Monday, May 22, 2006


Introduction to Bullshit

At our next meeting, we will be talking about Harry Frankfurt's little black book, On Bullshit. As an introduction, here is a revision of some posts from my personal blog (From the Rachel).

Bullshit has been out for a little more than a year, with surprisingly little play in the blogs that I read, although Frankfort has been interviewed a lot on radio and TV. Of course, it is well known in philosophical circles already, because the book itself is actually a repackaging of an article that Frankfurt originally did as a contribution to a 1986 seminar series at Yale. He published it in The Raritan Review, and collected it with other essays in his 1988 book The Importance of What We Care About. Ian Malcolm, an editor at Princeton University Press, decided to republish it to bring it to a wider audience. Frankfurt talked about the origin of the essay with the New York Times on Feb. 14, 2005; Malcolm described the republication in a comment at Crooked Timber the following day.

’s definition of bullshit is precise:
[A] statement … grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. 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.


This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. 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. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Indeed, much of the book is devoted to traditional philosophical analysis leading to that definition, arrived at by worrying about common definitions, usage, and historical examples.

For the politically minded, Frankfurt’s assessment of the dangers of bullshit is chillingly prescient:

Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.


[The bullshitter] 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.

Why is there so much bullshit? Could be politics; could be 24-hour news networks; could be talk shows (radio or TV); could be blogs.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

As I said, when you remember that this essay was written in 1986, its prediction of the degraded standards of modern public life is depressingly perfect – although he attributes it to a loss of confidence in notions of objectivity.

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.

This concept is not new. For example, in the Preface to Cantos VI-VIII of Don Juan, Byron inserted a quote from Voltaire that my Penguin edition translates as:

The more depraved our conduct it, the more guarded words become; we believe we can regain with words what we have lost in character.

Byron, of course, was defending his poem against charges of blasphemy. But Frankfurt says that, whenever we attempt to defend our character, or even define it, we are driven inevitably to bullshit.

As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. 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.

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