On Reading Harry Frankfurt


I recently presented an abridged version of the book I’m writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago and UC-Santa Barbara. The working title of the book is “Fuck Work: What Is To Be Done When Jobs Disappear.” And yes, I’m hard at work on it.

These were academic audiences, of course, so my expectation going in was that they would react in much the same way that the Jacobin crowd did when I entered the debate on work then being conducted by Peter Frase, Alex Gourevitch, and others—I figured they’d respond with exasperation and even anger. For no matter how far the academic Left has gone down the post-structuralist road, it is still attached to the ontological priority of labor in defining human nature and assessing political possibilities. To that precise extent, it is still more or less Marxist, and therefore Hegelian. Or, if you like, it is to that precise extent Protestant, because the ontological priority of labor in defining human nature is a result of the Reformation. (Pope Francis affirms the failure of the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition when he claims that “there can no dignity where there is no work.”)

The reception to my talks at UIC and UC-SB was, however, quite friendly-—if one word will do, it was more curious than querulous. And this despite the facts that the commentator in Chicago was Leon Fink, an eminent labor historian, and that my host in Santa Barbara was Nelson Lichtenstein, an equally eminent labor historian. This reception confirmed my lingering hope that the audience for the book is wider than its academic parameters. If these more or less public intellectuals were engaged rather than offended by the argument, perhaps I was tapping into currents of contemporary anxiety and expectation about work that are much broader than those revealed in debate with Gourevitch, et al.

This reception also made me rethink the book contract I had on offer from an academic press. Was I selling the argument short? Were my expectations too low because the sales of Against Thrift were so paltry and the reviews so few and so negative? When I expressed my misgivings, the editor at the press responded with great intelligence and energy, saying that he thought of the book as a generic relative of Harry Frankfurt’s best-seller, On Bullshit (2005). So I downloaded this little book and bought a hard copy of an earlier (but also quite popular) treatise of his, The Reasons of Love (2004), hoping to understand the editor’s comparison and, more important, to find the key to Frankfurt’s success as a cross-over. What was happening in these pages? What had this serious philosopher done to translate his big ideas into prose so accessible that they found an audience among those fabled “general readers”?


On Bullshit, I am unhappy to report, is itself a species of pointless pontification, the kind of bullshit that poses as knowledge of vernacular speech, and tries to transpose from the key of the colloquial to the key of the philosophical—cultural studies with the twist of an academic pedigree, you might call it. It’s a comforting report on the emptiness of post-structuralist notions of facticity, written in primer style for those already incited by journalistic reports of tenured radicals in the ivory towers of higher education. In that awful sense, it’s an erudite verification of the arguments to be found in Lynne Cheney’s hysterical, book-length retort to what she designated as the “assault on truth” mustered by Foucault’s minions in the universities. (See The World Turned Inside Out [2009], chapter 2, for my sober analysis of Cheney’s hilarious polemic, which was entitled Telling the Truth [1995], and for my brief history of higher education in the US.)

The book crosses over, in other words, because the barren simplicity of the prose-—there’s no rhythm section here, just one declarative sentence after another, as if they’re on a forced march without a drummer-—matches, and validates, the brute simplicity of the argument, which boils down to this: bullshit is more dangerous than lies because the liar knows the truth of things outside himself and chooses to misrepresent it, whereas the bullshitter pays no attention to the truth so conceived because he doesn’t believe it exists except as a dimension, or rather a projection, of himself. The liar responds to the “authority of the truth” or the “inherent nature” of reality, and so remains respectful of it; but the bullshitter acknowledges no such external standard of judgment, and must, therefore, retreat into a narcissistic regard of himself-—his sincerity—-as the measure of all things.

You might say, well, that sounds as reasonable as John Searle’s critique of Jacques Derrida and the larger set of post-structuralist claims to truth associated with deconstruction, post-modernism, and affiliated attitudes toward the status of reality. But that would be my point. Frankfurt’s little book is an “aw shucks,” avuncular version of the metaphysical realism Searle & Co. have been peddling in highbrow venues for thirty years, in a desperate rear-guard action that wrests liberal meanings from the same epistemological naivete Cheney & Co. sport as a conservative credential. That metaphysical realism is what makes On Bullshit a comforting report from the ivory tower (and no tower is more ivory than Princeton). Not to worry, Harry tells us, the tenured radicals got it wrong.

