On Truth and Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is how Harry Frankfurt begins his essay, “On Bullshit“. He continues:

“Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”

So, what is this bullshit? He goes through many definitions of related words. A main point is that it’s “short of lying” and this leads him to insincerity. The bullshitter isn’t a liar for the bullshitter isn’t concerned about either truth or its contrary. No intention to lie is required.

“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on the opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts . . . 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 bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

Bullshitting is more of a creative act that dances around such concerns of verity:

“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”

Bullshit is, first and foremost, insincere. In Frankfurt’s essay, that is some combination of an observation, premise, and conclusion. It is the core issue. But as with bullshit, what is this insincerity? How are we to judge it, from what perspective and according to what standard?

His answer seems to be that bullshit is to sincerity as a lie to the truth. This implies that the bullshitter knows they are insincere in the way the liar knows they are being untruthful. And as the bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, the liar doesn’t care about sincerity. This assumes that the intention of a speaker can be known, both to the presumed bullshitter and to the one perceiving (or accusing) them as a bullshitter. We know bullshit when we hear it, as we know porn when we see it.

After much analysis, the ultimate conclusion is that, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” Bullshit is insincere and sincerity is bullshit. How clever! But there is a genuine point being made. Frankfurt’s ideal is that of truth, not sincerity. Truth and sincerity aren’t polar opposite ideals. They are separate worldviews and attitudes, so the argument goes.

Coming to the end of the essay, I immediately realized what this conflict was. It is an old conflict. It goes back at least to Socrates, although part of larger transcultural changes happening in the post-bicameral Axial Age. Socrates is simply the standard originating point for Western thought, the frame we prefer since Greece represents the earliest known example of a democracy (as a highly organized political system within an advanced civilization).

Socrates, as known through the writings of Plato, is often portrayed as the victim of democracy’s dark populism. The reality, though, is that Plato was severely anti-democratic and associated with those behind the authoritarian forces that sought to destroy Athenian democracy. His fellow Athenians didn’t take kindly to this treasonous threat, whether or not it was just and fair to blame Socrates (we shall never know since we lack the details of the accusation and evidence, as no official court proceedings are extant).

What we know, from Plato, is that Socrates had issues with the Sophists. So, who were these Sophists? It’s a far more interesting question than it first appears. It turns out that the word has a complicated history. It originally referred to poets, the original teachers of wisdom in archaic Greek society. And it should be recalled that the poets were specifically excluded from Plato’s utopian society because, in Plato’s mind, of the danger they posed to rationalistic idealism.

What did the poets and Sophists have in common? They both used language to persuade, through language that was concrete rather than abstract, emotional rather than detached. Plato was interested in big ‘T’ absolute Truth, whereas those employing poetry and rhetoric were interested in small ‘t’ relative truths that were on a human scale. Ancient Greek poets and Sophists weren’t necessarily untruthful but simply indifferent to Platonic ideals of Truth.

This does relate to Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Small ‘t’ truths are bullshit or at least easily seen in this light. The main example he uses demonstrates this. A friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein’ was sick and she told him that, “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein saw this as careless use of language, not even meaningful enough to be wrong. It was a human truth, instead of a philosophical Truth.

Her statement expressed a physical and emotional experience. One could even argue that Wittgenstein was wrong about a human not being able to know what a hurt dog feels like, as mammals have similar biology and neurology. Besides, as far as we know, this friend had a pet dog run over by a car and was speaking from having a closer relationship to this dog than she had to Wittgenstein. Reading this account, Wittgenstein comes off as someone with severe Asperger’s and indeed plenty of people have speculated elsewhere about this possible diagnosis. Whatever is the case, his response was obtuse and callous.

It is hard to know what the relevance of such an anecdote might have, in reference to clarifying the meaning of bullshit. What it does make clear is that there are different kinds of truths.

This is what separated Socrates and Plato on one side and the poets and Sophists on the other. The Sophists had inherited a tradition of teaching from the poets and it was a tradition that became ever more important in the burgeoning democracy. But it was an era when the power of divine voice still clung to the human word. Persuasion was a power not to be underestimated, as the common person back then hadn’t yet developed the thick-boundaried intellectual defensiveness against rhetoric that we moderns take for granted. Plato sought a Truth that was beyond both petty humans and petty gods, a longing to get beyond all the ‘bullshit’.

Yet it might be noted that some even referred to Socrates and Plato as Sophists. They too used rhetoric to persuade. And of course, the Platonic is the foundation of modern religion (e.g., Neoplatonic Alexandrian Jews who helped shape early Christian theology and Biblical exegesis), the great opponent of the Enlightenment tradition of rationality.

