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.

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