Harry Frankfurt’s Critique of Postmodernist “Bullshit”


“Harry G. Frankfurt.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 29) Q: Your new book, “On Truth,” is a sequel to “On Bull–,” a slim philosophical tract published by Princeton University Press that became an accidental best seller last year.
What do you mean by accidental? People didn’t know they were buying it?
. . .

In your new book, you are especially critical of academics and their theories of postmodernism, which treat all truth as an artificial construction as opposed to an independent reality.
I used to teach at Yale, which was at one time a center of postmodernist literary theory. Derrida was there. Paul de Man was there. I originally wrote the bull– essay at Yale, and a physics professor told me that it was appropriate that this essay should have been written at Yale, because, after all, he said, Yale is the bull– capital of the world.
But there is probably far more bull– in politics and entertainment than in academia.
I hope so!
What about in philosophy, which you still teach?
I think there is a certain amount of bull– in philosophy — people pretending to have important ideas when they don’t and obscuring the fact by using a lot of impenetrable language.

For the full interview, see:
DEBORAH SOLOMON. “Questions for Harry G. Frankfurt; Fighting Bull .” The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., October 22, 2006): 29.
(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original print version, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)

The reference to the first book is:
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

The reference to the sequel is:
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Truth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.


Source of book image on left: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_T_py15A4TNY/SI9o5-lJ-3I/AAAAAAAAABc/ui9BmdO4Dns/s400/On+Bullshit.jpg

Source of book image on right: http://www.coverbrowser.com/image/bestsellers-2006/509-1.jpg

Compared to the Neanderthals, the Cro-Magnons Had “an Ongoing Culture of Innovation”

In an earlier entry Fagan discusses the eyed needle as key technological advantage of the Cro-Magnons over the Neanderthals. In the passage quoted below, he discusses some other key differences between the two human species.

(p. 14) We know from their art that they looked at their world with more than practical eyes, through a lens of the intangible that changed constantly over the generations. It was this symbolism, these beliefs, as much as their technological innovations and layered clothing, that gave them the decisive advantage over their neighbors in the seesawlike climatic world of the late Ice Age. There were more of them living in larger groups than there were Neanderthals, too, so there were more intense social interactions, much greater food gathering activity from an early age, and an ongoing culture of innovation that came (p. 15) from a growing sophistication of language, advances in technology, and a greater life expectancy. In a world where all knowledge passed orally from one generation to the next, this enhanced cultural buffer between the moderns and the harsh climate provided an extra, albeit sometimes fragile, layer of protection during the intense cold of the so-called Last Glacial Maximum, from 21,500 to 18,000 years ago.

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Charles II Took a Gamble on Toleration


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A19) Early in “A Gambling Man,” a detailed and thoroughly engrossing examination of the Restoration’s first decade, Jenny Uglow notes that Charles Stuart, upon his ascension, “wanted passionately to be seen as the healer of his people’s woes and the glory of his nation.” Cromwell’s regime had featured constant war and constant taxes. The population was bitterly divided among Anglicans, Catholics and dissenting Protestants–Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, Baptists. A huge standing army had burdened the people financially and frightened them; such an army, it was not unreasonably thought, could be used to impose a tyranny.
. . .
As a result of such divisions, Charles became a “gambler,” as Ms. Uglow puts it–not at cards or gaming tables but at affairs of state. His biggest gamble was on something he fervently wanted to achieve: religious toleration for all sects and the freedom for Englishmen to follow their own “tender consciences” in individual worship. He forwarded this policy in Parliament only to receive his first major defeat with the passage of the Corporation Act, a law that took the power of corporations (governing towns and businesses) away from Nonconformists and handed it back to the Church of England. Charles had gambled on “the force of reasonable argument,” Ms. Uglow says, but was ultimately defeated “by the entrenched interests of the [Anglican] Church” and “the deep-held suspicions” of Parliament, which believed that England’s dissenting sects posed a persistent threat. That Charles was willing to go head-to-head with Parliament for such a cause, even in failure, was especially audacious, considering his father’s fate.
. . .
In his desire to be a monarch of the people, Charles was determined to make himself accessible–in the early days of his reign he threw open the palace of Whitehall to all comers. He gambled, with some success, that (in Ms. Uglow’s words) “easy access would make people of all views feel they might reach him, preventing conspiracies.” During the 1666 Great Fire of London he and his brother, James, duke of York, went out into the streets and put themselves alongside soldiers and workmen. They could be seen “filthy, smoke-blackened and tired,” frantically creating a firebreak as the blaze consumed London like a monstrous beast.