This is why some, instead, prefer to emphasize the divergent strategies of Plato and Aristotle, the latter making its own accusations of bullshit against the former. From the Aristotelian view, Platonism is a belief system proclaiming truth all the while willfully detached from reality. The Platonic concern with Truth, from this perspective, can seem rather meaningless, maybe so meaningless as to not even being false. The Sophists who opposed Socrates and Plato at least were interested in practical knowledge that applied to the real world of human society, dedicated as they were to teaching the skills necessary for a functioning democracy.

As a side note, the closest equivalent to the Sophists today is the liberal arts professor who hopes to instill a broad knowledge in each new generation of students. It’s quite telling that those on the political right are the most likely to make accusations of bullshit against the liberal arts tradition. A traditional university education was founded on philology, the study of languages. And the teaching of rhetoric was standard in education into the early 1900s. Modern Western Civilization was built on the values of the Sophists, the ideal of a well rounded education and the central importance of language, including the ability to speak well and persuasively, the ability to logically defend an argument and rhetorically to make a case. The Sophists saw that to have a democratic public what was needed was an educated public.

Socrates and Plato came from more of what we’d call an aristocratic tradition. They were an enlightened elite, born into wealth, luxury, and privilege. This put them in opposition to the emerging democratic market of ideas. The Sophists were seen as mercenary philosophers who would teach or do anything for money. Socrates didn’t accept money from his students, but then again he was independently wealthy (in that, he didn’t have to work because slaves did the work for him). He wanted pure philosophy, unadulterated by the coarse human realities such as making a living and democratic politics.

It’s not that Socrates and Plato were necessarily wrong. Sophists were a diverse bunch, some using their talents for the public good and others not so much. They were simply the well educated members of the perceived meritocracy who used their expertise in exchange for payment. It seems like a rather normal thing to do in a capitalist society such as ours, but back then a market system was a newfangled notion that seemed radically destabilizing to the social order. Socrates and Plato were basically the reactionaries of their day, nostalgically longing for what they imagined was being lost. Yet they were helping creating an entirely new society, wresting it from the control and authority of tradition. Plato offered a radical utopian vision precisely because he was a reactionary, in terms of how the reactionary is explained by Corey Robin.

Socrates and Plato were challenging the world they were born into. Like all reactionaries, they had no genuine interest in a conservative-minded defense of the status quo. It would take centuries for their influence to grow so large as to become a tradition of its own. Even then, they laid the groundwork for future radicalism during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment Age. Platonic idealism is the seed of modern idealism. What was reactionary in classical Greece fed into a progressive impulse about two millennia later, the anti-democratic leading to the eventual return of democratization. The fight against ‘bullshit’ became the engine of change that overthrew the European ancien régime of Catholicicism, feudalism, aristocracy, and monarchy. Utopian visions such as that of Plato’s Republic became increasingly common.

Thinking along these lines, it brought to mind a recent post of mind, Poised on a Knife Edge. I was once again considering the significance of the ‘great debate’ between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. It was Paine who was more of the inheritor of Greek idealism, but unlike some of the early Greek idealists he was very much putting idealism in service of democracy, not some utopian vision above and beyond the messiness of public politics. It occurred to me that, to Paine and his allies, Burke’s attack on the French Revolution was ‘bullshit’. The wardrobe of the moral imagination was deemed rhetorical obfuscation, a refusal of the plain speech and the plain honest truth that was favored by Paine (and by Socrates).

Let me explain why this matters. As I began reading Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, I was naturally pulled into the view presented. Pretty much everyone hates bullshit. But I considered a different possible explanation for this. Maybe bullshit isn’t more common than before. Maybe it’s even less common in some sense. It’s just that, as a society that idealizes truth, the category of bullshit represents something no longer respected or understood. We’ve lost touch with something within our own human nature. Our hyper-sensitivity in seeing bullshit everywhere, almost a paranoia, is an indication of this.

As much as I love Paine and his vision, I have to give credit where it is due by acknowledging that Burke managed to catch hold of a different kind of truth, a very human truth. He warned us about treading cautiously on the sacred ground of the moral imagination. On this point, I think he was right. We are too careless.

Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind. Here is how Frankfurt explains it:

“Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

“In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

“The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

“It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

“The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all.”

