On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt (2005)

, 4 Dec 2017

There are books that one wants to buy as soon as we read the title, like this one. A priori, Frankfurt appears as an agent provocateur, as the book is sold on Amazon, where there is a straight no-profanity no-expletives policy.  However the book feels a total ploff flop once we start reading, because the expectations were so high, that the book can only fall short.

Frankfurt's intention is to define what BS means, the intention behind the concept, if any, the function/s it serves, and what does it not mean. Through this essay, we get to see some of the characteristics that Frankfurt unearths and attributes to BS. Thus, BS is a deceptive deliberate misrepresentation, short of lying, by word and/or deeds, produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, unrefined and somewhat spontaneous. Its essence is the lack of connection with truth, an  indifference to how things really are. Frankfurt identifies BS as connected to 'hot air' or bluff but not as much to nonsense. BS is phony not false, colourful and creative, but not precise or sharp.

Frankfurt starts his essay with a cross-examination of the definition of Humbug, as provided by Max Black in 1985. He also compares the meaning and use of the word with the definitions that the Oxford English Dictionary offers of bull, bull session, and BS. He also sketches  St Augustine's typology of lies, and, of course, invites Wittgenstein to the party because the whole essay is a Wittgensteinish exercise.

One of the aims of this work  is to explain the difference between a lie and BS, and Frankfurt succeeds at doing so, because we get to see clearly how both things are essentially different in intention, conception, format, and presentation. Another of the aims of the book is to discuss whether there is more BS today than before and why, and although the discussion on this subject occupies barely two pages, it is quite good and goes straight to the point.

One of the most questionable discussions in the book is, paradoxically, one of the things I enjoyed the most. It revolves about a conversation that Fania Pascal and Wittgenstein had in Cambridge in the 1930s.  She was feeling really bad after having her tonsils removed, and told Wittgenstein that she felt like a dog run down by a car, to which the philosopher replied, somewhat upset, “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”.  To me, the whole point of the discussion between Pascal and Wittgenstein is that she was talking hyperbolically and metaphorically to express how bad she felt and how unwell she was, and, we can guess, to get a bit of friendly support. But she did not get any because Wittgenstein was not really listening to her, he was hearing the words coming out of her mouth and interpreted them literally, as an autistic person would do. She wasn't implying that she knew how a dog would feel in those circumstances, or that a human and a dog would feel the same if run down by a car, or that she knew how a dog in those circumstances felt but decided to ignore it for the sake of verbal flourish. The point of the episode is not, like Frankfurt says, on Pascal disregard for reality when she speaks, it is that Pascal and Wittengstein were speaking two different languages because their emphasis was different. Hers was on the flourished colours of her pain. His on the literal transcription of reality that he expected from language in a mathematical-like precision. That being the case, to me, the anecdote is pointless in a discussion on the subject of BS.

While reading this book, I wondered why the need to give BS 'a' definition, or rather one meaning, or so it appeared to me. The Urban Dictionary  allows us to appreciate the different  shades of the word in common everyday colloquial language. In my personal life, I have had the word speared at me to mean, depending on the context and the person,: 1/ you don't know what you are talking about (even though I did know what I was talking about). 2/ You are kidding! 3/ You are talking nonsense.  5/ You are lying and you know it, but want to fool me. 6/ I don't believe you, I don't want it to be true!

The beauty of language (when a precise definition is not needed for the exercise of Law, legislation or relevant philosophical analysis, and when the word has not been used for decades or centuries and its meaning is quite established) is that language is alive, fluid, and in constant movement. At times one has to be familiar with the person to 'get' the way and meaning s/he uses and gives to a certain word, the context, the colour, the intention. There are words with a definition that most people would agree on, while other words have so many different hues and undertones, that offering an unique definition feels like a corset. So, why reducing a word to a sort of ivory goddess-like monolith with a specific colour, material and varnish? Why trying to define philosophically a word that was never meant to be philosophical or used philosophically?  I don't mean to say that the exercise in the book is pointless or useless, I mean to say that there is not much philosophy behind Bs, Bsiting and Bsiters, and the exercise is more about how to approach a concept to define it precisely than anything else. Said differently, it is more about the exercise itself than about the word that the philosopher has chosen for this book. Which is interesting the same.

In a way, this book shows (I don't know whether willingly, as a joke, or whether unwillingly, as an academic exercise gone bananas) the need of the Academia to define colloquial and popular words and concepts to give them a status that they were never meant to have. Or, on the contrary, the need and demand of modern pop culture to have its most darling  words sealed with the Academia's seal of approval and the Academica, in response to the demand, takes a leap of faith and dances with Bs itself.

