Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes's <i>Meditations</i>

Princeton University Press
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In this classic work, best-selling author Harry Frankfurt provides a compelling analysis of the question that not only lies at the heart of Descartes's Meditations, but also constitutes the central preoccupation of modern philosophy: on what basis can reason claim to provide any justification for the truth of our beliefs? Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen provides an ingenious account of Descartes's defense of reason against his own famously skeptical doubts that he might be a madman, dreaming, or, worse yet, deceived by an evil demon into believing falsely.

Frankfurt's masterful and imaginative reading of Descartes's seminal work not only stands the test of time; one imagines Descartes himself nodding in agreement.

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About the author

Harry G. Frankfurt is professor of philosophy emeritus at Princeton University. His books include the best-selling On Bullshit and The Reasons of Love
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Princeton University Press
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Published on
Jan 10, 2009
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Philosophy / Epistemology
Philosophy / History & Surveys / Modern
Philosophy / Movements / Rationalism
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One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. 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 bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."

Frankfurt, one of the world's most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory here. With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

La charlatanería es un fenómeno al que cada vez estamos más expuestos. Todo el mundo lo sabe y todos, en cierta medida, contribuimos a ella. Y por eso tendemos a no darle importancia, aunque cada vez incide más en nuestra sociedad. Frankfurt nos ayuda a reflexionar sobre ella y nos explica que la charlatanería, por inocente que parezca, es mucho más perniciosa que la mentira. A un mentiroso se le puede descubrir, pero el charlatán no está del lado de la verdad ni del lado de lo falso. No le importa si las cosas que dice describen correctamente la realidad; se limita a extraerlas de aquí y de allá o a manipularlas con el único objetivo de que se adapten a sus intereses, totalmente indiferente al bien común.

En el segundo texto, Frankfurt explora el reverso de la moneda: la verdad, otro concepto no tan obvio como se podría pensar. La devoción de nuestra cultura por la charlatanería está más arraigada que nuestro tibio compromiso con la verdad. Algunas personas consideran que las categorías “verdadero” o “falso” carecen de sentido, e incluso quienes dicen amar la verdad pueden parecernos un poco pedantes. En la práctica, la mayoría de nosotros nos atenemos a ella cuando es estrictamente necesario y, a menudo, buscamos alternativas que nos ayuden a “vendernos” mejor. No obstante, pese a todo, la civilización sigue adelante como si tal cosa. Pero ¿en qué nos basamos para guiar nuestra conducta? ¿No será que, en realidad, nuestra despreocupada y superficial relación con los hechos nos está entonteciendo? ¿O es que “todo vale”? ¿No creen ustedes que, por lo menos, deberíamos preguntarnos para qué sirve la verdad?

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