On Bullshit [Frankfurt]

Dated Jan 1, 1986; last modified on Thu, 02 Sep 2021

Need to develop a theoretical understanding of bullshit. An account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not.

This is a common way of defining concepts in relation to others. Also saw it in the definitions of algebra, geometry and analysis as mathematical categories

Remarks on Black’s “The Prevalence of Humbug”

Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings or attitudes.

The synonyms for humbug are quite catchy: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, quackery.

Deceptive implies that the misrepresentation is deliberate. In that sense, the utterance and the motive are tied.

If a lie works, then the victim is twice-deceived: first of the facts, and second, of what’s in the liar’s mind.

Humbug is primarily designed to deceive the victim of what is in the speaker’s mind. A 4th of July orator declaring “our great and blessed country” is concerned less of whether the country is great or blessed, but more of whether people think of him as patriotic.

The Essence of Bullshit

Bullshit doesn’t have to be shoddy. For instance, in politics, bullshit is served with an observance to opinion polls, psychological groupings, etc.

Claiming that one feels as bad as a dog that’s been run over is bullshit - we can’t know what the dog feels! The essence of bullshit is the lack of concern of the truth.

Bullshit need not be false. More accurately, unlike liars and honest people, bullshitters are not constrained by the truths; instead, they don’t want the victim to know that their intention is neither to report/conceal the truth.

Paying no attention to the truth is a greater enemy to the truth than lying about it.

Hypotheses on the Prevalence of Bullshit

Being stimulated to speak on more topics than we’re well acquainted with. A citizen in a democracy cannot possibly have opinions about every affair of the country.

We see this in political debates and congressional hearings. The presidential candidates and company execs are usually too high level to give meaningful answers. Want to know what Biden thinks of the economy? Well, let’s consult his top economists!

The idea that we can’t have reliable access to an objective reality. Individuals then seek to arrive at accurate representations of themselves rather than the common world. However, what makes us determinate, unlike everything else?

One of the funnier endings that I’ve seen in a paper: … And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.

References

  1. On Bullshit. Frankfurt, Harry. Princeton University. http://125.22.40.134:8080/jspui/bitstream/123456789/3710/1/%281%29%20Frankfurt%201986.pdf . 1986.
  2. The Prevalence of Humbug. Black, Max. Philosophic Exchange, Vol. 13, No. 1. Cornell University. https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1226&context=phil_ex . 1982.