At least to me, this work feels as if the author had had a great idea, started to write a book, something had happened, and he had interrupted his work and left the work incomplete. Yet, it is a nice read overall with some good points to ponder. It is just that I wanted more. I expected more. It could have had more depth and more juice!

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally Really Grow Up by James Hollis (2005)

, 1 Dec 2017

Life is not a problem to be solved (loc. 3093).

This is the third book I read by Hollis, a Jungian psychoanalyst who specialises in the so-called middle passage, psychological true maturity and individuation. Hollis has the virtue to have me to stop and wow quite often, and this book was not different. Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life  engaged my head and my soul, spoke to me and my hunger for transcending reality as imposed to me by gender, age, and cultural constrictions, which I have always instinctively rejected as being addons not truly me. 

Because Hollis is a former academic with a background in Humanities who became a properly trained Jungian therapist later on in life, his writing is colourful, literary, sophisticated and very polished. His discourse goes from the mundane to the philosophical and the spiritual and does so in depth, without the usual psycho-babble you find elsewhere in pop-psychology these days. If you have a good level of education or self-education, are familiar with Jungian terminology and approach to the psyche, and love reading books by people who preach by example, this is your book.

This is perhaps Hollis' most revolutionary and confronting book on the subject. On the one hand, in this book Hollis does not provide you with any shortcut or present a rosy view of anything, especially of your future in you decide to stay right where you are, doing what you do. Hollis debunks romantic love, traditional family, professional success, consumerism, pop ideologies, the many obsessions and addictions of our daily life (the obsession with health, youth and media included), New Age and herd behaviour, and does so without bitterness.  His definition of soul as psyche, his emphasis on the power of the myth and  symbols to the well-being of society and the healthiness of the psyche, his castigation of major religions as not really spiritual, among other pearls, might be controversial.

On the other hand, Hollis won't tell us how we have to lead our life, how to behave, or how to do things. He says that the middle passage will only be successful after going through our suffering, finding out from where it originates,  burying our old set of values and ways of being, and giving birth to others that are more in tune with our soul's desire.  We have to leave being and  playing the victim, and assign a positive spin to our life dramas or moments of despair.

This book is a call to listening to our deep calling, to taking responsibility for our own life, and to moving beyond repetitive patterns of behaviour and personal history. Each person has a journey that is personal, nobody else's, so there is no cookie cutter to cut the fat, we have to de-construct our false self ourselves.

Feeling good or getting comfort is not the aim of this book, nor is numbing your pain, but  that of enlarging your life and achieving wholeness. Without the suffering, the non-suffering is taken for granted, so suffering has a function, to allow you grow up and appreciate things more.

According to Hollis,  the two major tasks of the grown-up to be aren't money, position, possessions or Prozac, they are: 1/ The recovery of personal authority, to find what is true for us and find the courage to live it in the world. 2/ The discovery of a personal spirituality that resonates with us, and is meaningful to us, no matter what other people think, and be willing to stand for what it is true for us. A kind of Braving the Wilderness.

Everything Hollis wants to say is, "If you do not like your life, change it, but stop blaming others, for even if they did hurt you, you are the one who has been making the choices of adulthood." (locs. 3210-3211). Ouch!

Hollis has a great compassion towards human suffering, it is tuned to the needs and troubles that one faces when crisis strikes in adulthood, because he has been there himself. However, because he's a depth therapist, he won't tell you what you want to hear if you are going through depression, anxiety, desperation, marital crisis, empty-nest syndrome, professional crisis, and so on. He will tell you what you need to know, so you get something out of your pain through your pain, you become yourself, dare to show your self to the world, and became the individual who your soul always wanted you to be:
 "often, inexplicably, it is the soul itself that has brought us to that difficult place in order to enlarge us" (loc. 212).  
Hollis is really good at defining the main words and concepts he uses throughout the book. My favourite are the following:
> Soul = "our intuited sense of our own depth, our deepest-running, purposeful energy, our longing for meaning, and our participation in something much greater than ordinary consciousness can grasp" (locs. 169-171).
> Ego as "that thin wafer of consciousness floating on an iridescent ocean called the soul" (locs. 230-231).  > Self as "the embodiment of nature’s plan for us, or the will of the gods -- whichever metaphor works better for you". (locs. 237-238).
> Complex/es as a "cluster of energy in the unconscious, charged by historic events, reinforced through repetition, embodying a fragment of our personality, and generating a programmed response and an implicit set of expectations."  (locs. 1273-1275).
 > Doubt = a form of radical trust, a trust that the world is richer than we know, so abundant that we can hardly bear.  (Locs 2944-5).

