Why size matters

Simon Blackburn has a very amusing and interesting review of Harry Frankfurt’s new tiny book on truth. One detects a certain…annoyance in places, and one can very well see why. One is in fact unusually well placed to be able to see why, because one shares with Blackburn the experience of having written a slightly less tiny book about truth recently. One is in fact a member of the extremely miniature group of people who have written and published non-tiny English-language books about truth in the past, oh, say three years. There can’t be great huge pulsating throngs of such people, can there? I would guess no. So one really is quite well qualified to know without needing much time for reflection what Blackburn probably thinks of the follow-up to

Harry Frankfurt’s diminutive book On Bullshit, which was an unexpected best-seller for Princeton University Press last year, shyly peeking out next to the cash registers in bookshops everywhere. Evidently the commercial giant Knopf wanted to get in on the act, and the result is this almost equally tiny book, nicely positioned for a similar success this Christmas, since there is an announced first printing of 200,000 copies. Its appearance and its design make it almost identical to its hot little predecessor: at 101 baby pages, On Truth appears to be fractionally longer…

A first printing of two hundred thousand copies. For a short essay dressed up as a book. Hmm.

Right! That’s enough of that. What about the actual review.

Truth is bigger game than bullshit. Truth and its agent, reason, are the kings of the philosophical jungle, and their capture has excited the finest minds. It is a brave thing for a philosopher to try to bring them down with a little essay — like hunting an elephant, or, better, a herd of elephants, with a pea shooter.

Oh, well, if you aim the pea shooter just right

Frankfurt explains that his book arose because he had failed to explain in the previous book why truth is so important to us, or why we should especially care about it, and hence had failed to explain why indifference to truth is such a bad thing. This is the task he now undertakes. But he also sets himself some quite definite limits in so doing.

We set ourselves some definite limits too. Had to – we had a word limit. But we did have quite a few more words than would fit into 101 baby pages.

Taken together, these represent a fairly dramatic shrinkage of the boundaries of the discussion. It is a contraction that might be regretted as excluding such diverse predecessors as Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, Peirce, Tarski, Foucault, or Richard Rorty.

Check, check, check, no, no, check, check. I fretted about excluding Tarski, I thought it would be highly appropriate and useful for JS to learn all about him and then tell the world, but JS said we had this word limit and couldn’t mention everyone and everything and didn’t want to anyway; we could and should select; I think I probably said something wise about synechdoche; so Tarski was shut out, poor guy. We contracted, but not too much.

Reading Frankfurt’s book, I worried that without chapter and verse the unnamed postmodernists who are so enthusiastically vilified might feel they have not been given their day in court.

Okay, now there we have a clear conscience. That’s exactly what we didn’t do. We named names and gave days in court. That was pretty much the point of the book: to show the kind of thing. We did that. (You’ll notice that this comment turns out to be an exercise in making Blackburn’s review of Frankfurt somehow be about Why Truth Matters. Well, I just couldn’t help comparing as I read, and now you get the benefit.

Spinoza is the only philosopher or writer named or acknowledged in Frankfurt’s book. I found myself made uncomfortable by this, even given the demands of miniaturization…It is a discomfort similar to that arising from the way the unnamed postmodernists are treated. And when I think of Frankfurt’s resolute silence about the philosophical tradition from, say, Protagoras onward, I confess to scenting a whiff of something like — well, negligence with the truth, an affectation of amateur carelessness adopted to mislead or manipulate the audience, and which therefore, by Frankfurt’s own account, characterizes the bullshitter. This is undoubtedly too harsh. “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” as Pope rebuked himself when he talked of Lord Hervey.

Now, I call that a really nice touch, to smuggle a veiled reference to B&W into his review of Frankfurt.

[W]e need an explanation of how the virtue of truth can take on a life of its own and stand opposed to pragmatism, or of how we first learned to separate the question of whether a signal represented how things stand from the question of whether it was a signal that it was expedient for us to hear. But such questions would provoke more than a cute diversion to pick up at the exit to a bookstore.

Yes but then it wouldn’t sell 200,000 copies.

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