Thursday, December 10, 2015

Positive Quiddity: Harry Frankfort

Harry Gordon Frankfurt (born May 29, 1929) is an American philosopher. He is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, where he taught from 1990 until 2002, and previously taught at Yale University and Rockefeller University.ref


Early Life

Harry Gordon Frankfurt was born on May 29, 1929. He obtained his B.A. in 1949 and Ph.D. in 1954 from Johns Hopkins University.


He is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University and has previously taught at Yale University, Rockefeller University, and Ohio State University.

His major areas of interest include moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and 17th century rationalism. His 1986 paper On Bullshit, a philosophical investigation of the concept of "bullshit", was republished as a book in 2005 and became a surprise bestseller, leading to media appearances such as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. In 2006 he released a companion book, On Truth, which explores society's loss of appreciation for truth.

Among philosophers, he was for a time best known for his interpretation of Descartes's rationalism. His most influential work, however, has been on freedom of the will (on which he has written numerous important papers) based on his concept of higher-order volitions and for developing what are known as "Frankfurt cases" or "Frankfurt counterexamples" (i.e., thought experiments designed to show the possibility of situations in which a person could not have done other than he/she did, but in which our intuition is to say nonetheless that this feature of the situation does not prevent that person from being morally responsible). Frankfurt is probably the leading living Humean compatibilist, developing Hume's view that to be free is to do what one wants to do. (Others who develop this view are David Velleman, Gary Watson and John Martin Fischer.) Frankfurt's version of compatibilism is the subject of a substantial literature by other philosophy professors. More recently, he has written on love and caring.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University; he served as President, Eastern Division, American Philosophical Association; and he has received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. review of Frankfurt’s On Bullshit
4 Stars
Provocative Title Reveals Topic Worthy of Deeper Discussion
By Ed Uyeshima

Professor Harry Frankfurt has come up with a compact winner with this provocatively titled tome, all of eighty pages, about a subject around which we all seem to have a vast amount of experience. As a professional philosopher who has earned emeritus status at Princeton University, he surely must be a master at this topic and sets about to prove it by discussing it with irony, broad humor and a cheekiness that ultimately brings a certain seriousness to his work. He is especially effective in portraying the mental improvisation we go through when asked unexpected questions that require thoughtfulness. Whether it is within the context of a political opinion or literary analysis, the very act he discusses actually provides great motivation for someone to learn more about what he or she is saying.

What Frankfurt does is take his analysis several steps further by saying his subject, if left unaddressed, will lead to such an altered perception of reality that we will not know what reality is. His argument about his subject as an indictment has merit, though at times, he seems to be carried away with his own rhapsodizing, rather ironic given the topic. According to the author, the very lack of sincerity in some schools of thought, epitomized by the rise of Nazism, for example, has led to a retreat from the ideal of correctness. I would have never thought of Nazism as the result of common BS, but Frankfurt makes this thinking seem entirely logical and that indeed it is a bigger threat than the outright lie. But he does not dwell on the delivery of such a message, as BS is more easily detectable than a lie, at least from most perspectives. A master at this topic fakes opinions with finesse, but he or she does not necessarily get things wrong. That is exactly the threat described perceptively by the author as "a lack of connection to a concern with truth". In essence, the search for truth becomes a moot point when there is no concern in finding it. I applaud Frankfurt for his audacious and attentive little book, as it reflects a fertile mind taking on a subject we all know intimately but rarely take so seriously. Highly recommended commuter reading. review of Frankfurt’s On Truth

5 Stars
A Voice in the Wilderness
By J. Brian Watkins

Full disclosure: I am an attorney, not a professor of philosophy. As my profession must deal with unending loads of BS and is one that ostensibly seeks "truth," Dr. Frankfurt's latest essay was required reading. I stress essay and choose to recognize what this book accomplishes rather than what it does not. I found this volume to be a worthy introduction to an exceedingly important topic.

"On Truth" is a sequel to a famous predecessor regarding BS wherein Dr. Frankfurt uses the common vulgarity as a metaphor for the goals of our society. However, he felt that he had failed to adequately show the dangers of indifference to truth, which he defines as the hallmark of BS. His premise is that our society is based on truth sufficient to weather the increasing storms of BS but that the foundations of our culture are susceptible to the continual eroding force of BS. He argues that we need to start paying attention to truth before we lose the concept and are unable to repair the damage being done.

The Declaration of Independence began "We hold these truths to be self-evident" thus, those who went on to accomplish the American Revolution, draft and enact the Constitution, and who were generally recognized as a pretty capable bunch, did not collapse into arguments and finger-pointing about the philosophical niceties of what they were about. The self-evident truths of the founding fathers were rather like Justice Stewart's famous admission that pornography is hard to define, but "I know it when I see it." Truth is a staple of religious training--folks used to get their weekly dose in Sunday School. Thus, the decline in religious observance seems to be closely mirrored by the decline in appreciation for and understanding of truth in general. Too few commentators dare to approach the issue--the vicious attacks on those who profess any belief in truth are all too common, as is the prevailing attitude that "your truth" need not be "my truth."

Accordingly, "On Truth" is more of a warning than a summation. It is a piece of evidence, not proof of the argument. States Dr. Frankfurt: truth is of immense practicality, if we lose respect for truth we cease striving after it, we are more creatures of truth than we admit, ignorance and error have no value, lack of respect for the value of truth will ultimately cost us the very powers that give us the power to create.

Highly Recommended

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