Harry Frankfurt On The Nature Of Bullshit

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“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,on-bullshit” writes philosopher Harry Frankfurt in the beginning of his essay On Bullshit. People intuitively believe they know bullshit, anointing family members and friends “bullshit artists” for their exceptional ability. In his 1986 essay Frankfurt set out to unearth the tangled roots of bullshit. Pulling back noisome layers, he presents bullshit as distinct from lying, isolated from truth, and a danger to understanding the world and ourselves. In comprehensible language bullshit’s nature is exposed.

What separates the liar from the bullshitter is their relationship to truth. The liar is intimately tied to authenticity; he must know how to create the illusion of truth. But the bullshitter is not constrained by facts. He is free to convey anything, misrepresenting reality to all who listen.

“The point is rather that so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal [the bullshitter] offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.”

[…]

“He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal’s [the bullshitter’s] statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says.”

With colorful language and enthusiasm the bullshitter paints a picture to ensnare the mind of her listener. Whether spun tale is true or false is irrelevant—appearances are priority. “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.” It’s a more insidious threat than lying, undermining respect for the truth, akin to blowing “hot air.”

22 Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein 01
22 Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein 01 by Willie Sturges

“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. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit.”

Bullshit is dangerous. While liars and truthsayers are “playing in the same game,” the bullshitter operates outside the magic circle. “By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” The bullshitter does a disservice to reality. She disregards facts, writing her own world story however he pleases. And she hinders knowledge about the world, and therefore knowledge about ourselves, so that the world is drowning in bullshit.

Emil Cioran & Simone Boué
Emil Cioran & Simone Boué

Why does it seem there’s so much bullshit? “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Politicians, orators, students and others are placed are expected to elaborate on topics they know nothing about—and spew bullshit. And in a society where each person is expected to form an opinion bullshit spreads like mold.

But bullshit has also spawned alongside extreme skeptical inquiry, the notion that the world is unknowable. A philosopher like Emil Cioran retreats from assertion, but the bullshitter continues to make judgments without regard for reality. She gives up on knowing the world and focuses on herself, believing solely in a priori knowledge. Only the limits of her skin decide her reality, believing she’s the truth. Frankfurt denies that sincerity in such a world is possible.

“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.”

On Bullshit is an accessible read that conceptualizes bullshit with lucid words. But not every facet of bullshit is answered. Frankfurt raises a provocative question near the end of his essay: “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.” Compliment Frankfurt’s essay with his sequel essay On Truth.