"On Bullshit" is a delightful little 80 page book of common sense. And published by an Ivy League philosophy professor - maybe there's hope after all! In our modern "post-truth" world, Frankfurt's book is a breath of fresh air.
Originally published as a philosophy paper in the Fall 1986 Raritan Quarterly Review, "On Bullshit" was republished in book format in 2005, and then thrust into the popular consciousness by Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.
Written in a clear, no-nonsense style, the book dissects the difference between a "bullshitter" and a "liar." Frankfurt argues that the bullshitter is more dangerous because, unlike the liar, he is not even incidentally concerned with the truth or falsity of his statements - he's just trying to conceal his intentions and "get away" with something.
Along with some crankiness about the bullshittiness of the modern world in general, Frankfurt calls out postmodernism for "[denying] that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality." This is actually an issue of no small importance for my 2017 reading on "The Integrity of Western Science" as I try to determine how to determine whether any given finding is truly "science" or actually bullshit.
Some readers may also be entertained by Frankfurt's 2016 Time article on Trump.
My favorite highlights below:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.
In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.
Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black.
Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery.
HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.
Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto: In the elder days of art Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part, For the Gods are everywhere.
The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.
However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.
Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of “nonsense.” He was apparently like that in his personal life as well. This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridge in the 1930s: I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”
Now assuming that Wittgenstein does indeed regard Pascal’s characterization of how she feels as an instance of bullshit, why does it strike him that way? It does so, I believe, because he perceives what Pascal says as being — roughly speaking, for now — unconnected to a concern with the truth. Her statement is not germane to the enterprise of describing reality.
Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.
It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.
The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life — for instance, religion, politics, or sex.
When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content.
There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit.
It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie.
For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.
What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.
“Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.”
What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.
For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
Harry G. Frankfurt, renowned moral philosopher, is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include The Reasons of Love (Princeton), Necessity, Volition, and Love, and The Importance of What We Care About.