This is logos vs mythos. In religious terms, it is the One True God who creates ex nihilo vs the demiurgic god of this world. And in Platonic terms, it is the idealistic forms vs concrete substance, where the latter is a pale imitation of the former. As such, truth is unique whereas bullshit is endless. The philosopher and the poet represent opposing forces. To the Philosopher, everything is either philosophically relevant or bullshit. But to the poet (and his kin), this misses the point and overlooks the essence of our humanity. Each side makes sense, according to the perspective of each side. And so each side is correct about what is wrong with the other side.

If all bullshit was eliminated and all further bullshit made impossible, what would be left of our humanity? Maybe our very definition of truth is dependent on bullshit, both as a contrast and an impetus. Without bullshit, we might no longer be able to imagine new truths. But such imagination, if not serving greater understanding, is of uncertain value and potentially dangerous to society. For good or ill, the philosopher, sometimes obtuse and detached, and the artist, sometimes full of bullshit, are the twin representatives of civilization as we know it.

* * *

“I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called.”
by Ann Althouse

Short of Lying
by Heinz Brandenburg

Bullshit as the Absence of Truthfulness
by Michael R. Kelly

Democracy is not a truth machine
by Thomas R. Wells

Our ability as individuals to get to true facts merely by considering different arguments is distinctly limited. If we only know of one account of the holocaust – what we were taught in school – we are likely to accept it. But whether it is true or false is a matter of luck rather than our intellectual capacities. Now it is reasonable to suppose that if we were exposed to a diversity of claims about the holocaust then our opinions on the subject would become more clearly our own, and our own responsibility. They would be the product of our own intellectual capacities and character instead of simply reflecting which society we happened to be born into. But so what? Holding sincere opinions about whether the holocaust happened is all very well and Millian, but it has no necessary relation to their truth. As Harry Frankfurt notes in his philosophical essay On Bullshit, sincerity is concerned with being true to oneself, not to the nature of the world: from the perspective of truth seeking, sincerity is bullshit.

Knowing this, we can have no faith that the popularity of certain factual claims among people as ordinary as ourselves is any guide to their truth. Democracy is no more equipped to evaluate facts than rational truths. We can all, of course, hold opinions about the civilisational significance of the holocaust and its status as a justification for the state of Israel, and debate them with others in democratic ways. Yet, when it comes to the facts, neither the sincerity with which individuals believe that ‘the holocaust’ is a myth nor the popularity of such beliefs can make them epistemically respectable. 90% of the population denying the holocaust is irrelevant to its truth status. And vice versa.

Rhetoric and Bullshit
by James Fredal

Frankfurt is also indebted (indirectly) to Plato: Phaedrus is as much about the bullshitter’s (Lysias’s or the non-lover’s) lack of concern for (or “love” for) the truth as is Frankfurt’s brief tome. From the perspective of Plato, Lysias’s speech in praise of the non-lover is just so much bullshit not simply because it is not true, but because Lysias is not concerned with telling the truth so much as he is with gaining the affection and attention of his audience: the beloved boy, the paying student or, more to the point, that lover of speeches, Phaedrus himself.

The non-lover described by Lysias in Phaedrus is best understood as Plato’s allegory for sophists who reject any “natural” truth and who remain committed to contradictory arguments as the practical consequence of their general agnosticism. For Lysias’s non-lover, language is not for telling the truth, because the truth is inaccessible: language is for finding and strengthening positions, for gaining advantage, and for exerting influence over others. Richard Weaver offers a similar reading of Phaedrus that sees the non-lover as representing an attitude toward language use (though for Weaver the non-lover is not a sophist, but a scientist).

Others interested in the bullshitter apply a different, more favorable lens. Daniel Mears, for example, draws on Chandra Mukerji’s study of bullshit among hitchhikers, and more generally on Erving Goffman’s study of self-presentation in the interaction order (for example, “Role Distance” and Interaction Rituals) to highlight bullshit as a form of impression management: what, as Mears notes, Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade call a “framing device” for the “construction and maintenance of our social identities and social relationships” (qtd. in Mears 279). For Mears, bullshit is the deliberate (albeit playful) creation of possible but ultimately misleading impressions of self or reality, whether for expressive or instrumental reasons (4).

Like Frankfurt, Mears locates the source of bullshit in the speaker herself and her desire to craft a creditable self-image. But whereas Frankfurt sees bullshitting as a species of deception worse than lying (because at least liars have to know the truth if only to lead us away from it, whereas bullshitters have no concern at all for the truth), Mears understands bullshit as a significant social phenomenon that serves several prosocial functions.7 For Mears, we engage in bullshit for purposes of socialization and play, for self-exploration and self-expression, for the resolution of social tensions and cognitive dissonance, and for gaining an advantage in encounters.

