Harry Frankfurt

Harry Frankfurt, professor of philosophy, emeritus, renowned for his scholarship on free will and moral responsibility, died from a number of causes, including congestive heart failure, at a care facility in Santa Monica, California, on July 16. He was 94.

One thought on “Harry Frankfurt

  1. Pamela Hieronymi

    Harry, or, as I knew him then, Prof. Frankfurt, strongly encouraged me to go on to graduate school, but I didn’t listen. When I finally relented, two years after graduation, He wrote the letter of recommendation that launched my career. Twenty (or so) years later he became my neighbor and friend.

    I will miss both his unsparing insight and his unwavering support.

    I can think of no better way to honor Harry than to quote some of my favorite passages from his work. Here are four:

    “This would hardly be worth pointing out except that an exaggerated significance is sometimes ascribed to decisions, as well as to choices and to other similar “acts of will.” If we consider that a person’s will is that by which he moves himself, then what he cares about is far more germane to the character of his will than the decisions or choices he makes. The latter may pertain to what he intends to be his will, but not necessarily to what his will truly is.
    The young man in Sartre’s famous example is sometimes understood to have resolved his dilemma… by making a radically free choice… [But] The resolution of the young man’s dilemma does not merely require… that he decide what to do. It requires that he really care about one of the alternatives… more than the other; and it requires, further, that he understand which… it is that he really cares about more. The difficulty he is in is due either to his not knowing which of the alternatives he cares about more, or to his caring equally about each. It is clear that in neither case is his difficulty reliably to be overcome by making a decision… It may sometimes be possible for a person, by making a certain choice or decision, effectively to bring it about that he cares about a certain thing…. But that depends upon conditions which do not always prevail. It certainly cannot be assumed that what a person cares about is generally under his immediate voluntary control.” (“The Importance of What We Care about,” 84–85)

    “The idea that being rational and loving are ways of achieving freedom ought to puzzle us more than it does, given that both require a person to submit to something which is beyond his voluntary control and may be indifferent to his desires.” (“The Importance of What We Care about,” 89)

    “When we object to being the victim of a lie, just what is it that we find so objectionable? I am not asking why lying is wrong. My question has to do not with the morality of lying, but with our experience of it. What offends us when we are offended that someone has told us a lie? What accounts for how the lying affects us?
    Much is often made of the noting that lying undermines the cohesion of human society… but… [p]rofitable social intercourse does not really depend… upon people telling each other the truth. The actual quantity of lying is enormous, after all, and yet social life goes on. That people often lie hardly renders it impossible to benefit from living with them. It only means we have to be careful. We can quite successfully negotiate our way through an environment full of lies, as long as we can reasonably trust our own ability to discriminate more or less effectively between instances in which people are lying and those in which they are telling the truth. General confidence in the honesty of others is not essential as long as we are justified in having confidence in ourselves.
    In any case, however, it is not because we think that lies threaten or encumber the order of society that we are upset by them in the first place. Our concern when someone lies to us is not the concern of a citizen. What is most immediately aroused in our reaction to the liar is not public spirit. The reaction is personal. As a rule, we are dismayed far less by the harm the liar may have done to others than by his conduct towards ourselves. What stirs us against him is, whether or not he has somehow managed to betray all of mankind, is that he has certainly injured us.” (“The Faintest Passion,” 95–96)

    Finally, the last quotation is Harry responding to the philosophical orthodoxy according to which human action is always chosen for a reason. This was orthodoxy into which I was inculcated in graduate school. And yet, with a single assertion, Harry managed to completely change my mind. Here is the quotation:

    “This strikes me as quite implausible. I do not see why it should be impossible for a person to make a choice or a decision even when he does not think that he has a good reason, or even when it is clear to him that he has no reason whatever for choosing or deciding as he does. That may not be a sensible way to go about things. Nevertheless, it can be done.” (“Disengaging Reason,” 122).

    Indeed. It can be done.

    We will miss him.

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