Harry Gordon Frankfurt

Harry Gordon Frankfurt was born David Bernard Stern on May 29, 1929 at a home for unwed mothers in Langhorne, PA.  Raised in Brooklyn and Baltimore by his adoptive parents, Bertha Frankfurt, a piano teacher, and Nathan Frankfurt, a bookkeeper, he received his BA from Johns Hopkins in 1949, after which he spent two years at Cornell  before returning to complete his PhD at Hopkins in 1954.   After stints in the army and at Ohio State University and SUNY Binghamton,  Frankfurt’s academic career began in earnest at Rockefeller University,  where he served as Chair of the philosophy department 1965-1971. He moved to Yale in 1976, and joined the Princeton philosophy department in 1990, remaining with us until his retirement in 2002.

Frankfurt’s first book Demon’s, Dreamers and Madmen, provides a revisionist account of Descartes’ account of the authority of reason in the Meditations.  But by the time of its publication in 1970, he had embarked on major new research program.  In a landmark paper, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (1969), Frankfurt tackled the assumption, made by nearly all previous writers about free will, that moral responsibility requires the ability to do otherwise.  The paper describes a series of cases — now called “Frankfurt Cases” — in which a person is clearly responsible for his choice despite the fact that, given peculiar features of his circumstances, it was inevitable that he would choose just as he did.  The debate over the significance of these cases continues; but many philosophers take them to show that our responsibility for our choices depends entirely on the actual sequence of events, regardless of whether the agent had the option of deviating from that sequence, and hence that physical determinism can be no threat to human freedom.

Frankfurt’s positive account of freedom was first sketched in another landmark paper, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person” (1971).  Free choices reflect not just what agents want, but what they really want: human beings have a distinctive capacity to identify with certain of their motives, and free agents are those guided by these patterns of identification. We are unfree to the extent that we are alienated from the aspects of our minds that move us.  Frankfurt’s later essays on free will, collected in his The Importance of What We Care About (1988), explore the nature of this capacity for identification which distinguishes responsible human beings from mere creatures of desire.  

Beyond the academy, Frankfurt is best known for “On Bullshit” (2005), a short book that became an New York Times No. 1 Best Seller.  The book notes the indisputable fact that bullshit is everywhere, both in academia and in public discourse.   The main question is why this is so; but as a prelude to answering, Frankfurt asks for a theory of bullshit — an analysis of the concept — which he goes on to give. The book is a fine example of Frankfurt’s style: an elegant mix of scholarly austerity and plain-spoken, often hilarious, directness.    

Frankfurt was a model for colleagues and students, combining a deep commitment to the distinctive rigor of philosophy with a broad intellectual curiosity and a fascination for the complexities of human life that test the limits of the philosopher’s concern for clarity.  The great theme in his later work is love, which Frankfurt understood as our capacity to attach ourselves to people and even to ideas which may have no special value in themselves, but which come to have value for us when we come to love them.  Harry viewed his own attachments in this light unflinchingly, and he was much loved in return.