On Accusations of Bullshit

Thinking about bullshit, I was reminded of the standard interpretation of the Greek sophists. The sophists tend to be seen through the eyes of Socrates which is to say through the words of Plato. But we are using a lens of understanding that is covered in more than two millennia of dust and grime.

I’ve long known that trying to grasp anything in the ancient world can feel like a near impossible task, even if too alluring to refuse the attempt. Understandably, we feel compelled to pull back the curtains of the past, hoping to get a glimpse. It isn’t entirely fruitless endeavor, as we have accumulated much evidence, although more scanty than is preferable.

The problem is less the evidence itself and more about how to make sense of it. After millennia of accrued interpretive traditions, it is hard to see the past with clear eyes and new insight. We inherit biases about texts and history, it being hard to separate the one from the other.

David Corey has a book on the topic, The Sophist’s in Plato’s Dialogues (see Lee Trepanier review). If he is correct, that upends the standard view. It would mean Plato’s motives in writing were more complicated, but it more importantly would mean what he wrote about was more complicated.

He points out that Plato references multiple times that Prodicus, a sophist, was Socrates teacher. His argument is that the sophists are often portrayed in positive light and that a close reading shows that there are many commonalities between Socrates and the sophists. They share methods and purpose in philosophical debate. They share a view of a manifest world that is relative and uncertain. And they share a commitment to human virtue that challenges tradition.

In one dialogue, Socrates makes a fairly direct defense of the sophists, in arguing against an unfair and unfounded criticism of them. What is interesting about the criticism, corrupting society, was later used against Socrates. And this is when it is good to remember that Socrates was also sometimes referred to as a sophist.

If sophists were bullshitters and their bullshit was a threat to Athenian democracy, then what does that say about Socrates? He too was judged as a threat and it is a fact that he did associate with some people who actually did threaten the society by enforcing authoritarian rule. It was a time of instability and so it’s clear why so many Athenian citizens feared anything that further destabilized the vulnerable democracy. But when is guilt by association a justified judgment?

The punishment for Socrates was only banishment and yet he chose death, which basically made it an act of suicide. He willingly drank the poison, instead of simply leaving. I don’t know that there is any evidence that his accusers wanted him dead. Socrates remained a well respected philosopher and public figure, even after his death. Banishment wasn’t even always permanent. So, why did he choose suicide which is permanent?

The main perspective we get on all of this, of course, is from Plato. In the Republic, Plato presents a utopian vision that is non-democratic in nature. That is the earliest inspiration for republican thought, at least in the American tradition of political philosophy. What occurred to me is that this republican ideology was articulated by someone living in a democracy and so, if implemented, this republican society would have followed after a democratic society.

Maybe such republicanism could only ever have been imagined in a democratic society. Because of modern revolutions, we define republicanism in opposition to the monarchy that it replaced. But that isn’t the context of that earliest republican thought. Instead of republicanism primarily being a revolution against monarchy, maybe it first and foremost is a reaction against democracy.

That could be seen in the American colonies where democratic self-governance had been developing for decades prior to the American Revolution and later the co-opting of power by the (pseudo-)Federalists who believed republicanism was opposed to democracy. So, the fight for democracy preceded the enforcement of republicanism. And, yes, it was an enforcement… ask those involved in Shay’s Rebellion who were violently put down.

So, what is Socratic dialogue and sophistry? And what are their relationship to rhetoric and bullshit? If Socrates or Plato had been alive in the revolutionary era of the American colonies, what would they have given voice to and whose side would they have taken? Or if they were here in America today, what role would they play? Do philosophers have much role to play at all in our society? When was the last time a member of the philosophical elite was perceived as enough threat to be deemed treasonous?

One last thought. Harry Frankfurt, in “On Bullshit,” argues that bullshit is more copious in a democracy. Is that really the case. I’ve argued against this. Whether or not there is more bullshit in a democracy, there is no doubt plenty of it. And bullshit ends up undermining democracy. Similar to an eye for an eye, bullshit for bullshit leads to us all being covered in it. There is no moral high ground on top of a pile of crap.