An overstatement? Read this:

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources [deeper, that is, than the ignorance of an electorate presumed to be composed of omnicompetent citizens], in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore rejects the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These ‘antirealist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.”

Then savor the last two sentences of the book:

“Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”


But like I said, I bought a hard copy of The Reasons of Love when I downloaded On Bullshit. To read the books side-by-side is to wonder whether the same philosopher wrote them—-or to ask what happened between 2000 and 2005 to this author, this man. The indispensable premise of both books is that belief in and commitment to “other things,” to the reality and integrity of external objects (I almost said things-in-themselves), is the necessary condition of coherent being and truthful utterance.

In fact I’d say that On Bullshit reads as the attempted completion of the earlier book because it seeks to close the logical and rhetorical gap opened by The Reasons of Love. The attempt fails, and thus makes the two books practically incompatible, but I am here to say that the contradiction between them doesn’t matter very much, because the claims of the earlier book are so ingenious, so raw and audacious, that we might learn to treat On Bullshit as nothing more—-or less–than the first test of The Reasons of Love.

Frankfurt reasons like an analytic philosopher in showing us how love works on us and through us to improve us, to teach us how we should live: almost every sentence could stand alone, out of context, as a defensible proposition. Instead of treating self-love as a pitfall or a problem, however, he makes it the necessary condition of love as such—-as if primary narcissism, as Freud understood it, must remain as the source of every affective commitment, or as if the divine commandment to love your neighbor as yourself was an imperative we already know how to act on routinely, without even thinking. But here is the pivot of Frankfurt’s dialectical reversal: “A person cannot love himself except insofar as he loves other things.”

What can that mean? He won’t explain in this book, and he can’t in On Bullshit. That’s the logical and rhetorical gap I mentioned.

It’s pretty clear to anyone, even the least reflective of us, that to love anything is to value “other things,” but how is this capacity predicated on the love of your self, an entity that is not another thing? Frankfurt devotes one paragraph to the question, and doesn’t provide an answer. Self-love, he says, “is necessarily derivative from, or constructed out of, the love that people have for things that are not identical with themselves.” How so?

The answer is not to be found in this book, nor in the best-selling sequel. Again, the logical and rhetorical gap never closes. But the wonderful gift of Frankfurt’s failure is the incitement he offers to think past him, beyond him. He makes you want to complete his argument.


The paradigm of love according to Frankfurt is what binds a parent to his child (the pronouns are male throughout). It is only with reluctance that he ventures into romantic territory, where secondary, instrumental purposes like sex typically intrude on the lover’s genuine devotion to the long-term interests of the beloved. You could say this is a peculiarly straitened paradigm, but he has a point. Love necessarily involves protecting the interests of the beloved, even if they’re not your own, and often enough these interests are in conflict with the immediate gratification of either party.

As a paradigmatic parent, for example, you don’t grant your child’s every wish because you know that such indulgence will disfigure her future by making her the abject creature of her desires. As a romantic partner, you can’t grant your lover’s every wish because you know that such indulgence will disfigure your future by making you the abject servant of his desires. (Is this, then, the fulcrum of self-love?)

Love hurts, Frankfurt insists, because it’s not something you choose to do. You fall in love, as the saying goes, or you acquire an affective interest in a child by means of biological ties and genealogical commitments that are publicly acknowledged if not legally confirmed. And then love requires distance or “disinterest” in another, more complicated and fundamental sense. You have to make the interests of the beloved paramount, that goes without saying. So your identification with him must have limits—-the limits reached when you can act on the knowledge that he’s not the same person as you are.

And love matters, more than anything else. Without it, Frankfurt claims, you lack what he calls, after Aristotle, “final ends” or transcendent purposes—-goals “worth attaining for their own sake,” causes worth the sacrifice of your own life. Caring about something, anything, “unequivocally and without conditions,” is the only attitude that stands between you and boredom, the state of mind in which your interest in and attention to the world is so attenuated that you become the center of the universe: “It is not important to us only to attain our final ends. It is also important for us to have final ends. This is because without them, there is nothing important for us to do.”

