Book Review: On Bullshit (Harry G. Frankfurt)

Book Review: On Bullshit (Harry G. Frankfurt)

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

Don’t Step In It

Another ‘philosophical treatise’ that is a bit ‘out there’ that I had to have once I saw it. (Similar to the Assholes – A Theory book by Aaron James). Saw it on the philosophy shelf at Barnes and Noble while my daughter was looking for her manga, and saw it was 9.95$ for 67 pages, and passed on it. Found it on AbeBooks for 2.95$ with no Shipping and Handling, and scooped it up. (Woot…. that’s a 7$ discount….)

Kind of funny how I drew the line there at that, for all of 7$, like looking at the book, I said to my self…. “Nope, 9.95$ is just too much”, but picking it up online for 2.95$ seemed much more reasonable. Maybe it was because my hands were already full of books for me and for books for my daughter, or maybe its because mentally I drew a line at the 67 pages/9.95$ cost and did some kind of mental calculation/algorithm on pages to dollar ratio, I don’t know.

I have been using more and more and more and more. Nearly daily I am coming home to 2 – 4 packages of books (each package being just one book, maybe two). Its an independent online seller that lets independent bookstores sell through them to customers. Similar in a way to eBay but with always fixed prices, no auctioning. It is a wonderful resource that helps out small, independent bookstores rather than always just going to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or other big retailers. I once even got a book that came from MidTown Scholar in Harrisburg. (I often forget to check to see who the seller is when selecting the books.) You can visit AbeBooks here: AbeBooks.Com.

Little Quirky Philosophy Books

This falls under philosophy, but at the same time it doesn’t. Its kind of hard to explain it. Like, its the ‘philosophy of bullshit’, if that can be said to be a thing. This was published in 2005, and since then, it has certainly taken on more interest due to the past two election cycles. There’s a bit of a cottage industry of small, stylized essay type books that are somewhat philosophical, like quasi-philosophy, not pseudo-philosophy, but quasi-philosophy. I think this falls into that realm.

I do think there is some meat to this, and I think it is illuminating, especially in regards to where we find ourselves in 2020 – 2021…. but I don’t think its quite as deep as many think it is, especially those on GoodReads with their reviews. Maybe its due to how much I think he spends just breaking down the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED), and how that makes up for the basis for a lot of the essay, and when the essay itself is only 67 (small book, regular sized font) pages, and he spends 20 or so pages detailing the definition and breaking it down, and discussing it, I find that… …pedantic perhaps would be the term.

Book Review

As the last paragraph eludes to, lets get into the actual review of this work. The essay is 67 pages. Its a small size book, with normal size font, and each page is basically one paragraph or a paragraph and a half (he writes in large paragraphs, but that should still give you an idea of the size and scope of the written word in this book). Like I said above, the first roughly twenty pages are devoted to breaking down the etymology and definition of the word, using primarily the OED but also some other sources.

I understand the idea of breaking down the definition to start off the essay, and it is the right decision and smart thing to do, but I think it becomes belaboring and the point is loss when it takes up nearly one third of your entire essay.

I do enjoy the work, and it was a quick and easy read (less than a day to read it). But at the end of it, unlike many of the reviewers on GoodReads, I didn’t necessarily feel ‘illuminated’. I feel like its a bit looping in a lot of places and feels more like the Professor, Mr. Frankfurt, is trying to amuse himself, more than he is trying to amuse us – and if we get amused as well, all for the better. Like he realized he was getting to write an essay on bullshit, and was getting paid to do it, and found it ironic and funny in and of itself. As if the entire thing was an inside joke.

There is some interesting comments and ideas in the book. And there are a few sardonic or funny lines in it as well. But not enough that really screams that this is definitive, or must read, or even illuminating. I think anyone who would buy a book called ‘On Bullshit’ probably has a strong enough grasp of what bullshit is, that its all self redundant in and of itself. All in all I don’t think there’s enough here or to this, and I don’t think it bestows any kind of wisdom on us or makes us know more about bullshit. At the end of the day, we know bullshit isn’t completely the same as lying, we know people do it for a few reasons, and we know its not always (and often isn’t) done maliciously.


Is it worth reading? I suppose. I’d say this is a more of a fun, quick, ‘library read’, then I would suggest buying it. It’ll be a quick read, and really won’t be as illuminating as the GoodReads reviews tell you. (Its interesting how that word ‘illuminating’ popped up in several of the reviews.)

GoodReads Rating: **
GoodReads Global Average Rating: 3.58 (as of 10.7.21)
LibraryThing Rating: **.5

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-B. Kline

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