“On Bullshit” is Bullshit
Harry Frankfurt, the well-respected and equally well-published professor of philosophy at Princeton University, begins his essay On Bullshit (Raritan Quarterly Review, 1986 & Princeton University Press, 2005) with the proposal to “begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit”-a term which, as he claims in his 61-page work, has a deeper meaning than its apparent crudity. By the end of his work, he hopes to “give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not, or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.” He takes special precautions not to focus on the “rhetorical uses,” or misuses, of bullshit in contemporary politics, society, or culture–perhaps out of fear that his writing would become outdated for readers of future generations. Regardless, the goal seems simple: what is bullshit? Where does it come from? Why does it exist? As we dissect Frankfurt’s paradigms on bullshit, we can start to answer a few of these questions.
The answer to the first question begins with a definitional discussion. Frankfurt draws on the authoritative The Oxford English Dictionary, and the more obscure work, Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black (Cornell University Press, 1983). According to the dictionary’s supplemental entry for “bullshit” and “bull” says “trivial, insincere, untruthful talk or writing, nonsense,” which Frankfurt labels as inconclusive and non-contextual to a philosophical discussion of bullshit and its relationship with rhetoric or truth. Instead, he prefers Black’s definition of “humbug,” or “the deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” Frankfurt fixates on the term “short of lying,” which means, in effect, that the truth or falsity of the speech may not be relevant. Bullshit, though, is still a deceptive misrepresentation intended to advance one’s own feelings, attitudes, or as Frankfurt states “authority” and “candor” in a particular situation. In other words, lying is when you say something false in order to intentionally hide the truth, while bullshiting exists as more of a means to an end. Think of it as those Fitness Instructors at your local gym who tell you that pilates will strengthen your core and improve your sexual performance–those claims may or may not be scientifically proven, or even verifiable apart from some personal testimonies–but your fitness instructor knows that the only reason you’d even consider taking a pilates class is to look and feel better naked.
However, Frankfurt runs into a problem when trying to establish a paradigm for his “theoretical understanding” of bullshit. It begins with the allusion to the term “humbug” as previously dissected by Black. When one hears the term “humbug,” they can’t help but place the expletive “Bah!” ahead of it. The famous catchphrase of Ebenezer Scrooge is hard to forget from Charles Dickens’ prose in A Christmas Carol. For those of you who hatched from an egg at twenty-five and never experienced a childhood, in A Christmas Carol Dickens presents a simple story of Scrooge as a crotchety old man who hates Christmas. His nephew, Fred, adamantly attempts to coax the old man out of his dreery apartment and business office to partake in some holiday festivities, to which the old man repeatedly exclaims “Bah! Humbug,” before slamming the door on his poor nephew’s face. The problem with equating the contemporary term “bullshit” with “humbug” is that it makes Fred the bullshitter in this situation–and that doesn’t seem like an appropriate title for a man who just happens to enjoy Christmas. Even then, this runs contrary to Frankfurt’s assertion of bullshit as an inherent means to an end, for the purpose of promoting oneself or one’s candor. Fred doesn’t wish to give the impression that he’s more righteous or truth valuable than Scrooge by wishing him a Merry Christmas, therefore he’s not bullshitting–but he’s not lying, either. Fred, by consequence of his sincerity in sentiment, which Frankfurt disjunctively identifies as a facet of “dangerous” bullshit, but also by consequence of his absence of sincerity in truth, ought to fall square in the middle of Frankfurt’s paradigm for what bullshit is. But when we articulate Fred’s situation, relationship to his uncle Scrooge, and his general demeanor, it feels inaccurate to place him within this camp of “deceptive misrepresentation.” Instead, Fred falls somewhere inbetweenbullshit and lying. This ambiguity raises the question of where Christmas–even Christianity, or other religions, political beliefs, or truth statements for that matter–falls on this spectrum What we’d be left with then is the dilemma that either all belief and value systems are faithless, and therefore bullshit, or that beliefs exist outside the paradigm. Maybe Frankfurt saw this coming before he decided “not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit.” It’d be rather difficult to take on every existing faith and creed in one essay.
