Harry G. Frankfurt, Philosopher With a Surprise Best Seller, Dies at 94

Harry G. Frankfurt, Philosopher With a Surprise Best Seller, Dies at 94

He spent his career exploring will and deceit. Then came a sudden success: a bluntly titled book that found that one strain of dishonesty with a barnyard name was worse than lying. Harry G. Frankfurt in 2005, the year his book on a certain kind of dishonesty became a best seller. He made his name with two seminal papers, in 1969 and 1971, that changed the debate free will. July 17, 2023, 12:20 p.m. ET Harry G. Frankfurt, a philosopher whose fresh ideas about the human will were overshadowed in the broader culture by his analysis of a kind of dishonesty that he found worse than lying — an analysis presented in a bluntly titled surprise best seller, “On Bullshit” — died on Sunday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 94. His death, at a nursing facility, had a number of causes, among them congestive heart failure, his daughter Kate Frankfurt said. Professor Frankfurt's major contribution to philosophy was a series of thematically interrelated papers, written from the 1960s through the 2000s, in which he situated the will — people's motivating wants and desires — at the center of a unified vision of freedom, moral responsibility, personal identity and the sources of life's meaning. For Professor Frankfurt, volition, more than reason or morality, was the defining aspect of the human condition. Despite the ambition and inventiveness of this project — the philosopher Michael Bratman praised it as “powerful and exciting philosophy” of great “depth and fecundity” — Professor Frankfurt became best known for a single, irreverent paper largely unrelated to his life's main work. The paper, written in the mid-1980s under the same title as his eventual book, discussed what to his mind was a pervasive but underanalyzed feature of our culture: a form of dishonesty akin to lying but even less considerate of reality. Whereas the liar is at least mindful of the truth (if only to avoid it), the “bullshitter,” Professor Frankfurt wrote, is distinguished by his complete indifference to how things are. Whether its purveyor is an advertiser, a political spin doctor or a cocktail-party […]

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