Arts » Arts Etc.

If art is a lie, then tell me a tale


With scholarly treatises including “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person” and Necessity, Volition, and Love, Harry G. Frankfurt established his credentials in academe. But in 2005, after publishing a book that was only 80 pages long, Frankfurt, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, became an unlikely celebrity. He found himself for the first time on bestseller lists, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The brevity of Frankfurt’s book surely contributed to its popularity, but so did the beguiling bluntness of its title. On Bullshit was widely reviewed, though primmer publications refused to print the b-word in full. The subject seemed a perfect fit for the taural-fecal epoch of Kenneth Lay, James Frey, Barry Bonds, and Tom DeLay.

On Bullshit distinguishes between lies, deliberate attempts to distort the truth, and bullshit, which is produced by sublime indifference to truth. On the principle that lying is the tribute that mendacity pays to veracity, Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more insidious. Liars are attentive enough to truth to pervert it, but bullshitters are epistemological anarchists; they simply do not care to make the acquaintance of truth. However, like a jesting Pilate, Frankfurt never stays for an answer to the fundamental question: What is truth?

This past fall, in On Truth, he offered not so much a sequel as a prequel or, in more formal terms, a prolegomenon to On Bullshit. At 112 pages, the new book is, by comparison, downright bloated. Its primary purpose is not to define truth but to explain and acclaim its importance. Frankfurt has little patience for Deconstructionists and other Postmodernists who dismiss truth as subjective, relative, and illusory. He notes that the very claim that truth does not exist arrogates for itself a claim to truth. And he argues that the continuing existence of societies and individuals depends on truth. “We really cannot live without truth,” he insists, pointing out that living in truth is not simply a matter of living well but of surviving at all. Without a clear grasp of reality, cooks, engineers, and pharmacists become assassins.

Lies undermine community; society disintegrates when no one trusts others to tell the truth. And they harm each of us personally because they isolate us and interfere with our efforts to apprehend reality. “There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies,” says Marlow, the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do.” Frankfurt rejects the notion of even benign lies — the oncologist who tries to ease a terminally ill patient’s distress by diagnosing the flu. He declares that “ ... it is nearly always more advantageous to face the facts with which we must deal than to remain ignorant of them. After all, hiding our eyes from reality will not cause any reduction of its dangers and threats; plus, our chances of dealing successfully with the hazards that it presents will surely be greater if we can bring ourselves to see things straight.” What, then, should an abolitionist tell the bounty hunter who asks whether there is a fugitive slave in his house, a station on the Underground Railroad?

Much of Frankfurt’s discussion rests on murky metaphors. He writes that ignorance and error “leave us in the dark.” Without truth, he contends, “We are flying blind. We can proceed only very tentatively, feeling our way.” What precisely does this figurative language mean? Is Frankfurt himself not facing away from facts by indulging in figures of speech? He does not ignore poetic uses of language when discussing Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, in which two lovers flatter each other with false compliments. However, their love is enhanced by the fact that each knows that the other is indulging in hyperbole, and that each knows that the other knows that. But such blandishments cannot be termed lies, since they are not designed to deceive and indeed do not deceive. More problematic for Frankfurt’s theory of truth is the fact that some kinds of truthtelling, particularly in poetry and the other arts, do not involve “facing facts.”

Frankfurt insists that facts are necessary for the exercise of reason, that rationality is what makes us human, and that our reasoning about reality teaches us limits. However, there are facts, and there are facts. Consider each of the following three propositions. Charles is the Prince of Wales. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. A prince is the son of a monarch. If each is a “fact,” its claim to truth rests on very different grounds. Frankfurt’s approach to truth, to “facing facts,” seems uncomfortable with fictions such as Hamlet and downright inimical to the ambiguity that is the basis of literary art. His complaint that “contradictory thinking is irrational because it defeats itself” would seem to deny veridical value to William Wordsworth’s paradoxical assertion: “The child is father of the man.” Yet John Keats, who knew a thing or two about truth, and beauty, characterized the creative state as being devoid of “any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” To face the complex truths about its vast subject, On Truth would need to be much longer than 112 pages, or else as compact as a sonnet.