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On Bullshit
Harry G. Frankfurt
Published by Princeton University Press/NJ in 2005

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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Harry G. Frankfurt, renowned moral philosopher, is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include The Reasons of Love (Princeton), Necessity, Volition, and Love, and The Importance of What We Care About.

These words from the end page of this book are placed above in case someone scanning this review should deem it obscene by the mere presence of multiple instances of the word, "bullshit". From the reputation of the Author, anyone should be able to discern the serious nature of a philosophical endeavor present within the covers of the book entitled, "On Bullshit."

It would be possible for me as a reviewer to use euphemisms in place of the word itself, such as BS, Bull, Humbug, Folderol, Balderdash, or some such namby-pamby substitute, but such equivocation would be bullshit because I would be thereby infringing on the essence of bullshit — a subject about which this book has carefully informed me, and which I feel it is my task as reviewer to inform you.

By way of confession, I must admit that in the past I have sometimes blurred the distinction between lies and bullshit and I resolve to avoid such confusion from now on. Henceforth I will recognize a lie as a point-on coverup of a truth and bullshit as a coverup of what someone is actually up to. Thanks, Harry, for that assistance — I shall sally forth in life fully armed with the skills necessary to maneuver between the Scylla of Lies and the Charybdis of Bullshit.

Professor Frankfurt must have been operating on the premise that "A little bullshit is better than none at all" when he designed this book, because the book is among the smallest in my library in terms of size. It is a hardback of 4 by 6 inches, but the lines are almost double-spaced which provides about 18 lines per page. One is hard put to find a single sentence which does not occupy at least four or more lines of text. Of course we are dealing with a philosopher here, not a humorist, though, given the subject of the book, one is never sure. "Don't bullshit a bullshitter" is a phrase that must come to mind as one reads this book.

The previous sentence calls to my mind G. Spencer Brown's Second Law of Form for which there are some apothegms like "You can't resist your resisting." or "You can't judge your judging." The Second Law is the process of cancellation or annihilation and describes the type of process that when it acts upon itself, disappears. Resisting and judging are two examples. If you are resisting something and someone gets you to discover that you find your behavior irresistible, you will stop resisting. Similarly with the process of judging, it stops as soon as you attempt to judge your judging. What the Second Law reveals is that there are types of processes that humans do which when operated upon themselves stop immediately. The question that arises is this: Is bullshitting such a process? I think not. What happens if you bullshit a bullshitter is that more bullshit is generated in a spiraling loop which stops, not immediately, but only when the conversation runs out of time. Thus bullshitting is shown to be an example of a process governed, not by the Second Law of Form, but rather the Reverse First Law of Form which is the process of replication. (For more detail on Laws of Form, Click Here.)

All of the above may lead to you to immediate agreement with Professor Frankfurt's first sentence of this book:

[page 1] One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Everyone contributes his share.

From this introduction the learned professor proposes "to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis." One of the useful distinctions Frankfurt gives us is between bullshit and humbug.

[page 3] It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!" than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall assume that there is no other important difference between the two.

His essay continues apace when he quotes the definition of humbug given in Max Black's eponymous essay in The Prevalence of Humbug — obviously a more polite essay than his own:

[page 6, ibid., p. 143] HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

Frankfurt leads us to notice that “deceptive misrepresentation” is not redundant: it alludes to the intention of the speaker, as does the phrase “short of lying.” Note especially that it is not only the words of the speaker, but the underlying deed or process of the speaker that is important. This brings me to my essay, Art is the Process of Destruction, in which I describe carefully the difference between process and content, between deed and word. Since bullshitting is considered by many to be an art, we will shortly consider what is being destroyed during the process of bullshitting.

But first we want to call attention to an important finding by Frankfurt that when a "lie works, then its victim is twice deceived." Here's an example: Bob asks George, "How much money is in your pocket?" George lies. He gives Bob two incorrect things: the wrong amount of money and the wrong impression — namely, that George believes that this amount to be true — thus, Bob is twice deceived. Surely one must develop an increased admiration for the power of a lie after discovering the one-two punch it possesses.

