Harry Frankfurt got himself in an interesting position. Few analytic philosophers become New York Times bestselling authors, their hardcover items on prominent display beside the cash registers in major book chains. A philosopher by trade, he’s expected to produce writing of a certain academic sort. After the commercial success of 2005’s On Bullshit, which was the result of the combination of a cute yet culturally apt topic with Frankfurt’s signature lucid prose, he is expected to be academic and (for lack of a better word) fun.
On Truth, Frankfurt’s follow-up to On Bullshit, addresses a question raised by its predecessor — the question of what exactly makes truth so valuable. Frankfurt structures his inquiry as a commonsense investigation and his points are observational, almost anecdotal. While choosing not to delve into the more esoteric question of what truth actually is, Frankfurt concludes that truth as we commonly understand it, and our ability to distinguish truth from falsity, are of central importance to the navigation of our daily lives. In order to behave as rational creatures, we must have the applied notion of truth as a guide. Like On Bullshit, Frankfurt peppers the discussions in On Truth with literary, philosophical, and historical references. These references serve both to supplement his argument, and to lighten the overall tone of the paper. At one point, he jokingly ponders whether or not Spinoza had a steady girlfriend.
While most of Frankfurt’s observations are basic, some seem particularly apropos, given current socio-political trends. He notes that while societies can absorb a certain amount of truth-twisting, “much less can they indulge the shabby, narcissistic pretense that being true to the facts is much less important that being ‘true to oneself.’ If there is any attitude that is inherently antithetical to a decent and orderly social life, that is it.”
Frankfurt’s conversational treatment of his subject matter, while eminently readable, can at times seem to lack a degree of analytical rigor that one might expect from an emeritus professor at Princeton. While On Truth leaves something to be desired as a work of philosophy, it seems to know where it stands as a piece of popular essay writing.