On Bullshit

On Bullshit

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a circa 1915 letter by Percy Wyndham Lewis as the first use of the term ‘bullshit’. Lewis used the term as coarse slang for rubbish or nonsense — nonsense that is eloquent yet insincere. Harry G Frankfurt’s 2005 essay ‘On Bullshit’ explores the meaning of bullshit in more depth.

So, what is bullshit? Well, to bullshit is not to lie, Frankfurt argues. Liars have a concern for the truth insofar as they must know what is true to proffer what is false. The truth-teller and the liar are therefore ‘on opposite sides … in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands’.

The truth-value of a statement is of little interest to the bullshitter. The bullshitter is indifferent to how things really are, but hides his nonchalance. He makes assertions that suit the occasion, without concern for their correspondence with the truth. This is the ‘essence’ of bullshit. And it is dangerous because the normal concern for truth becomes ‘attenuated or lost’ as bullshit takes hold. The liar is certainly opposed to truth, but he is not as great an enemy of truth as the bullshitter. Bullshit is corrosive.

Frankfurt fills out the idea of bullshit by drawing on an anecdote about its greatest enemy, Ludwig Wittgenstein. According to the anecdote, a friend of Wittgenstein had her tonsils removed and was recovering in hospital when Wittgenstein rang to check how she was faring. When he asked how she was, the friend replied ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over’. Wittgenstein replied in disgust, ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like’; or so the story goes.

While this may seem like taking the job of stamping out bullshit too seriously, it summarises the idea of bullshit. Wittgenstein’s friend had no concern for whether her statement was true or false. Rather, she used the description because it fitted the occasion. It contained the rhetorical value required to convey how she felt. But although the description ‘did the job’ required of it, it was neither true nor false. The friend could not know what it feels like to be a dog run over. So she did not choose the description because it was true or false but because, rhetorically, it worked.

HG Frankfurt interviewed by Princeton's Ben Tate

The example borders on ridiculous and seems to imply that all metaphor is reprehensible bullshit. Frankfurt gives a better example in an interview with Princeton University Press’s Ben Tate. There he cites the example of 2004 US presidential candidate John Kerry. During the campaign, Kerry implied that his Vietnam service record was evidence that he’d be a good President. But as Frankfurt asks, why does one’s military service record imply that he’s suitable to be President? Isn’t it likely that the two jobs require different skill sets? What’s to say that courage in battle is a quality relevant to running a country? Without establishing the link between the two, Kerry was bullshitting when he attempted to use his military record to imply that the he’d make a good President. This particular example of bullshitting is also an argumentum ad verecundiam fallacy, whereby one appeals to an inappropriate authority to make a point.

So, what are the causes of such bullshit? Here Frankfurt is at his clearest, giving two reasons for the prevalence of bullshit. Firstly, bullshit ‘is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about’. The prime example is the politician who is expected to be across all fields of policy — economics, foreign affairs, trade, health, etc. No one person can know a sufficient amount about all such areas to give an informed opinion when quizzed. And when the politicians don’t have an informed opinion, rather than look ignorant, they bullshit.

The same problem occurs among the people in a democracy, Frankfurt contends. As Clint Eastwood famously quipped as Dirty Harry, ‘Opinions are like arseholes — everybody has one’. Citizens in a democracy believe their opinions count by the mere fact that they have them and can vote. But like the politician, and maybe even more so, no one person can be across all fields. Bullshit fills the gaps.

The second and more sinister reason why there is so much bullshit is the rise of anti-realism, Frankfurt argues. With the reliability of representations of the external world supposedly thrown into doubt, people move from checking what someone says against reality to checking for the author’s sincerity. When I ask myself the question, ‘Is John speaking the truth?’ instead of checking what he says against reality, I now try to infer John’s sincerity. Like a dumb puppy I tilt my head to one side and stare curiously at his face looking for signs that he’s being dishonest. But if the bullshitter is any good, this will be a futile exercise.

So, what to do about the prevalence of bullshit? Here Frankfurt gets very interesting. Although, on his analysis, insincerity — that deliberate misalignment of what we believe and what we say — is one of the principal causes of bullshit, sincerity is not the solution. Why? Because there is no reason to believe that we can adequately judge our own sincerity, let alone judge other people’s sincerity. As Frankfurt writes,

…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 nature of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

Therefore, if there is a solution to bullshit, it rests with some form of correspondence theory of truth — with checking our claims against the external world.

To close, beyond the primary task of defining bullshit, Frankfurt’s essay is also a call to renew the pursuit of truth in public discourse. Not Truth with a capital T, but ‘truth’ as knowledge checked against reality. The checks and balances offered by reality and other people are the only insurance against bullshit — the bullshit others may feed us, and the bullshit we may feed ourselves.

Respond, rebuke, participate: