If you know the name of Harry Frankfurt, you likely know it from his surprising best-seller “On Bullshit.” And if you’ve ever even glanced at that short work, you’ll know that it starts with what is the best first lines of all time: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” I’m sure you concur.
But this opening line, like all the best opening lines, is an observation rather than an argument. Frankfurt’s craft, like that of all authors, begins in the eye. He sees something, perceives there to be something particularly interesting about what he sees, and then, after dwelling with that observation for some time asks himself the question of: well, that being what that is, what do I make of that? How does this social fact instruct us about other social facts? And what do these connected social facts teach us about the challenges, joys, or tragedies of life within the world?
And so it is with bullshit. After observing that we lack any real conceptual clarity about just what constitutes bullshit, Frankfurt, ever the analytically trained philosopher, sets out to interrogates the concept by asking the question of: “What, precisely, makes bullshit, bullshit?”
Interestingly – at least, to me – Frankfurt goes on to show how bullshit differs from lying. And, furthermore, Frankfurt claims that the bullshitter’s presence is actually more dangerous to the health of liberal society than that of the liar; for, what distinguishes lying from bullshitting is a certain respect for the truth. Whereas the bullshitter only respects the power of utterances to persuade based upon emotion and, as such, finds no use for any given truth of science, theology, philosophy, or whatever, the liar, in concealing the truth from his conversation partner, actually respects the truth a great deal more than the bullshiter. Why else would he conceal it, Frankfurt wonders?
But, no matter how fun it would be, we are not here to talk bullshit.
Rather, we are here to talk about “the art of the mundane” or, to borrow from the title of my favorite of Frankfurt’s essays, “the importance of what we care about.” And in doing so I not only want to explain what I take to be a compelling move in modern philosophy, I also want to provide a justification of efforts in the modern world bring those things that we care about to speech.
But first, we must begin with observations.
One of the most fascinating books I’ve come across in the past months is Dan Rodger’s Age of Fracture. In it, Rodgers, an intellectual historian by trade, argues that whereas most consider the 1960’s to be the 20th century’s most dramatic era of social change, this is not, in fact, the case. Rather, in a patient and careful analysis of the broad social, political, and cultural trends of the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush (again) years, Rodgers argues that we are now in a dramatic era of identity realignment, an era he calls an “age of fracture.”
Two points of fissure are especially worth noting..
First, in recent years we have seen an increase in specialization in all domains of life. Consider, for example, the death of the “educated general reader.” Whereas many current so-called “public theologians” long for the days of mid-century fame when Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, or Paul Tillich would be on the cover of Time magazine, many of today’s theologians have come of age in a time where the pressing question is not “how do I get on the cover of Time?” but “who reads Time magazine anyways?”
You see, the important thing is not the rise and fall of Time magazine, but the rise and fall of something like Time magazine, a publication that was nearly universally understood to be a reliable conduit of social norms. It is not, of course, that we no longer read; it is simply that there are far fewer publications that we can be confident our neighbors have read. And so it goes with the blogs we read, the tweets we follow, and the albums we download, that is, if we still download whole albums. In all this, we are all far too busy mastering some corner of the intellectual universe or another to have any meaningful common point of entry into discussion. This is one aspect of Rodger’s age of “fracture,” and I trust you intuitively recognize it for the social fact that it is.
Secondly, what has marked the recent past is what we could call hyper abstraction. The major phenomenon Rodgers points to in this regard is the final transition that took place in the 1980’s from an industrial capitalism to a new, still emerging form of finance- based capitalism. Interestingly, what is most important about this transition is not that we have moved from a product based form of production to an overwhelming interest in “financial instruments,” — important though that is – but rather the way that this new form of capitalism influences our political and social lives. Somehow, in a way not totally clear to Rodgers yet, the move from industrial capitalism to our new finance- based capitalism actually subverts the once familiar logic of producers and consumers and replaces it with something altogether more vague and obscure.
