The 2017 Charles Homer Haskins Prize Lecture
Harry G. Frankfurt was a member of the department of philosophy at Princeton University from 1990-2002 and is now professor emeritus of philosophy. He taught at Yale University, where he chaired the philosophy department from 1978-87. He also taught at The Rockefeller University, the State University of New York, and The Ohio State University. He obtained his BA in 1949 and his PhD in 1954, both from Johns Hopkins University.
Professor Frankfurt is one of the most influential of contemporary philosophers, having made major contributions to the study of Descartes and Hume, the philosophy of action, and moral psychology and philosophy, and political philosophy. He is best known for elaborating his own view of Hume’s compatibilism (the idea that determinism is compatible with human freedom). Using his concept of “higher-order volitions,” he developed what are known as “Frankfurt cases” or “Frankfurt counterexamples,” 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 he/she acted freely.
His 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” a philosophical investigation of the concept of “bullshit,” was published as a book in 2005 and became a surprise bestseller, leading to media appearances such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. In 2006 he authored an analogous book, On Truth, which explores society’s loss of appreciation for truth. His latest book, published in 2015, is On Inequality. Other of his publications include Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen: The Defense of Reason in Descartes’s “Meditations”; The Importance of What We Care About; Necessity, Volition, and Love; Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right (with Debra Satz); and The Reasons of Love, in which he argues that love is the most authoritative form of caring and self-love the purest form of love.
Frankfurt is a past president of the American Philosophical Association (Eastern Division). He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others. He was a Visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.