Harry Frankfurt

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Harry Frankfurt
Harry Frankfurt at 2017 ACLS Annual Meeting.jpg
Frankfurt at the American Council of Learned Societies 2017 annual meeting
Born (1929-05-29) May 29, 1929 (age 92)
Alma materJohns Hopkins University
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
Main interests
Moral philosophy, philosophy of mind, free will, love, philosophy of action
Notable ideas
Higher-order volition, Frankfurt cases, theory of bullshit

Harry Gordon Frankfurt (born May 29, 1929) is an American philosopher. He is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, where he taught from 1990 until 2002.[2] Frankfurt has also taught at Yale University, Rockefeller University, and Ohio State University.


Early life[edit]

Frankfurt was born on May 29, 1929, in Pennsylvania. He obtained his B.A. in 1949 and Ph.D. in 1954 from Johns Hopkins University.


He is professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University.

He taught at Ohio State University (1956—1962), SUNY Binghamton (1962—1963),[3] Rockefeller University (from 1963 until the philosophy department was closed in 1976),[4] Yale University (from 1976, where he served as chair of the philosophy department 1978—1987),[5] and then Princeton (1990—2002).[6]

His major areas of interest include moral philosophy, philosophy of mind and action, and 17th-century rationalism. His 1986 paper On Bullshit, a philosophical investigation of the concept of "bullshit", was republished as a book in 2005 and became a surprise bestseller, leading to media appearances such as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.[7] In this work he explains how bullshitting is different from lying, in that it is an act that has no regard for the truth. He argues that “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.” In 2006 he released a companion book, On Truth, which explores society's loss of appreciation for truth.

Among philosophers, he was for a time best known for his interpretation of Descartes's rationalism. His most influential work, however, has been on freedom of the will (on which he has written numerous important papers[8]) based on his concept of higher-order volitions and for developing what are known as "Frankfurt cases" or "Frankfurt counterexamples" (i.e., thought experiments designed to show the possibility of situations in which a person could not have done other than he/she did, but in which our intuition is to say nonetheless that this feature of the situation does not prevent that person from being morally responsible).[9] Frankfurt is probably the leading living Humean compatibilist, developing Hume's view that to be free is to do what one wants to do. (Others who develop this view are David Velleman, Gary Watson and John Martin Fischer.) Frankfurt's version of compatibilism is the subject of a substantial literature by other philosophy professors. More recently, he has written on love and caring.

He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University; he served as President, Eastern Division, American Philosophical Association; and he has received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation.


  • Demons, Dreamers and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes's Meditations. Princeton University Press. 2007 [1970]. ISBN 978-0691134161.
  • The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge University Press. 1988. ISBN 978-0521336116.
  • Necessity, Volition, and Love. Cambridge University Press. 1999. ISBN 978-0521633956.
  • The Reasons of Love. Princeton University Press. 2004. ISBN 978-0691126241.
  • On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. 2005. ISBN 0-691-12294-6.
  • On Truth. Random House. 2006. ISBN 0-307-26422-X.
  • Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right. Stanford University Press. 2006. ISBN 0-8047-5298-2.
  • On Inequality. Princeton University Press. 2015. ISBN 978-0691167145.


  • 'The Necessity of Love' in Alex Voorhoeve Conversations on Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-921537-9 (A discussion of his views on moral responsibility, caring and love, and the relationship of his later work on the structure of the will to his earlier work on Descartes.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rico Hofmann, Economics and philosophy: Harry G. Frankfurt - "On Caring", GRIN Verlag, 2004, ISBN 978-3-638-89324-4.
  2. ^ "Bio | Harry G. Frankfurt". Princeton University. Retrieved 2016-11-22.
  3. ^ Shook, John R. (2016-02-11). The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Philosophers in America: From 1600 to the Present. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 9781472570567.
  4. ^ Shenker, Israel (1976-09-26). "Rockefeller University Hit by Storm Over Tenure". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  5. ^ "ACLS American Council of Learned Societies | www.acls.org - Harry G. Frankfurt". www.acls.org. Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  6. ^ "Harry G. Frankfurt". scholar.princeton.edu. Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  7. ^ Dougherty, Peter (2017-12-06). "The Character of Its Content". Princeton Alumni Weekly.
  8. ^ Feinberg; Shafer-Landau: Reason & Responsibility, p. 486.
  9. ^ Frankfurt, Harry G. (1969-01-01). "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility". The Journal of Philosophy. 66 (23): 829–839. doi:10.2307/2023833. JSTOR 2023833.


External links[edit]