Saturday, May 19, 2012

Books to prepare for the presidential election season

[Advisory: anyone finding the subject of this post linguistically offensive is advised to stop reading now.]
Harry G. Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. His most recent publication is On Truth,which was published the year after his philosophical investigation, On Bullshit,the subject of my interest in this post. Frankfurt first developed his ideas about bullshit in a 1986 philosophical investigation of the concept. This was subsequently republished as a small 67-page book in 2005, leading to media appearances such as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.

It is obvious from the fact that our nation elected Barack Obama as President of the United States in 2008 on a platform of demonstrably bullshit slogans like "Hope," "Change" and "Yes we can" that the best-seller publicity received by Frankfort's study has more to do with the public's fascination and amusement with its title than with the actual, serious content of the volume. Perhaps if more people actually read Frankfurt's study, they would force our politicians to deal with issues more honestly and forthrightly -- a pressing issue in this election year. (And, no, I'm not supposing that bullshit is the exclusive province of Mr. Obama or the Democratic party, although they have certainly set new records of late.)

While Frankfurt's study of bullshit may not be philosophically dense or profound, it is far more than a book about (excuse me) shits and giggles. Frankfurt is quite serious. While there are passages that will certainly make the reader smile, this is generally because of the juxtaposition of serious conceptual and linguistic analysis with a subject generally treated as crude and trivial. For example, in his opening pages, he writes:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.... I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.
Frankfurt compares bullshit with adjacent concepts such as "humbug," "lying," and "bluffing," referencing points made by Max Black, Wittgenstein, St. Augustine, and the Oxford English Dictionary.

He concludes that unlike the liar, the bullshitter is never serious about truth. Lying is parasitic upon truth, because the liar is concerned that the truth not be discovered. Like the liar, the bullshitter is also represents himself falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth; but unlike the liar, who hides the fact that he is trying to deceive us, the bullshitter hides the fact that truth is of no basic interest to him. "It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth," writes Frankfurt. "Producing bullshit requires no such conviction." He continues:
For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to.... Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, of the same game.... The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether.... By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Anyone who wishes to continue making assertions but who no longer believes in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true, cannot do anything but bullshit, says Frankfurt. In conclusion, he asks why there is so much bullshit, and offers two basic hypotheses.

First, people bullshit whenever circumstances require them to talk without knowing what they are talking about. This phenomenon is widespread, obviously, in the public life of politicians, who are expected to be able to talk intelligently about everything under the sun, most of which they are capable of addressing only in memorized sound bites and cliches that are no more than forms of bullshit.

Second, the contemporary proliferation of bullshit, says Frankfurt, has deeper sources in "various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality." One response to these "antirealist" doctrines and loss of confidence has been, he says, a retreat from "the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness" to a quite different sort of habit, which involves the cultivation of an alternative ideal of sincerity. "Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature." Frankfurt observes:
But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.... 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.
Related: Mark Steyn, "The Great Barry" (NRO, May 19, 2012).


Robert Allen


There are some fairly obvious counterexamples to Frankfurt’s definitions, both of lying and bs. A liar may not care whether the truth is eventually discovered. His lie may be a temporary expedient or part of a ruse. Sartre gives a case of the latter in The Wall: Pablo misleads the Nationalist authorities by telling them that his comrade is hiding in a cemetery shack, hoping to send them on a wild goose chase. (The only problem is, the comrade has re-located there.) This is also a case of a liar not knowing the truth. Where I come from (St. Suzanne parish circa 1970), bs meant lying about your accomplishments, what F. calls inflating your resume: there was the boy who claimed to have lots of girlfriends- just none in our neighborhood, or the one who said that he played for an elite hockey team, yet couldn’t even keep up with us hacks. (I remember hearing the word for the first time and asking for its meaning after the Gordie Howe wannabe had regaled us with tales of his exploits in far-off Pittsburgh.) Thus, I cannot help but thinking of bs as a form of lying. It is lying to sooth one’s ego, to make oneself appear more accomplished in the eyes of others than one really is. The bser is well aware of the truth; he just finds it too painful to reveal. His project is self-deception via the deception of others. Some of the politicians Frankfurt decries are, to my mind, flat-out liars, not bsers. They are not trying to cover-up perceived weaknesses or deficiencies, merely attempting to secure votes by making false promises. The others, the ones trying to sound intelligent, are merely babbling; I’m not sure they are even aware enough of their shallowness to feign erudition. There are finally people who are cavalier in regards to the truth who are not bsers. Purveyors of chat-room fantasies fit this bill. They are not about concealment nor seeking the esteem of others, but titillation.

Pertinacious Papist


Mr. Allen,

Very good. Pablo, then, Frankfurt would say, is playing the same game as the liar and truth-teller, since he is concerned about the even when getting it wrong.

On the other hand wouldn't he say of the liar "who may not care whether the truth is eventually discovered," whose "lie may be a temporary expedient or part of a ruse," that he was really not more than a BS-er?

I do like the corollary that the BS-er is one who lies about his own accomplishments, inflating his resume. Nice.



Sincerity over correctness is one example of a bullshit ideal, but not one I run across very often. Most of the bullshitters I see hold popularity as an ideal; this most commonly surfaces in avoidance of positions considered "backwards", "vile", etc., but I've seen people, including one or two on the academic track, who, when pushed, will admit that they form their politics around what's good for them socially, what will get them friends, etc. instead of what's true.

There is, of course, a counterrevolutionary flavor of popularity-bullshittery, but the skinhead/Von Thronstahl 'counterculture' posturing is much rarer.