G. Frankfurt, 76, is a moral philosopher of international reputation and
a professor emeritus at Princeton. He is also the author of a book
recently published by the Princeton University Press that is the first
in the publishing house's distinguished history to carry a title most
newspapers, including this one, would find unfit to print. The work is
called "On Bull - - - - ."
The opening paragraph of the 67-page essay is a model of reason and
composition, repeatedly disrupted by that single obscenity:
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so
much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But
we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather
confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken
in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor
attracted much sustained inquiry."
The essay goes on to lament that lack of inquiry, despite the
universality of the phenomenon. "Even the most basic and preliminary
questions about [bull] remain, after all," Mr. Frankfurt writes, "not
only unanswered but unasked."
The balance of the work tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound,
St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask
some of the preliminary questions - to define the nature of a thing
recognized by all but understood by none.
What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither
fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither
are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in
their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.
"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the
truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding
to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."
The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or
falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what
he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk
show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth,
as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no
attention to it at all."
And this makes him, Mr. Frankfurt says, potentially more harmful than
any liar, because any culture and he means this culture rife with [bull]
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."
Mr. Frankfurt is an unlikely slinger of barnyard expletives. He is a
courtly man, with a broad smile and a philosophic beard, and he lives in
apparently decorous retirement with his wife, Joan Gilbert, in a lovely
old house near the university.
On a visit there earlier this month, there was Heifetz was on the
stereo, good food and wine on the table.
But appearances, in this case, are somewhat misleading. Mr. Frankfurt
spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn, and still sees himself as a
disputatious Brooklynite - one who still speaks of the Dodgers as
"having betrayed us." And, in any event, Mr. Frankfurt is not
particularly academic in the way he views his calling.
"I got interested in philosophy because of two things," he said. "One
is that I was never satisfied with the answers that were given to
questions, and it seemed to me that philosophy was an attempt to get
down to the bottom of things."
"The other thing," he added, "was that I could never make up my mind
what I was interested in, and philosophy enabled you to be interested in
Those interests found expression in a small and scrupulous body of
work that tries to make sense of free will, desire and love in closely
reasoned but jargon-free prose, illustrated by examples of behavior
(philosophers speak of the "Frankfurt example") that anyone would