Think, if you will, about general trends among Political Scientists in the last half century. Beginning in the 1970s and, sadly, continuing into present day – Political Science departments and, to some extend, law faculties, have become dominated by an interest in rational choice theory and economic motivations for social action. For example, a recent book by sociologists who have tried to explain the demonstrable rise in what they call “associational sex” among emerging adults depends upon a basic economic model that seeks to establish the “price” of sex for college students and other emerging adults. One of the unfortunate side effects of the growing number of college educated women is the apparent cheapening of sex: If, they argue, that, to rip off Flannery O’Connor, “a good man is hard to find,” then women will settle for far less than that upon their search. And they will do so time and again.
Whether they are right or not, I don’t know. But what is important to note is that it strikes most of us as at least remotely plausible to answer a question about something like human sexuality with a bit of economic theory. We are willing to entertain the notion, in other words, that our decisions, in spite of all their apparent complexity, are reducible to the forces that motivate them, and, I would argue, are in this very way abstracted from the wharp and whoof of everyday life. This is part of what it means to say that abstraction marks the modern world.
Harry Frankfurt’s notion of care as a means of knowing the world stands directly against these two contemporary social facts. In the aforementioned article – no, not the one on Bullshit – Frankfurt argues that the two dominant strands of Western Philosophical history – ethics and epistemology — need to be supplemented with a third category that he calls “care.” Let me explain. He says:
“Philosophers have for some time devoted their most systematic attention primarily to two large sets of questions, each of which develops out of concern with a pervasively compelling and troublesome aspect of our lives. In the first set, which constitutes the domain of epistemology, the questions derive in one way or another from our interest in deciding what to believe. The general topic of those in the second set is how to behave, insofar as this is the subject matter of ethics. It is also possible to delineate a third branch of inquiry, concerned with a cluster of questions which pertain to another thematic and fundamental preoccupation of human existence – namely, what to care about.”
To think seriously about caring is to resist the temptation to reduce all our serious thinking to questions of moral obligation or the rationality of belief. Rather, in recovering a decidedly Greek conception of philosophy, to think about caring is to begin with the simple fact that an irreducible part of human existence is our interest, whether that interest attaches itself to particular lines of inquiry, modes of being, expressions of emotion, aesthetically pleasing images, or what have you. We cannot and should not deny the fact that we are beings with projects, with the capacity to really and truly give ourselves over to things that captivate us and give us delight, or horror, or deep and profound confusion.
In owning up to our status as people-with-projects, we resist the two aforementioned aspects of our fractured civic culture. We all more or less recognize the ways in which abstraction harms civic culture, even if we often fail to recognize it until after it has crossed the threshold of our minds or, even worse, our lips. Against Rational Choice theory and other modes of contemporary abstraction, it seems to me that most thinking people are now at least acknowledging the irreducible complexity of human motivation, even if the grip of this temptation has not been fully excised from University departments or the popular press. And so, we must force ourselves to always and everywhere resist the temptation of abstraction by remembering the difference between persons with living rooms and sand boxes, and the positions those persons may hold.
But maybe the more basic intuition that calls for sustained attention is that many of us fail to see the ways in which specialization can, but need not, lead to isolation and loneliness. This isolation exists on both sides of the divide. The pedantic one who genuinely desires community but cannot forge human friendship with anyone who does not recognize (much less share!) their erudition is no more or less isolated than the novice who has become so accustomed to his serfdom that he begins every sentence with disclaimers intended to obscure the fact that what he cares about is not the amount of knowledge he possesses about this topic or the other, but the knowledge itself. This is how our specialization isolates us and obscures what Aristotle observed about our nature as political animals. If my experience in the university is anything to go by, a fact that is painfully obvious to most observers but rarely admitted by the so-called knowledge class is that what drives individuals towards greater and greater specialization is the very same drive that isolates them from their neighbors and gives rise to all kinds of loneliness and, at times, bitterness towards the world. I can only assume that this is intelligible to those whose vocations are in other arenas as well.
Against this, we ought to curate what we could call a morally serious defense of the quotidian, by which I mean a culture that responds to the challenge of paying due attention to the world just as we find it. To care, in the sense Frankfurt uses the term, is a means of knowing and inhabiting the world that we should not be ashamed of owning up to. And so, without denying our areas of specialization, part of what it means to merge the intellectual and domestic spheres is that we will not be defined solely by “what we do,” if we consider “what we do” to be confined to what we do in the office, or at school, or in front of a canvas.