Ivy League philosophers don’t often write bestsellers. But then most Ivy League philosophers don’t often write books with titles so provocative that they’re unutterable on network television and unprintable in most mainstream publications, including library blogs.
But Harry Frankfurt, who died July 16 at the age of 94, found himself in just that situation when he published a slim, elegant little book of analytical philosophy about the nature of truth and varieties of deception. It had a simple, declarative title of just two words, one of which is generally thought in most circles to be indelicate, if not obscene. For our purposes here, in a blog dedicated to elevated thinking for a broadly defined audience, let’s pretend that word was “blueship.”
Frankfurt’s 2005 book – itself based on an article he’d published nineteen years earlier – was, if anything, ahead of its time. Its analysis of the differences in degree and character between careless misrepresentation and calculated lying came years before “fake news” became a ubiquitous term. Of course, fibbing – by politicians as well as by, well, just about everyone else – has never really been out of fashion.
Frankfurt published many other books – including a companion volume, On Truth – but none of those came close to matching the popularity of his breakout hit. Which was doubtless okay with him; he probably would have said his work on Descartes and free will and moral accountability was more interesting anyway. But be honest: deep down, the rest of us probably suspect that’s just total blueship.