Tag Archives: Philosophy of Ethics & Morality

On Bullshit

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Bullshit [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Harry G. Frankfurt

Frankfurt On Bullshit

Emeritus moral philosopher Frankfurt wrote a light magazine article disguised as a scholarly paper, which Princeton University Press proceeded to issue as a duodecimo hardcover with an austere, treatise-like cover styling. Surely there is an element of bullshitting involved in the very production of this enormously successful object. It has been through many printings since 2005, and is almost certainly far more owned than read — despite the fact that it can be polished off in less than a half hour. 

Frankfurt claims to offer a “theoretical understanding” of bullshit, commencing with a study of “the structure of its concept.” In practice, nearly the whole book — everything up to the final seven or eight short pages — consists of lexical comparisons and fussing over various denotative and connotative approaches to the term “bullshit.” In the end, however, a few significant issues are raised, or at least implied. Is bullshitting an appropriate implementation of an antirealist intellectual agenda? Does the bullshitter affirm or degrade his self-worth by his disregard for verity? Under conditions of sufficient ignorance, can sincerity and honesty be completely non-intersecting?

The Gift of Death

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gift of Death [Amazon (1995), Amazon (2017), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills.

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death 1995

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret

The principal text of reference for Derrida’s Gift of Death is the piece “Is Technological Civilization a Civilization in Decline, and If So Why?” from Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History, a text concerned to establish a European sense of “responsibility” dependent on Christianity and imperiled in the alleged contemporary Western return to an orgiastic operation of mystery. Derrida highlights the role of the “concern for death” (or “practice of death”: Plato’s melete thanatou) as a linchpin of the individual awareness of responsibility. 

Not overtly siding with Patočka’s diagnosis of modern malaise, Derrida is very attentive to the sort of dialectic genealogy in Patočka’s essay. He particularly focuses on the ways in which the development of this sense of responsibility is also a maintenance and iterative encryption of a secret, through its orgiastic/daemonic, Platonic, and Christian stages. “Because of this incorporation that envelops demonic or orgiastic mystery, philosophy remains a sort of thaumaturgy even as it accedes to responsibility” (15). 

The second chapter has Derrida turning more often directly to Heidegger as a direct influence on Patočka, as well as to Levinas as a critic in the same tradition. In its third chapter, The Gift of Death spends a great deal of attention on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and sacrificial responsibility in the context of Patočka’s essay. Derrida comes closer, I think, than Kierkegaard does to the real mystery of “the sacrifice of Abraham,” as a failed transmission of the initiation of Isaac. But he uses Kierkegaard’s language to bootstrap into the fourth and final chapter.

Derrida drives toward his conclusion with a set of reflections on the nature and significance of invisibility–the same invisibility of the Greek lord of the dead (aides-Haides), the unspeakable issuer of commands to Abraham, and the “Father” of Jesus “who sees in secret.” Attentive Thelemites may glean some important perspective here on the doctrine of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in the place of “the heart.” And there is also, here and earlier, worthwhile integration of the concepts of sacrifice, secrecy, and the sacred. 

At various points in the book, Derrida seems temporarily to accept some sort of theological claims, but he is careful to allow not to demand such acceptance from the reader (e.g., 69). And at the very end he invokes Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (which was always behind Patočka’s genealogy of responsibility) as a background for observations about “the reversal and infinitization” that exalts the other (“God,” if you must) into mystery (115). There is, after all, no law beyond Do what thou wilt. The Christian God sacrifices himself “from love (can you believe it?)” taunts Nietzsche. And Derrida drops the mocking tone to ask whether one truly can, leaving me to wonder what such a possibility of dis/belief can portend if love is the law. 

“What does it mean to share a secret?” Derrida asks more than once. Only those who know how to die could tell, and they won’t say.