Like Mukerji, Mears emphasizes the playful (though often nontrivial and highly consequential) quality of bullshit, much as the ancient sophists composed speeches as “play”: as exercises and exempla, for enjoyment, for display and impression management, and for study separate from the “real world” of politics and law.

Rhetoric Is Not Bullshit
by Davd J. Tietge
from Bullshit and Philosophy
Kindle Locations 3917-4003

The Truth about Postmodernism

One issue that helps obscure the universality of rhetoric, and thus promotes the pejorative use of ‘rhetoric’, is the popular tendency to oversimplify the “truth-lie” dichotomy. In The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood, Jeremy Campbell reminds us that the reductionistic binary that separates truth from falsity is not only in error, but also that the thoroughly unclear and inconsistent distinction between the true and the false has a long, rich cultural history.180 Those doing much of the speaking in our own era, however, assume that the dividing line between truth and untruth is clear and, more significantly, internalized by the average human. Truth, however, is an elusive concept. While we can cite many examples of truths (that the sky is blue today, that the spoon will fall if dropped, and so forth), these depend on definitions of the words used. The sky is blue because ‘blue’ is the word we use to describe the hue that we have collectively agreed is bluish. We may, however, disagree about what shade of blue the sky is. Is it powder blue? Blue-green? Royal Blue? Interpretive responses to external realities that rely on definition (and language generally) always complicate the true-false binary, especially when we begin to discuss the nature of abstractions involved in, say, religion or metaphysics. The truth of ‘God is good’ depends very heavily upon the speaker’s understanding of God and the nature of goodness, both of which depend upon the speaker’s conceptualization, which may be unique to him, his group, or his cultural environment, and thus neither clear nor truthful to other parties.

Is this rampant relativism? Some might think so, but it is perhaps more useful to suggest that the Absolute Truths that we usually embrace are unattainable because of these complexities of language. Some cultures have seen the linguistic limitations of specifying the Truth. Hinduism has long recognized that language is incapable of revealing Truth; to utter the Truth, it holds, is simultaneously to make it no longer the Truth.

Note here the distinction between capital ‘T’ truth and lower-case ‘t’ truth. Lower-case truths are situational, even personal. They often reflect more the state of mind of the agent making the utterance than the immutable nature of the truth. They are also temporally situated; what may be true now may not be in the future. Truth in this sense is predicated on both perception and stability, and, pragmatically speaking, such truths are tran-sitional and, often, relative. Capital ‘T’ Truths can be traced back at least as far as Plato, and are immutable, pure, and incorruptible. They do not exist in our worldly realm, at least so far as Plato was concerned. This is why Plato was so scornful of rhetoric: he felt that rhetoricians (in particular, the Sophists) were opportunists who taught people how to disguise the Truth with language and persuasion. Whereas Plato imagined a realm in which the worldly flaws and corruption of a physical existence were supplanted by perfect forms, the corporeal domain of human activity was saturated with language, and therefore, could not be trusted to reveal Truth with any certainty.

Contemporary, postmodern interest in truth and meaning turns the tables on Plato and studies meaning and truth in this shifting, less certain domain of human activity. Campbell cites many thinkers from our philosophical past who helped inaugurate this development, but none is more important than Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, humans have no “organ” for discerning Truth, but we do have a natural instinct for falsehood. “Truth,” as an abstraction taken from the subjectivity of normal human activities, was a manufactured fiction that we are not equipped to actually find. On the other hand, a natural aptitude for falsehood is an important survival mechanism for many species. Human beings have simply cultivated it in innovative, sophisticated, ways. As the rhetorician George A. Kennedy has noted, “in daily life, many human speech acts are not consciously intentional; they are automatic reactions to situations, culturally (rather than genetically) imprinted in the brain or rising from the subconscious.”181 Our propensity for appropriate (if not truthful) responses to situations is something nourished by an instinct to survive, interact, protect, and socialize. Civilization gives us as many new ways to do this as there are situations that require response.

This is why Nietzsche carefully distinguished Truth from a belief system that only professed to contain the Truth. Ken Gemes notes that Nietzsche co-ordinated the question of Truth around the pragmatics of survival,182 an observation echoed by Kennedy, who provides examples of animals that deceive for self-preservation. Camouflage, for example, can be seen in plants and animals. Many birds imitate the calls of rival species to fool them to distraction and away from their nests or food sources. Deception, it seems, is common in nature. But Nietzsche took doctrinal Truth (note the “T”) to be one of the most insidious deceptions to occur in human culture, especially as it is articulated in religions. It is not a basic lie that is being promulgated, but rather a lie masquerading as the Truth and, according to Nietzsche, performing certain functions. Truth, that is, is a ritualized fiction, a condition manufactured for institutions and the individuals who control them to maintain their power.