Hollis succeeds at explaining why the problems of the second half of life are almost a new thing, and also the direct link between the disconnection with ancestral myths and tribal rituals and the rise in individual and social neurosis and pathologies, and how the psyche longs for a connection with a larger deeper world in which certain personal and social energies are channelled, transformed and healed.

Although this is not a how-to book, Hollis presents us with some poignant questions to play psychoanalysts with ourselves. The most important one, to me, is: "If I have done the expected things, according to my best understanding of myself and the world, so why does my life not feel right?” (locs. 453-4). I think this is important because it doesn't focus on the world out there,  the image we project of ourselves, our achievements, how successful we are, how many houses, cars or jewels we own, but on how we feel inside.

Other major questions to ask ourselves are:
> What gods, what forces, what family, what social environment have framed your reality, perhaps supported, perhaps constricted it?
> Whose life I have been living?
> Why do you believe that you have to hide so much, from others, from yourself?
> Why have you come to this book, or why has it to come to you, now?
> Why does the idea of the soul both trouble you and feel familiar, like a long-lost companion?
> Is the life you are living too small for your soul’s desire?
> Why is now the time, if ever it is to happen, for you to answer the summons of the soul, to live the second, larger life?

Some queries to spear to ourselves when faced with the harshness of life (guilt, grief, loss, betrayal, doubt, loneliness, depression, addiction, or anxiety) are: How am I to enlarge consciousness in this place?  How find the meaning for me in this suffering? What new life is seeking to live through me? What must I do to bring it into being? What is the compulsive behaviour a defence against ?

When obsessed or addicted to something (shopping, alcohol, cleaning, working, exercising, whatever)  or engulfed by energies or practices that do not satisfy us internally, we should start reading the world psychologically and ask ourselves, “What is this touching in me?” “Where does this come from in my history?” “Where have I felt this kind of energy before?” “Can I see the pattern beneath the surface?” “What is the hidden idea, or complex, that is creating this pattern?” “Is there something promising magic, seduction, ‘solution’ here?” Also “Am I made larger, or smaller, by this path, this relationship, this decision?” 

Although I loved the book, there are a few things that I consider delusions, not clear enough, or based on conceptions of what life should be. I don't think they are intentionally so, more, perhaps, the result of the author's age and the life he has lived, not as much of the life other people live.

1/ Tool-less.
Hollis is perfectly aware that most people have not the means, economical or other, to have therapy or psychoanalysis, even if they need it and want to. On the other hand, psychological blocks are usually black points in our eye that we cannot see even if they are in front of us, because they are right in the middle of the eye. That demands the help of a therapist, analyst or coach. I understand that Hollis doesn't want to provide a cookie cutter of an answer for anybody who is suffering from a personal crisis or wants to grow up and enlarge their lives, but I would have appreciated he making an effort, because, after all, he is a therapist and has the tools. It is true that the book has some suggestions about questions to pose to ourselves to start a inner dialogue (some of which I have already mentioned), but they cannot be answered if you are blocked, and some of them are too philosophical for the average John and Jane.  Many people will buy this book because they were expecting help, but many of them won't have the intellectual holders to catch everything that Hollis throws at us.  I hope that his forthcoming book will be more hands down and address the lack of practical advice that some might find in this book.  

2/ Muddle in the Middle.
Second half of life is a misleading title, because it departs from ontological  principles that do not reflect who we are as physical and social beings in the 21st century. It presupposes that we have a certain life span guaranteed on  this planet, and that around that half way we have a crisis, and that most of us have a grow-up spur at around the same time. I have said it before, my grandma died as an elderly lady at 48 years of age, so her middle age was 24 and she was probably in a corner by then having no way to go and unhappy to the core; there are women and men on this planet, right now, still living that way. Nowadays, 50y.o.a. is the new 40, or the new 35, or just 50 depending on one's level of maturity and physical state, and the culture and part of the world we were born or live in. On the other hand, a period that goes from 35 to 90y.o.a is a bit too vast! Or mid-life crisis being mostly between 35-45, well, it is a bit too precise!

