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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Reading List: On Bullshit

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-12294-6.
This tiny book (just 67 9½×15 cm pages—I'd estimate about 7300 words) illustrates that there is no topic, however mundane or vulgar, which a first-rate philosopher cannot make so complicated and abstruse that it appears profound. The author, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, first published this essay in 1986 in the Raritan Review. In it, he tackles the momentous conundrum of what distinguishes bullshit from lies. Citing authorities including Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine, he concludes that while the liar is ultimately grounded in the truth (being aware that what he is saying is counterfactual and crafting a lie to make the person to whom he tells it believe that), the bullshitter is entirely decoupled (or, perhaps in his own estimation, liberated) from truth and falsehood, and is simply saying whatever it takes to have the desired effect upon the audience.

Throughout, it's obvious that we're in the presence of a phil-oss-o-pher doing phil-oss-o-phy right out in the open. For example, on p. 33 we have:

It is in this sense that Pascal's (Fania Pascal, an acquaintance of Wittgenstein in the 1930s, not Blaise—JW) statement is unconnected to a concern with the truth; she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true.
(The Punctuator applauds the use of colons and semicolons in the passage quoted above!)

All of this is fine, but it seems to me that the author misses an important aspect of bullshit: the fact that in many cases—perhaps the overwhelming majority—the bulshittee is perfectly aware of being bullshitted by the bullshitter, and the bullshitter is conversely aware that the figurative bovid excrement emitted is being dismissed as such by those whose ears it befouls. Now, this isn't always the case: sometimes you find yourself in a tight situation faced with a difficult question and manage to bullshit your way through, but in the context of a “bull session”, only the most naïve would assume that what was said was sincere and indicative of the participants' true beliefs: the author cites bull sessions as a venue in which people can try on beliefs other than their own in a non-threatening environment.

Posted at July 17, 2007 23:55