But how do we know what is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, that is to ask about intentions, in terms of sincerity and insincerity. Some of the critics of Socrates and the sophists claimed to know their intentions and that their intentions were not good. That apparently was a serious charge to make against someone back then. As for charges of treason these days, the issue of bullshit is irrelevant. What our society idealizes is the truth and hence what the powers that be fear is those who tell the truth. The most treasonous are the whistleblowers who leak government documents showing inconvenient truths, even if they had the best of intentions such as revealing illegal acts and moral wrongdoing.

For Socrates and the sophists, along with other Greeks, sincerity was of penultimate importance. Bullshit was seen as a threat because it was insincere, a value considered central to their small intimate democracy. We now take insincerity as the norm. Sincerity is too personal of a concern for such an impersonal society as ours. It’s harder to have personal concern for hundreds of millions in a large modern nation-state than to have personal concern for a few thousand in an ancient city-state. We are more tolerant of bullshit maybe for the sake of simplicity, as we can’t go around worrying about the moral intentions of so many strangers who we will never meet.


6 thoughts on “On Accusations of Bullshit

    • It’s political correctness. Even when (or especially when) true, it is politically incorrect to openly admit you are a white nationalist. Right-wingers are among the most sensitive purveyors of politically correct rhetoric.

    • That always makes me sad and frustrated.

      It’s not just lead. There are other heavy metal toxins such as mercury along with other pollutants that really mess people up. Lead toxicity alone stunts brain development, lowers IQ, lowered impulse control. leads to aggressive and violent behavior, increases criminality, increases suicide and homicide, causes numerous physical health problems, etc. Prisoners, when tested, have been shown to have way above average rates of lead toxicity.

      We look at these poor, violent communities and we blame the victims, turning them into scapegoats, leaving them to suffer and if they cause problems putting them into prisons. We act like it is a failure of individual character, morality, and culture. How can such vast ignorance exist about a topic that has so much scientific proof? There is no debate about this. We know what the problem is and we know how to deal with it.

      We could solve a whole host of personal and social problems for generations to come by eliminating or at least lessening toxins and pollutants. But few people understand the issue or appreciate why it is so urgent. And there is no political will to deal with it.

      I’ve talked to well-educated liberals about this who don’t comprehend it. There is one couple I know with a young child. They live in an old house that likely has lead paint. But they’ve never done anything about it. People just don’t get it. It’s one of those invisible threats. If a growling dog lunged at their child, they’d respond. But you can’t see the lead in paint, the lead in water, the lead in the air from particles, or the lead in the soil. And you can’t see the effects of lead toxicity until years later, some of the worst problems not becoming apparent until a couple decades after.

      Meanwhile, my conservative mother is one of the few people I know who does get why this matters. She spent her career working with special needs kids in public schools. She knows from firsthand experience how lead toxicity can cause major problems.

  1. Most rich liberals are socially liberal, but economically very conservative. If it means they have to pay higher taxes, they will strongly oppose it. They don’t care about gentrification or any other effects.

    They like “diversity” if it means they get to eat Chinese food. They don’t like living near poor people though.

    Unfortunately some of the negative stereotypes the conservatives put forward have some justification.

    • A lot of class consciousness isn’t necessarily class reality, though. Take the couple I mentioned with the young kid.

      They live in what was once a nice river town, but it is way past its prime. The state prison in town is the main employer and so it is basically a dying town that is being kept alive by government subsidies, employing part of the population to guard the other part that is imprisoned, an interesting form of welfare.

      Anyway, this couple lives in a rundown neighborhood that is now filled with the working poor. The husband has a college education, but the wife doesn’t. He works in a professional job for the county government and she has a minimum wage job with a local public school. They don’t make much money and so are not that far above poverty themselves, just a single healthcare crisis or other bad incident.

      Yet they attempt to live a middle class lifestyle and look down on their poor neighbors, refusing to let their kid play with the poor kids. They even speak of their neighbors as white trash. And the wife fears the blacks in town when they walk past the house.

      These are “good liberals”. They recycle. They are vegetarians. They love ethnic food. They are sensitive parents who don’t spank their kid. They do all the right things a good liberal is supposed to do, including voting Democrat no matter what. Yes, they both were strong supporters of Hillary Clinton.

      They aren’t stupid people. But they don’t understand what poverty means. The town they live in isn’t the kind of town either of them grew up in. It’s not part of their experience to worry about such things as lead toxicity because that wasn’t a problem in the towns they grew up in. For whatever reason, the reality of it just doesn’t connect in their brains.

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