Rhetoric and Bullshit

Truth, deception, control over others. This survey of rhetoric thus brings us close to the territory that Harry Frankfurt explores in On Bullshit. For Frankfurt, however, bullshit has little to do with these complexities about truth and Truth that rhetoric helps us identify. Indeed bullshit, for Frankfurt, has little do with truth at all, insofar as it requires an indifference to truth. Does this mean, then, that language that is not bullshit has settled the matter of truth and has access to truth (or Truth)? Does this lead us to a dichotomy between truth and bullshit that is similar to the dichotomy between truth and falsity that postmodernism criticizes? It may seem that postmodernism has little place in Frankfurt’s view, insofar as he rejects “various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are” (p. 64). Indeed, postmodernism is often vilified as the poster child of relativism and skepticism.

Yet postmodernism is far subtler than a mere denial of “objective reality.” Postmodernism claims, rather, that reality is as much a construct of language as it is objective and unchanging. Postmodernism is less about rejecting beliefs about objective reality than about the intersection between material reality and the human interpretations of it that change, mutate, and shift that reality to our own purposes—the kind of small-t truths that Nietzsche addressed. The common complaint about post-modernism, for example, that it denies “natural laws,” forgets that humans noticed and formulated those laws. Postmodernism attempts to supply a vocabulary to describe this kind of process. It is not just “jargon,” as is so often charged; it is an effort to construct a metalinguistic lexicon for dealing with some very difficult and important epistemological questions.

And, not surprisingly, so is rhetoric. Constructing language that deals with the nature of language is a unique human problem. It is meta-cognition at its most complicated because it requires us to use the same apparatus to decode human texts that is contained in the texts themselves—that is, using words to talk about words, what Kenneth Burke referred to in The Rhetoric of Religion as “logology.”183 In no other area of human thinking is this really the case. Most forms of intellectual exploration involve an extraneous phenomenon, event, agent, or object that requires us to bring language to bear upon it in order to observe, describe, classify, and draw conclusions about its nature, its behavior, or its effect. For example, scientific inquiry usually involves an event or a process in the material world that is separate from the instruments we use to describe it. Historical analysis deals with texts as a matter of disciplinary course, yet most historians rarely question the efficacy or the reliability of the language used to convey an event of the remote (or, for that matter, recent) past. Even linguistics, which uses a scientific model to describe language structure, deals little with meaning or textual analysis.

Law is one of the closest cousins of rhetoric. Words are very much a part of the ebb and flow of legal wrangling, and the attention given to meaning and interpretation is central. Yet, even here, there is little theoretical discussion about how words have meaning or how, based on such theory, that meaning can be variously interpreted. Law is more concerned with the fact that words can be interpreted differently and how different agents might interpret language in different ways. This is why legal documents are often so unreadable; in an attempt to control ambiguity, more words (and more words with specific, technical meanings) must be used so that multiple interpretations can be avoided. If theoretical discussions about how language generates meaning were entered into the equation, the law would be impossible to apply in any practical way. Yet, to understand legal intricacies, every law student should be exposed to rhetoric—not so they can better learn how to manipulate a jury or falsify an important document, but so they understand how tenuous and limited language actually is for dealing with ordinary situations. Moreover, nearly every disciplinary area of inquiry uses language, but only rhetoric (and its associated disciplines, especially philosophy of language and literary /cultural criticism, which have influenced the development of modern rhetoric considerably) analyzes language using a hermeneutical instrument designed to penetrate the words to examine their effects—desired or not—on the people who use them.

What, then, qualifies as “bullshit”? Certainly, as I hope I have shown, rhetoric and bullshit are hardly the same thing. They are not even distant cousins. When a student begins a paper with the sentence, “In today’s society, there are many things that people have different and similar opinions about,” it’s a pretty good guess that there is little of rhetorical value there. About the only conclusion a reader can draw is that the student is neither inspired nor able to hide this fact. This is the extent of the subtext, and it could conceivably qualify as bullshit. In this sense, Frankfurt’s characterization of bullshit as “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about” (p. 63) is a useful differentiation.