The practical question remains: “But how is it that things may come to have for us a terminal value that is independent of their usefulness for pursuing further goals? In what acceptable way can our need for final ends be met?”

Only love meets this need, and it is not, by Frankfurt’s account, the love of God.


But of what is love for another mortal composed? Frankfurt claims that it has “four main conceptually necessary features.” It’s disinterested in the sense that the good of the beloved is something desired for its own sake; it’s personal in the sense that the beloved is not an interchangeable part, an instance of a type; it entails a powerful identification with the beloved but stops short of identity; and it accepts the fact that love is rarely a matter of choice.

These components of love for another are the essential elements of self-love. And vice-versa. “When a person desires to love, what he desires is that he be in a position to act with confident and settled purpose. . . . Insofar as self-love is tantamount just to a desire to love, it is simply a desire to count on having meaning in our lives.”

Still, is it so self-evident that the undeniable desire for meaning (“final purposes”) in our lives must take the form of love, so conceived? I think so, but not for the reasons on offer. And here I take leave of Harry Frankfurt by taking from him.

We desire, and we need, transcendent purposes, “final ends” as he would have it. We discover these purposes, these ends, by learning to love another person, or something other than ourselves. But we can’t love anything in this sense unless our desire can be embodied, enacted, performed-—in a word, demonstrated. Love can be unrequited, but it can never be disembodied.

So the discovery of what comes after this life—-or rather the articulation of the truths that take us beyond this life, into worlds we will never experience directly-—presupposes the unconscious acknowledgement that we’re already locked up in our frail bodies. We can imagine immortal, eternal, universal truths only insofar as we experience our own mortality.

To put it as prosaically as I can, love is a property of your embodiment—-you can’t love someone if you’re an angel or a demon—-but this grounding, and only this grounding, permits and demands the imagination of possibilities that transcend the physical or material circumstances that constitute your measurable existence as a human being.

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7 responses to “On Reading Harry Frankfurt

  1. John R. Churl

    Yeah, great, except “On Bullshit” precedes The Reasons of Love by 17 years or so. But we wouldn’t expect a historian to bother himself with such things before taking an analytic philosopher to the woodshed.

    After all, what is chronology but a mobile army of metaphors, etc. etc.? Didn’t Nietzsche tell us that the effect is the cause of the cause. Or some other such bullshit?

    • Thanks for this, see the Facebook thread for similar critique of my chronology. I would offer my deepest apologies, except that I don’t think the order of Frankfurt’s argument matters as much as the affiliation of the two books. In other words, I can let my argument stand with simple revisions. Can Frankfurt, or you?

      • John R. Churl

        I’m not sure you can let your argument stand with simple revisions. For one thing, the chronology isn’t insignificant. In the true poststructuralist paranoid style, you seem to read “On Bullshit” as if it were a broadside leveled against post-structuralism. You think that everybody is thinking about Derrida all the time because everybody should be thinking about Derrida all the time because you’re thinking about Derrida all the time (admit it: the first names you look up in the index to any book, after your own, are those of Derrida and Foucault). Like most working in literary studies and history, you think that Derrida and Foucault are far and away the most important anti-realist thinkers who have ever lived and that they’ve somehow “demonstrated” that realism is a lie or whatever.

        Never mind the insurmountably paradoxical nature of the claim. For you, paradox is never a sign of insufficient thinking. No, no: the embrace of a paradox as a conclusion (rather than a problem) is the infallible sign that one is truly a deep thinker unwilling to content himself with the sorts of facile conclusions that the masses lap up. This kind of self-flattery is what leads to smug claims about Frankfurt like this: “It’s a comforting report on the emptiness of post-structuralist notions of facticity, written in primer style for those already incited by journalistic reports of tenured radicals in the ivory towers of higher education.” As if there were anything more comforting and facile than the unknowing embrace of a paradox, letting it stand, throwing up one’s hands and then repeating the paradox as a profound truth no longer in need of defense. It allows you to get the drop on whole thorny areas of philosophy without having to actually read anything beyond the Derrida-Searle debate. That’s so over! and anyone who doesn’t see it must be “mounting a rear-guard action.” Your anti-realism (and that of Derrida and Foucault despite their protestations to the contrary) is one that dispenses its adherents (who generally don’t know anything else) of the task of thinking. It is not the only anti-realism: there are plenty that make more sense. But it is certainly the most attention-seeking and jejune.

