Scholarly Pornography

“[T]he most heroic sentiments will lose their efficacy, and the most splendid ideas will drop their magnificence, if they are conveyed by words used commonly upon low and trivial
occasions, debased by vulgar mouths, and contaminated by inelegant applications.”

—Samuel Johnson

In January 2005, one of the premier scholarly publishers in the English language, Princeton University Press, published an 80-page pamphlet in book form called On Bullsh-t, by a well-respected philosopher, Harry G. Frankfurt, who had written widely on basic themes in epistemology.  The titles of his previous works indicate the subject matter: The Reasons of Love, The Importance of What We Care About, and On Truth.  The concerns addressed range far and wide in the history of philosophy, from Augustine to Wittgenstein, and do so with intelligence and appreciation.

On Bullsh-t received a wide variety of critical responses in reputable publications, ranging from “defining the essence of postindustrial society” (Scott McLemee) to “the humor and the naughtiness lie in the contrast between the highfalutin’ and the indelicate” (Roger Kimball).  For one critic the effort was a metaphor for the presidency of George W. Bush: “We are drowning in bullsh-t.  I mean the Bush administration...

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