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The Tally Ho

Monday, February 14, 2005

Talking Bull

Elwood emails the following article to me, "Between Truth and Lies, An Unprintable Ubiquity" by the NY Times's Peter Edidin.
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much [bull]. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize [bull] and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry."

The essay goes on to lament that lack of inquiry, despite the universality of the phenomenon. "Even the most basic and preliminary questions about [bull] remain, after all," Mr. Frankfurt writes, "not only unanswered but unasked."

The balance of the work tries, with the help of Wittgenstein, Pound, St. Augustine and the spy novelist Eric Ambler, among others, to ask some of the preliminary questions - to define the nature of a thing recognized by all but understood by none.

What is [bull], after all? Mr. Frankfurt points out it is neither fish nor fowl. Those who produce it certainly aren't honest, but neither are they liars, given that the liar and the honest man are linked in their common, if not identical, regard for the truth.

"It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," Mr. Frankfurt writes. "A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it."

The bull artist, on the other hand, cares nothing for truth or falsehood. The only thing that matters to him is "getting away with what he says," Mr. Frankfurt writes. An advertiser or a politician or talk show host given to [bull] "does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it," he writes. "He pays no attention to it at all."...

..."In the 20 years since it was published," Mr. Frankfurt said, "I don't think a year has passed in which I haven't gotten one or two letters or e-mails from people about it."

One man from Wales set some of the text to music; another who worked in the financial industry wanted to create an annual award for the worst piece of analysis published in his field (an idea apparently rejected by his superiors). G. A. Cohen, the Chichele professor of social and political theory at All Souls College, Oxford University, has written two papers on the subject.

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