        Poststructuralists seem to think that these questions admit of only two responses: there are the realists and the anti-realists. The realists are all the same: the facility with which terms like “realism,” “logical positivism,” “analytic philosophy” and others are routinely lumped together are testimony to this. And the only anti-realists worthy of the name are, of course, the most radical for whoever heard of a truth that wasn’t radical, insane even? And they never suspect that maybe this manichaeanism isn’t really all that sophisticated a way of thinking about such matters.

        Harry Frankfurt, to his credit, is not the unsophisticated rube that you make him out to be by mischaracterizing his “simple” argument (the point of which, as Jonny Butter points out below, you cannot even hear). But I have serious doubts that Harry Frankfurt in 1986 was even conscious that there was such a thing as poststructuralism. Other than the sentence you isolated, is there a single passage in any of Frankfurt’s works that can be construed as being directed at the minor philosophical movements that are the unquestioned ambient ideology of literary and historical studies? But god forbid he make an offhand remark about those you take to be sacred cows. Then, the whole point of the book is suddenly a “report” on “post-structuralism.” But this isn’t a book about poststructuralism! So then the question is: why do you feel targeted by it? Is there a funny smell in here?

  2. to transpose from the key of the colloquial to the key of the philosophical

    Sorry, but that is a bad metaphor. What you’re talking about is more like translation than transposition. Why people use music metaphors when they don’t know the first thing about music is beyond me. (Why so many people don’t know the first thing about music is also beyond me.) When you transpose, the literal meaning – the ‘words’ – are exactly the same in the new key as they were in the old, because the ‘words’ are the intervals, and they are exactly the same.

    The liar responds to the “authority of the truth” or the “inherent nature” of reality, and so remains respectful of it; but the bullshitter acknowledges no such *external* standard of judgment…

    I haven’t read the book in a few years, but I thought that what Frankfurt says is that the bullshitter doesn’t care if he’s lying or not. He isn’t rigorous enough even to ‘refuse to acknowledge’ standards, external or otherwise; he doesn’t give a shit either way. The anti-realists in the contemporary Scientific Realism debate very much do give a shit – in fact their passionate caring is the very reason they are anti-realists. It has nothing to do with disabusing realists of ‘comforting’ notions. The debate is fairly narrow and turns largely on what we can know about certain things. These anti-realists certainly do acknowledge external standards of judgment about a lot, just not everything (e.g. unobservables).

  3. Aw shucks, guys, I sure didn’t mean to offend y’all. To Mr. Churl, I say: I don’t work in library studies except occasionally, and I don’t think Derrida and Foucault are the most important critics of metaphysical realism. To my mind, the most important of these were William James and John Dewey. In any case, you can’t let Frankfurt off this hook–he’s making an argument on behalf of realism, and there’s no doubt that he deploys, implicitly and explicitly, a standard of objectivity which is either archaic or naive (speaking of “so over!”). Nor can you attribute to me some satisfaction with paradox, as if the charge of mere skepticism leveled against post-structuralism still makes sense. I don’t believe in paradox any more than I believe in hypocrisy.
    To Mr. Butter, I say: gimme a fucking break. I don’t read music, but I write songs, have sung them in public, have recorded two, and expect to record at least three more in the coming year. I suppose you could say that the “literal” meanings of the words stay the same, but when they’re sung in a different key, or when the same line goes from E to A (as in the blues), they sound different, so they mean differently. Your attitude toward music makes it a technical problem–more like engineering than poetry.

  4. Pingback: Περί αγάπης – On Love | Heroico Desembarazo

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