For the full review, see:
NED CRABB. “BOOKSHELF; Risky Business; A bitterly divided nation, a monarchy splendiferously restored..” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., NOVEMBER 27, 2009): A19.
(Note: ellipses added; bracketed word in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review is dated NOVEMBER 26, 2009.)

Book being reviewed:
Uglow, Jenny. A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Tax Hike Would Hurt Entrepreneurs

(p. A17) When Congress returns from its summer recess, members will face a pivotal decision about the expiring Bush tax cuts. President Barack Obama has called for their permanent extension for singles with incomes below $200,000 and married couples with incomes below $250,000, but has proposed that most of the tax cuts for households with higher incomes be allowed to expire.
. . .
The fact that there are millions of people in the lower tax brackets with small amounts of business income may be interesting for some purposes, but it is irrelevant for the assessment of the economic impact of the tax hikes.
The numbers are clear. According to IRS data, fully 48% of the net income of sole proprietorships, partnerships, and S corporations reported on tax returns went to households with incomes above $200,000 in 2007.
. . .
Economic research supports a large impact. A pair of papers by economists Robert Carroll, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Harvey Rosen and Mark Rider that were published in 1998 and 2000 by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed tax return data and uncovered high responsiveness of sole proprietors’ business activity to tax rates. Their estimates imply that increasing the top rate to 40.8% from 35% (an official rate of 39.6% plus another 1.2 percentage points from the restoration of a stealth provision that phases out deductions), as in Mr. Obama’s plan, would reduce gross receipts by more than 7% for sole proprietors subject to the higher rate.
These results imply a similar effect on proprietors’ investment expenditures. A paper published by R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and William M. Gentry of Williams College in the American Economic Review in 2000 also found that increasing progressivity of the tax code discourages entrepreneurs from starting new businesses.

For the full commentary, see:
KEVIN A. HASSETT and ALAN D. VIARD. “The Small Business Tax Hike and the 97% Fallacy; The president’s plan to raise top marginal rates is holding back the very people who should be leading the economic recovery.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., SEPTEMBER 3, 2010): A17.
(Note: ellipses added.)

One of the papers by Carroll et al, is:
Carroll, Robert, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mark Rider, and Harvey S. Rosen. “Income Taxes and Entrepreneurs’ Use of Labor.” Journal of Labor Economics 18, no. 2 (April 2000): 324-51.

The Hubbard paper is:
Gentry, William M., and R. Glenn Hubbard. “Tax Policy and Entrepreneurial Entry.” The American Economic Review 90, no. 2 (May 2000): 283-87.

Brit Papers Survived Due to “the Gratifying Defeat of the Luddite Unions by Rupert Murdoch”


“Evans says: “Ultimately, Mrs Thatcher was the reason I was fired, because I attacked her so much.” Source of caption and photo: online version of The Independent on Sunday article quoted and cited below.

(p. 12) As a condition of acquiring both The Times and The Sunday Times in early 1981, Murdoch promised that the independence of each would be protected by a board of directors, and made other solemn guarantees.

“On this basis,” Evans wrote in Good Times, Bad Times, “I accepted Rupert Murdoch’s invitation to edit The Times on February 17 1981. My ambition,” he admitted, “got the better of my judgement.” Every assurance regarding editorial independence, he added, was blithely disregarded.
On 9 March 1982, the day after he’d come back from burying his father at Bluebell Wood cemetery in Prestatyn, Harold Evans was sacked.
“Ultimately,” he says, “Mrs Thatcher was the reason I was fired. Because I was attacking her so much. When she started to dismantle the British economy, the most cogent critic of that policy which led, OK, to… a lot of things… was The Sunday Times. I wrote 70 per cent of that criticism myself. When I became editor of The Times, I continued to criticise monetarism. But I could still see some of the good things about her.”
“Just remind us?”
“I’m thinking – and you probably won’t agree with this because I sense that you’re a firm supporter of the NUJ [National Union of Journalists] – mainly of her dealings with the unions.”
“How do you feel about her now?”
“I think she is a very brave woman.”
“Hitler was brave.”
“Yes, but… she was right about terrorism. She was right about the IRA.”
“Do you think Britain would be a better place if she’d never existed?”
“No. I think Britain benefited from her having been there. Britain was becoming so arthritic with labour restrictions.”
Good Times, Bad Times is an unforgiving portrait of Rupert Murdoch.”
. . .
(p. 13) [Evans] has called Rupert Murdoch elitist, anti-democratic, and asserted that the Australian cares nothing about the opinion of others, so long as his business expands. This is the same man who refers to “the gratifying defeat of the Luddite unions by Rupert Murdoch”.
. . .
“So how do you feel about the Murdoch empire now?”
Evans pauses. “I’m not that familiar with the British… OK. Let’s take an alternative scenario. Murdoch never arrives. I manage to take control of The Sunday Times with the management buyout. Then I get defeated by the unions. The Independent wouldn’t be here. Rival papers survived because they got the technology. Thanks to Murdoch.”

