Harry Frankfurt

Trying to Explain Sophistry

Frankfurt, Harry G.  On Bullshit.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Frankfurt, Harry G.  On Truth.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

I teach in an interesting little night school program for Mount St. Mary's University.  All of my students are non-majors and, indeed, very practically minded in their education goals.  Nonetheless, they need to take nine credits of philosophy!  Bravo to the Mount for this, I say.

Any introduction to philosophy class needs to be a kind of apologia for philosophy as such.  I use some thematic devices throughout our readings (pretty standard stuff for an introduction) to help them to see how sophistry and philosophy can look like each other.  I try to help them to differentiate them.  I think old Aristotle was keen to note the look-alike between the sophist and the metaphysician.  Of course, he had a great teacher who knew the truth.

I had been considering using some selections from Pieper, but I gladly decided to read Frankfurt's texts.  I was impressed by his little book On Inequality.  It's not a massive treatise, of course.  However, it was just a balanced little bit of sane philosophy—very carefully and genially reasoned through on a thorny topic.  Yes, the systematician in me wanted more, but I really had respect for him after reading it.  Any man who truly goes into the struggle with an object of knowledge is so refreshing in this day of articles on popular topics....

His On Bullshit and (even more so) On Truth really impressed me as well.  I plan to use On Truth to help my students further process some of the themes that we take from the more "classical canon" of philosophers.  Of course, I feel badly for Dr. Frankfurt as well.... I suspect that he is a somewhat lonely voice in his corner of academia, which tends to worship sophistry I would argue.  However, he is a philosopher, I think.  I suspect he would be quite surprised to hear that a hardliner Thomist says this...  In any case, Bravo, good sir!