But aside from these rather artificial instances, if bullshit does occur at the rate Frankfurt suggests, we have an arduous task in separating the bullshit from more interesting and worthy rhetorical situations. We have all met people whom we know, almost from the moment of acquaintance, are full of bullshit. It is the salesman syndrome that some people just (naturally, it seems) possess. In one sense, then, poor rhetoric—a rhetoric of transparency or obviousness—can be construed as bullshit. For the person with salesman syndrome is certainly attempting to achieve identification with his audience; he may even be attempting to persuade others that he is upright or trustworthy. But he fails because his bullshit is apparent. He is a bad rhetorician in the sense that he fails to convince others that he should be taken seriously, that his words are worthy of attention and, possibly, action.

Bullshit is something we can all recognize. Rhetoric is not. My remedy for this situation is simple: learn rhetoric.


The Sociology of Intellectual Life
by Steve Fuller
pp. 147-8

Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) On Bullshit is the latest contribution to a long, distinguished, yet deeply problematic line of Western thought that has attempted to redeem the idea of intellectual integrity from the cynic’s suspicion that it is nothing but high-minded, self-serving prejudice. I say ‘problematic’ because while Plato’s unflattering portrayal of poets and sophists arguably marked the opening salvo in the philosophical war against bullshit, Plato availed himself of bullshit in promoting the ‘myth of the metals’ as a principle of social stratification in his Republic. This doublethink has not been lost on the neo-conservative followers of the great twentieth century Platonist Leo Strauss. […]

The bullshit detector aims to convert an epistemic attitude into a moral virtue: reality can be known only by the right sort of person. This idea, while meeting with widespread approval by philosophers strongly tied to the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, is not lacking in dissenters. The line of dissent is best seen in the history of ‘rhetoric’, a word Plato coined to demonize Socrates’ dialectical opponents, the sophists. The sophists were prepared to teach anyone the art of winning arguments, provided you could pay the going rate. As a series of sophistic interlocutors tried to make clear to Socrates, possession of the skills required to secure the belief of your audience is the only knowledge you really need to have. Socrates famously attacked this claim on several fronts, which the subsequent history of philosophy has often conflated. In particular, Socrates’ doubts about the reliability of the sophists’ techniques have been run together with a more fundamental criticism: even granting the sophists their skills, they are based on a knowledge of human gullibility, not of reality itself.

Bullshit is sophistry under this charitable reading, which acknowledges that the truth may not be strong enough by itself to counteract an artfully presented claim that is not so much outright false as, in the British idiom, ‘economical with the truth’. In stressing the difference between bullshit and lies, Frankfurt clearly has this conception in mind, though he does sophistry a disservice by casting the bullshitter’s attitude toward the truth as ‘indifference’. On the contrary, the accomplished bullshitter must be a keen student of what people tend to regard as true, if only to cater to those tendencies so as to serve her own ends. What likely offends Frankfurt and other philosophers here is the idea that the truth is just one more tool to be manipulated for personal advantage. Conceptual frameworks are simply entertained and then discarded as their utility passes. The nature of the offence, I suspect, is the divine eye-view implicated in such an attitude – the very idea that one could treat in a detached fashion the terms in which people normally negotiate their relationship to reality. A bullshitter revealed becomes a god unmade.

pp. 152-3

The bullshit detector believes not only that there is a truth but also that her own access to it is sufficiently reliable and general to serve as a standard by which others may be held accountable. Protestants appeared prepared to accept the former but not the latter condition, which is why dissenters were encouraged – or perhaps ostracized – to establish their own ministries. The sophists appeared to deny the former and possibly the latter condition as well. Both Protestants and sophists are prime candidates for the spread of bullshit because they concede that we may normally address reality in terms it does not recognize – or at least do not require it to yield straight ‘yes-or-no’, ‘true-or-false’ answers. In that case, we must make up the difference between the obliqueness of our inquiries and the obtuseness of reality’s responses. That ‘difference’ is fairly seen as bullshit. When crystallized as a philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, this attitude is known as antirealism. Its opposite number, the background philosophy of bullshit detectors, is realism.

The difference in the spirit of the two philosophies is captured as follows: do you believe that everything you say and hear is bullshit unless you have some way of showing whether it is true or false; or rather, that everything said and heard is simply true or false, unless it is revealed to be bullshit? The former is the antirealist, the latter the realist response. Seen in those terms, we might say that the antirealist regards reality as inherently risky and always under construction (Caveat credor: ‘Let the believer beware!’) whereas the realist treats reality as, on the whole, stable and orderly – except for the reprobates who try to circumvent the system by producing bullshit. In this respect, On Bullshit may be usefully read as an ad hominem attack on antirealists. Frankfurt himself makes passing reference to this interpretation near the end of the essay (Frankfurt 2005: 64–65). Yet, he appears happy to promote the vulgar image of antirealism as intellectually, and perhaps morally, slipshod, instead of treating it as the philosophically honorable position that it is.

