Sunday, August 21, 2005



If “bullshit,” as opposed to “bull,” is a distinctively modern linguistic innovation, that could have something to do with other distinctively modern things, like advertising, public relations, political propaganda, and schools of education. “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” Harry G. Frankfurt, a distinguished moral philosopher who is professor emeritus at Princeton, says. The ubiquity of bullshit, he notes, is something that we have come to take for granted. Most of us are pretty confident of our ability to detect it, so we may not regard it as being all that harmful. We tend to take a more benign view of someone caught bullshitting than of someone caught lying. (“Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through,” a father counsels his son in an Eric Ambler novel.) All of this worries Frankfurt. We cannot really know the effect that bullshit has on us, he thinks, until we have a clearer understanding of what it is. That is why we need a theory of bullshit.

Frankfurt's own effort along these lines was contained in a paper that he presented two decades ago at a faculty seminar at Yale. Later, that paper appeared in a journal, and then in a collection of Frankfurt's writings; all the while, photocopies of it passed from fan to fan. Earlier this year, it was published as “On Bullshit” (Princeton; $9.95), a tiny book of sixty-seven spaciously printed pages that has gone on to become an improbable best-seller...

“So far as I am aware,” Frankfurt dryly observes, “very little work has been done on this subject.” He did find an earlier philosopher's attempt to analyze a similar concept under a more genteel name: humbug. Humbug, that philosopher decided, was a pretentious bit of misrepresentation that fell short of lying. (A politician talking about the importance of his religious faith comes to mind.) Frankfurt was not entirely happy with this definition. The difference between lies and bullshit, it seemed to him, was more than a matter of degree. To push the analysis in a new direction, he considers a rather peculiar anecdote about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was the nineteen-thirties, and Wittgenstein had gone to the hospital to visit a friend whose tonsils had just been taken out. She croaked to Wittgenstein, “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein (the friend recalled) was disgusted to hear her say this. “You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like,” he snapped. Of course, Wittgenstein might simply have been joking. But Frankfurt suspects that his severity was real, not feigned. This was, after all, a man who devoted his life to combatting what he considered to be pernicious forms of nonsense. What Wittgenstein found offensive in his friend's simile, Frankfurt guesses, was its mindlessness: “Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.”

The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is that it is produced without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn't be false: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” The bullshitter's fakery consists not in misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the truthteller are playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth.

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