For the full interview, see:
Robert Chalmers, Interviewer. “Harold Evans: ‘All I tried to do was shed a little light’.” The Independent on Sunday (Sun., June 13, 2010): 8 & 10-13.
(Note: free-standing ellipsis, between paragraphs, added; internal ellipses in original; italics in original; bracketed name added in place of “he.”)

The Crucial Invention that Cro-Magnon’s Had and Neanderthals Lacked: the Eyed Needle

(p. 13) Both Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons coped effortlessly with abrupt climatic changes from near-temperate to extremely frigid conditions. How well, however, the Neanderthals were able to deal with deep snow cover and long months of subzero temperatures is a matter of ongoing debate. They lacked what was, perhaps, one of the most revolutionary inventions in history, and an inconspicuous one at that: the eyed needle, fashioned from a sliver of antler, bone, or ivory. If their expertise with antler is any guide, the Cro-Magnons must have been adept woodworkers in the more temperate environments of southwestern Asia. When they moved north, they settled oil a continent where antler and hone were potential replacements for wood, and where mammoth and other large animal hones had to be used as fuel in more treeless environments. With brilliant opportunism, they used small stone chisels to remove fine splinters from antler and bone, which they then ground and polished into slender needles. Carefully fashioned stone awls served as drills to make the holes for the thongs that served as thread, substitutes for the vegetable fibers used with wooden needles in their ancestral homes.

Every Cro-Magnon, man, woman, and child, must have been aware that protection from clothing came in layers, that warmth escaped from the head and extremities. As we will see, an indirect source of information on the garments they wore is the traditional clothing used by Eskimo and lntuit in very cold environments–the argument being that there are only a limited number of ways in which layered, cold-weather clothing can be fashioned from hides and skins. The needle allowed women to tailor garments from the fur and skin of different animals, such as wolves, reindeer, and arctic foxes, taking full advantage of each hide or pelt’s unique qualities to reduce the dangers of frostbite and hypothermia in environments of rapidly changing extremes.

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

Ecosystems May Benefit from Gulf Oil Spill

ColdSeepTubewormCroppedLarge2010-09-01.jpg“In a cold-seep community a third of a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico, the orange mat in the foreground is a colony of microbes that live on oil and gas seeping up from the seabed, starting a complex food chain that results in a dark ecosystem. In the background are tubeworms, which can grow eight feet long and live for centuries. Near the tubeworms are snail and clam shells, which appear to be empty.”

Source of caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.0030102.g001&representation=PNG_M (The photo on the NYT site was identical, but was in a more user-friendly format at the URL just-cited.)

(p. D1) . . . , in 1977, oceanographers working in the deep Pacific stumbled on bizarre ecosystems lush with clams, mussels and big tube worms — a cornucopia of abyssal life built on microbes that thrived in hot, mineral-rich waters welling up from volcanic cracks, feeding on the chemicals that leached into the seawater and serving as the basis for whole chains of life that got along just fine without sunlight.

