that’s flapping noisily around in his small room. Which is it, truth or bullshit?

Readers expecting a meal will find only a snack, but a tasty one.

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2006
ISBN: 0-307-26422-X
Page count: 112pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2006


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