3/ Mirage.
Hollis says that in the second half of life "We lose friends, our children, our energies, and finally our lives. Who could manage in the face of such seeming defeat?." (locs.  3096-3098). Isn't that a total illusion? The same illusion that generates the obsession with health? There is no guarantee that we aren't going to be killed while healthy or when young, that our families and friends are going to die before we do, or vice versa. It is the same illusion as believing that, by taking care of ourselves, we will delay death. In fact,  we could be super-fit and super-young and be run over a car when walking on the footpath. We might have to deal with the death of all our family when young, because they died in an accident, or killed themselves, or were killed.   

4/ The Brady Bunch.
At least in the Western World, traditional family is not about a man and woman marrying and having children. There are straight couples that don't marry, live together de facto for decades and decide not to have children even if they biologically can. Some uncoupled individuals decide that they have a maternal or paternal instinct and have surrogate mothers giving birth to the children they will parent and love. There are gay couples who live a very traditional life except for the fact that they are gay. There are  men and women who decide not to marry or have children, and join a monastery and form part of a bigger family. Others, won't join the monastery but don't need the need to marry or have children to become whole. The examples are endless. I say this because, asking ourselves what values and ways of being we want to pass on to our children, is a question that is not as valid now as it was 50 years ago. And sometimes Hollis speaks as if the only mature way of life was getting married and having children. I actually know many married people with children who have no maturity at all. I am not saying that Hollis is not aware of this, I am saying that the book does not always reads this way.

5/ Tongue Twist.
At the beginning of the book Hollis says that the aim of the book is to present things in a simple language that most people can understand. However, many times I thought that a 'commoner,' so to speak, would find difficult  getting through  them because of the vocabulary, the high degree of symbolism and/or abstraction. I think this is especially the case in the chapter on mature spirituality, which it is beautifully written but very elitist. 

5/ The pain of  the pen.
When you have remedial massage you learn that you get rid of your pain through the pain, as the treatment inflicts pain on the body. So, in a way, going through your suffering, as mentioned by Hollis here, is a bit like that. However his insistence on the suffering sounds a bit masochist at times. I am not saying that there isn't truth in what Hollis says, because I have experienced that to be true for me, but hey he insists too much on accepting the suffering and going through it. Some people won't be able to do that, and will collapse, just saying.We cannot blame them for not being able to stand the pain, find meaning in it, or  get out successfully from it.

6/ Spirited Away.
Hollis' insistence o spirituality starts very well, but it ends becoming a bit of fixation and, dare to say, 'religious'. There are ways of getting meaning out of life that aren't based on spirituality. Non nihilist atheists I  know find meaning in knowing that our transience demands awareness, living the moment, and making the most of our minutes, that meaning is found in leading an ethical life for the sake of it and leaving their offspring a good legacy, and are very mature and sound people. On the other hand, I also known deeply spiritual people whose lives are full of giving meaning to their suffering, and they haven't grown much inside and are still emotionally and psychologically immature.  

Individuation is a personal individual thing, so things that constrict an individual won't constrict another, and things that helps to expand a person won't help another. Culture, family history, life circumstances are all impositions on the soul. I would have liked Hollis commenting on how different cultures, religious beliefs and language favour, more or less, individuals. Or put differently, is individuation easier or more difficult to achieve by members of a given culture, religion or linguistic background than ohers?  Does a culture creates more neurosis than another?

This is a beautiful written book, lyric at times, quite hard at others that loves you toughly and tenderly, and shows you a way that is not what you might be looking for but it might be your best shot to succeed. The book will certainly satisfy those who love Jungian analysis and Jungian ways of looking at the inner and outer world that aren't simplistic and allow for our individuality to be recognised, developed and expressed.

One gets to feel how being a Jungian therapist is what Hollis was meant to be, because his book oozes passion for his profession, and for the wonders that Depth Psychology can do for anyone, not just if you are in crisis. He sees the Jungian analyst as a mediator with your soul and the self, and that is a wonderful way to put it. There is a lot of soul in this book.

Having said that, this book might not be useful or satisfying to you if:
> You are a convinced nihilist.
> You are very religious in a traditional way.
> You are looking for a New Age book.
> You need a book simply written with everyday vocabulary. 
> You are looking for a set of rules, step by step DIY system to solve your personal crisis.
> You need somebody to tell you how to solve your problems and how to get out of your misery.
> You are looking for something that is useful, but not that deep or complicated.  
> You aren't interested on Jungian depth Psychology and want a behavioural approach.

Great edition! I love when I get a book on Kindle, and I find it to be typo free, properly organised, notes properly linked back and forth, and everything as it is in a hard-copy. That demands from the editors giving a damn about us, customers, and I really appreciate it!