If we choose to dismiss the possibility of a non-applicable paradigm (even though that is the purpose of the essay), Frankfurt still approaches some form of “theoretical understanding” when he moves on to the next two questions we proposed earlier about bullshit: where and why does it exist? The answer to these two questions is found in how people use bullshit-from your fitness instructor and his pilates class, to advertisements, which Frankfurt stresses in the last portion of his essay. People use bullshit not as a means of falsifying information, as we and Frankfurt have already established, but as a means towards validation and self-affection. This largely stems from a desire to be have one’s ego boosted. And indeed, Frankfurt largely blames egoism for an apparent excess of bullshit in contemporary media and advertising, stating that these “realms” are “replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.” He claims that the craftsmen behind these ulterior-driven industries employ “techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth” to “dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.”
Well then, wouldn’t it seem that bullshit is now equatable to conflating the truth? Is all bullshit really true at some fundamental level? It certainly wouldn’t seem right to say so. We’ve all heard people boast, tell stories, and ramble on about events or past experiences that may not be one-hundred percent verifiable–classic examples of bullshit. But if you think about it, all of them are predicated off some truthful foundation, and the intent is there to deliberately misrepresent the truth–the truth just may lay farther than expected from what is being told. The difference, as Frankfurt says, in bridged with “sincerity,” the belief of adamance of the bullshitter in what he or she is trying to convey. Sincerity, as he contends towards the end of his essay, is what makes bullshit particularly dangerous-or at least precarious-when discerning the truth value of a statement, mostly because it “conveys a sense” of truth that’s still distinct from a lie.
However, sitting on this for a moment, you’d begin to wonder what really is “true” in the sense of sincerity and bullshit. If you visited your grandmother in the hospital, and told her to “feel better soon” when she was sick, but you really couldn’t discern with any medical knowledge how exactly, or whether or not she was going to recover from her ailment, did you just bullshit your own grandma? Don’t worry-you didn’t, despite what Frankfurt may claim-and grandma is still going to send you a tin of Christmas cookies when she gets over her stomach bug. Expressing genuine sentiments that someone feels better soon is not conveyed with sincerity for the intent of falsely misrepresenting oneself as thoughtful, because (hopefully) those sentiments towards your grandmother are true-and you really do wish she gets better soon.
But yet again, Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit becomes largely inapplicable, or at least uncomfortable, to seemingly commonplace situations, which is counterintuitive to the goal of establishing any philosophy or paradigm on a commonplace term or phrase. Does this just mean that bullshit doesn’t apply to everyday life? Or does it mean that it’s specially reserved for those with agendas, power, and desires to win and influence in spite of the truth (it seems as though Frankfurt would have had a better time writing this essay after the 2016 election). Regardless, the term is quickly facing some problems, and perhaps Frankfurt did have an articulated manifestation of bullshit in mind when he did write this essay-I certainly had my own before I even began reading it. However, when we expand our horizons a little bit outside of our preconceived ideas of falsity, truth value statements, or even sincerity, we can’t really discern a lot, or much less make a paradigm out of, the gray area that surrounds bullshit.
At the end of the piece-one can’t help but get the familiar waft of bullshit. Most of what Frankfurt says about the term bullshit is, in fact, conveyed with so much sincerity and truth value that one would believe him if they didn’t think twice. Maybe that’s why the book is still in print, maybe that’s why it was a New York Times bestseller, or maybe that’s why so many more authors have written more fair reviews of the piece. It does seem to provide ammunition against a lot of falsity currently circulating in writing. However, and we’ll cut Frankfurt’s bullshitting some slack with this one, the piece does leave behind a great number of interesting questions pertaining to bullshit, including those original ones I proposed at the beginning of this piece. How is bullshit used in politics, especially now in the era of Trump and his tumultuous relationship with “Fake News” and the media? Additionally, one can look within them media, and its newly revived obsession with fact-checking and verifying information. But even then, if information is true and verifiable – can it still be bullshit? Frankfurt certainly thought so, even if it was out of that context. But ultimately, Frankfurt did succeed in the precursor to his “theoretical understanding” of bullshit. He wanted only to, “begin the development” of a theory, something we can only do by keeping our noses up for that familiar scent.