A case in point is Frankfurt’s presentation of Wittgenstein as one of history’s great bullshit detectors (Frankfurt 2005: 24–34). He offers a telling anecdote in which the Viennese philosopher objects to Fania Pascal’s self description as having been ‘sick as a dog’. Wittgenstein reportedly told Pascal that she misused language by capitalizing on the hearer’s easy conflation of a literal falsehood with a genuine condition, which is made possible by the hearer’s default anthropocentric bias. Wittgenstein’s objection boils down to claiming that, outside clearly marked poetic contexts, our intellectual end never suffices alone to justify our linguistic means. Frankfurt treats this point as a timeless truth about how language structures reality. Yet, it would be quite easy, especially recalling that this ‘truth’ was uttered seventy years ago, to conclude that Wittgenstein’s irritation betrays a spectacular lack of imagination in the guise of scrupulousness.

Wittgenstein’s harsh judgement presupposes that humans lack any real access to canine psychology, which renders any appeal to dogs purely fanciful. For him, this lack of access is an established fact inscribed in a literal use of language, not an open question answers to which a figurative use of language might offer clues for further investigation. Nevertheless, scientists informed by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis – which was being forged just at the time of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement – have quite arguably narrowed the gap between the mental lives of humans and animals in research associated with ‘evolutionary psychology’. As this research makes more headway, what Wittgenstein confidently declared to be bullshit in his day may tomorrow appear as having been a prescient truth. But anyone holding such a fluid view of verifiability would derive scant comfort from either Wittgenstein or Frankfurt, who act as if English linguistic intuitions, circa 1935, should count indefinitely as demonstrable truths.

Some philosophers given to bullshit detection are so used to treating any Wittgensteinian utterance as a profundity that it never occurs to them that Wittgenstein may have been himself a grandmaster of bullshit. The great bullshit detectors whom I originally invoked, Nietzsche and Mencken, made themselves vulnerable to critics by speaking from their own self-authorizing standpoint, which supposedly afforded a clear vista for distinguishing bullshit from its opposite. Wittgenstein adopts the classic bullshitter’s technique of ventriloquism, speaking through the authority of someone or something else in order to be spared the full brunt of criticism.

I use ‘adopts’ advisedly, since the deliberateness of Wittgenstein’s rhetoric remains unclear. What was he trying to do: to speak modestly without ever having quite controlled his spontaneously haughty manner, or to exercise his self-regarding superiority as gently as possible so as not to frighten the benighted? Either way, Wittgenstein became – for a certain kind of philosopher – the standard-bearer of linguistic rectitude, where ‘language’ is treated as a proxy for reality itself. Of course, to the bullshitter, this description also fits someone whose strong personality cowed the impressionable into distrusting their own thought processes. As with most successful bullshit, the trick is revealed only after it has had the desired effect and the frame of reference has changed. Thus, Wittgenstein’s precious concern about Pascal’s account of her state of health should strike, at least some readers today, as akin to a priest’s fretting over a parishioner’s confession of impure thoughts. In each case, the latter is struck by something that lies outside the box in which the former continues to think.

If Wittgenstein was a bullshitter, how did he manage to take in professed enemies of bullshit like Frankfurt? One clue is that most bullshit is forward looking, and Wittgenstein’s wasn’t. The bullshitter normally refers to things whose prima facie plausibility immunizes the hearer against checking their actual validity. The implication is that the proof is simply ‘out there’ waiting be found. But is there really such proof? Here the bullshitter is in a race against time. A sufficient delay in checking sources has salvaged the competence and even promoted the prescience of many bullshitters. Such was the spirit of Paul Feyerabend’s (1975) notorious account of Galileo’s ‘discoveries’, which concluded that his Papal Inquisitors were originally justified in their scepticism, even though Galileo’s followers subsequently redeemed his epistemic promissory notes.