In 1984, scientists found that the heat was not necessary. In exploring the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, they discovered sunless habitats powered by a new form of nourishment. The microbes that founded the food chain lived not on hot minerals but on cold petrochemicals seeping up from the icy seabed.
Today, scientists have identified roughly one hundred sites in the gulf where cold-seep communities of clams, mussels and tube worms flourish in the sunless depths. And they have accumulated evidence of many more — hundreds by some estimates, thousands by others — most especially in the gulf’s deep, unexplored waters.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if there were 2,000 communities, from suburbs to cities,” said Ian R. MacDonald, an oceanographer at Florida State University who studies the dark ecosystems.
. . .
(p. D4) “There’s lots of uncertainty,” said Charles R. Fisher, a professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University, who is leading a federal study of the dark habitats and who observed the nearby community. “Our best hope is that the impact is neutral or a minor problem.”
A few scientists say the gushing oil — despite its clear harm to pelicans, turtles and other forms of coastal life — might ultimately represent a subtle boon to the creatures of the cold seeps and even to the wider food chain.
“The gulf is such a great fishery because it’s fed organic matter from oil,” said Roger Sassen, a specialist on the cold seeps who recently retired from Texas A&M University. “It’s preadapted to crude oil. The image of this spill being a complete disaster is not true.”

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM J. BROAD. “Cold, Dark and Teeming With Life.” The New York Times, Science Times Section (Tues., June 22, 2010): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date June 21, 2010.)

More than a Quarter of Weathercasters Believe “Global Warming is a Scam”

(p. A1) Joe Bastardi, . . . , a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures.

“There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing,” Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather’s Web site.
Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was “caused mostly by human activities.”
More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement “Global warming is a scam,” the researchers found.

For the full story, see:
LESLIE KAUFMAN. “Scientists and Weathercasters at Odds over Climate Change.” The New York Times (Tues., March 30, 2010): A1 & A16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated March 29, 2010 and had the title “Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming.”)

Vatican Made Bellarmine a Saint in 1930, but Still Says Galileo Erred

GalileoBust2010-09-01.jpg “A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence’s cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist’s remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.
According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo’s body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, “symmetrical to a beatification,” said Mr. Galluzzi.
After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo’s remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence’s Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany’s powers that they were outside the Vatican’s control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo’s permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.
. . .
Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope’s theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)
Pope John Paul II reopened the Galileo case in 1981, and in 1992 issued his committee’s findings: that the judges who condemned Galileo had erred but that the scientist had also erred in his arrogance in thinking that his theory would be accepted with no physical evidence.
. . .
. . . as recently as last fall, at a news conference introducing an exhibition of historic telescopic instruments at the Vatican Museums, the director of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, referred without blinking to “the errors committed by both sides” — indicating both the church and Galileo.

For the full story, see:
RACHEL DONADIO. “Florence Journal; A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel.” The New York Times (Fri., July 23, 2010): A1 & A9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 22, 2010.)

By at Least 50,000 Years Ago Homo Sapiens “Developed the Full Battery of Cognitive Skills that We Ourselves Possess”

Before the passage quoted below, Fagan briefly discusses the two probable waves of humans spreading out from Africa, the first of which is believed to have occurred about 100,000 years ago.

(p. 10) A second, even less well-documented push seems to have taken place later, around fifty thousand years ago. This time, moderns settled throughout Near East Asia and stayed there, apparently living alongside a sparse Neanderthal population. This widely accepted theory assumes that by this rime the newcomers had all the intellectual capabilities of Homo sapiens. Just when and how they acquired them remains a major unsolved problem. All we can say is that at some point between one hundred thousand and fifty thousand years (p. 11) ago, at a seminal yet still little known moment in history Homo sapiens developed the full battery of cognitive skills that we ourselves possess.

Fagan, Brian. Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
(Note: italics in original.)

Jeff Bezos’ Goal: “Earth’s Biggest Selection”


Jeff Bezos. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 18) You’re a longtime science buff who studied electrical engineering and computer science at Princeton. Why did you want to be a bookseller in the first place?
You have to go back in time to 1994, and there’s something very unusual about the book category. There are more items in the book category than there are items in any other product category. One of the things it was obvious you could do with an online store is have a much more complete selection.

Initially, Amazon sold books exclusively, but it has since expanded into a retail omnivore that sells basketballs and vacuum cleaners and hamster food and everything under the sun. What is your goal, exactly?
We want to have earth’s biggest selection. Earth’s biggest river, earth’s biggest selection.

For the full interview, see:
DEBORAH SOLOMON. “QUESTIONS FOR Jeffrey P. Bezos; Book Learning.” The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., December 6, 2009): 18.

(Note: bold in original, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)
(Note: the online version of the interview is dated December 2, 2009.)