In contrast, Wittgenstein’s unique brand of bullshit was backward-looking, always reminding hearers and readers of something they should already know but had perhaps temporarily forgotten. Since Wittgenstein usually confronted his interlocutors with mundane examples, it was relatively easy to convey this impression. The trick lay in immediately shifting the context from the case at hand to what Oxford philosophers in the 1950s called a ‘paradigm case’ that was presented as a self-evident standard of usage against which to judge the case at hand. That Wittgenstein, a non-native speaker of English, impressed one or two generations of Britain’s philosophical elite with just this mode of argumentation remains the envy of the aspiring bullshitter. Ernest Gellner (1959), another émigré from the old Austro Hungarian Empire, ended up ostracized from the British philosophical establishment for offering a cutting diagnosis of this phenomenon as it was unfolding. He suggested that Wittgenstein’s success testified to his ability to feed off British class anxiety, which was most clearly marked in language use. An academically sublimated form of such language-driven class anxiety remains in the discipline of sociolinguistics (Bernstein 1971–77).

Yet, after nearly a half-century, Gellner’s diagnosis is resisted, despite the palpable weakening of Wittgenstein’s posthumous grip on the philosophical imagination. One reason is that so many living philosophers still ride on Wittgenstein’s authority – if not his mannerisms – that to declare him a bullshitter would amount to career suicide. But a second reason is also operative, one that functions as an insurance policy against future debunkers. Wittgenstein is often portrayed, by himself and others, as mentally unbalanced. You might think that this would render his philosophical deliverances unreliable. On the contrary, Wittgenstein’s erratic disposition is offered as evidence for his spontaneously guileless nature – quite unlike the controlled and calculated character of bullshitters. Bullshit fails to stick to Wittgenstein because he is regarded as an idiot savant.


9 thoughts on “On Truth and Bullshit

  1. it’s a long one, B., – but the first thought is that Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit overlaps closely with my definition of bigotry – “something you can only believe by not giving it a second, or maybe a first thought.” “Something we can generally only believe about ‘the other’ but not about us or our social in-group, because generally we have to give ourselves the first and second thoughts.”

    more later . . .

    • I wasn’t considering bigotry. I’m not sure how that might fit into Frankfurt’s argument. But I can see how the two, bullshit and bigotry, would overlap. Bullshit, in general, would overlap with many things.

      The primary distinction, according to Frankfurt, is that bullshit is insincere. The question is how many bigots are sincere and how many not. What would it mean to be sincere or insincere about bigotry? Trump, along with many neoreactionaries, seem insincere about his bigotry for it is all bullshit to him. But how common is such insincere bigotry, such bigoted bullshit?

      The connection that occurs to me is Burke’s moral imagination. That is all about prejudice. And it’s rationalization of prejudice is exactly what would lead to some judging it as bullshit. Burke didn’t seem to have held truth as a central ideal and concern. And Burke feared the sincerity of political zealotry. Moral imagination, as Burke used it, was a justification for insincerity as in his defense of the ‘plumage’ of monarchy.

      Privilege and power never requires sincerity, often requiring the opposite. As for truth, it would simply be irrelevant for to the ruling elite truth is simply what they declare it to be and it doesn’t matter if they don’t believe what they say. Any subject of the French Empire who called Burke’s romanticized French monarchy liars would have been imprisoned and/or executed, not because truth mattered but because authority mattered. That kind of authority is bullshit backed by the force of violence.

      I’ll have to give that some more thought. If you could clarify your own viewpoint, I’ll be able to better respond.

        • Frankfurt has a particular distinction in mind.

          Sincerity, not dishonesty, is the opposite of bullshit. Sincerity is all about intention, which prioritizes the speaker. It doesn’t matter if the speaker is telling the truth or a lie, since either bullshit or sincerity is an entirely separate issue.

          It’s a strange way of using these terms. But I might understand his purpose. The problem is this. How can one be concerned with truth and seek to speak the truth without having a sincere relationship to a standard of truth?

          In all of this, it’s not clear to me what Frankfurt thinks is the role of the listener who is judging the speaker, beyond the judgment itself. But what is the basis of the judgment?

        • You could have the right idea. Maybe the listener’s POV is the issue. At least, that seems to be the crux of possible confusion. How does the listener tell the difference between sincerity and insincerity, honesty and dishonesty?

          You can, if you have the right info, determine whether or not a statement is true. But that doesn’t prove anything else. A sincere and honest person could speak something untrue, as all that it means is that they believe it is true.

    • Some related items:



      “Neil Postman’s paper, “Bullshit and the art of crap-detection” (1969), comes first to mind. There Postman argued that our key task, both as philosophers and educators, is to be on the lookout for and to identify bullshit, and to educate our students in such a manner that they might do the same. For Postman, bullshit is associated with pomposity, bigotry, inanity (by which he means “ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity” [p. 4]), and superstition (by which he means “ignorance presented in the cloak of authority” [ibid.]).”

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