[page 13] If the lie works, then its victim is twice deceived, having one false belief about what is in the liar's pocket and another false belief about what is in the liar's mind.

No discovery is worthy unless it also proves useful, and I would venture to suggest a use of knowing about the twofold nature of the lie. My knowledge of this useful aspect came to me in the most tortuous and expensive way imaginable, so I would be loathe to suggest it as a practical way of acquiring this knowledge, therefore I offer this revelation in the hopes of saving many another man from having to endure such a trial merely for this purpose. I got married. To a woman who had an uncanny way of telling when I lied. At the time I had not been informed as to the dual nature of lying. I knew only about the "what is in the liar's pocket" portion of lying, not about the "what is in the liar's mind" portion. As a result of my half-assed understanding of lying, I created fanciful flights of laudable plausibility, only to have them dash themselves on the rocks when she looked into what was in my mind. Alas, there was no escape but to begin telling the truth. From her, to whom I am yet married after 28 years, I learned to do one essential thing if I am doubt in the least whether a man has told me the truth: I look directly into the man's eyes and ask, "Is that the truth?" It is the equivalent of turning inside-out the pockets of his mind and inspecting the contents. By the way he reacts, I will know to a certainty whether he is lying or telling me the truth. A clear unequivocal "Yes" is the easiest sign. Lacking that "Yes", his use of any of the many variations on a theme of bullshit clearly indicates that the contents of his mind does not match what he spoke.

No book, no matter how small, by a philosopher, would be complete without a quotation or anecdote by the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Frankfurt includes both in this small book. The quotation is actually a stanza of verse written by Longfellow which Wittgenstein said could serve him as a motto:

      [page 20] In the elder days of art
       Builders wrought with greatest care
       Each minute and unseen part,
       For the Gods are everywhere.

Anyone who has ever done meticulous work of any kind knows the feeling — you finish off parts of your work that you know most people will never notice, but you know the gods will notice — they will look over and under and behind and in all the corners. Your conscience will bother you if you leave the least speck unfinished. As Frankfurt summed it up, "So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit." In fact, as he points out, "The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves . . . a certain inner strain."

It occurs to me that in movies, where we are often looking only at facades of buildings unfinished behind, with paid extras pretending to be disinterested pedestrians walking in front of them, that the only gods Hollywood recognizes are those gods who walk up to the ticket window to pay to see the movies. Other than that, nothing bothers Hollywood's conscience. Or, one might perhaps say, Hollywood is mostly bullshit.

Frankfurt tells us that Wittgenstein devoted himself to pointing out to others various forms of nonsense, a practice that even intruded into his personal relationships. When his friend Fania Pascal had her tonsils removed and he called to inquire about her condition, she told him, "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." Wittgenstein, she reports, was disgusted and told her, "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like." Now perforce this was true, but Fania's simile was a form of what Max Black would call a "creative metaphor" as described in this passage from The Body in the Mind:

[ibid., page 69] Black drew attention to the metaphorical creativity issue with his provocative assertion that there is a class of metaphors for which "it would be more illuminating . . . to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing."

Max Black in this passage from his essay, "Metaphor", is calling our attention to our understanding of metaphor as a moving point of creativity rather than simply a description of a previously existing similarity as Wittgenstein considered Pascal's simile to be. As if to punctuate that thought, Frankfurt says, "If Pascal's simile is offensive, then what figurative or allusive uses of language would not be?" (Page 25) To my knowledge it is not recorded whether Wittgenstein found all literature, which is notoriously replete with such allusions, to be offensive, but this anecdote raises the question.

There is a serious issue which is raised by this exposition of the nature of bullshit — the possibility of global warming. Does the prevalence of bullshit today lead to the generation of gases which lead to global warming? Bullshit according to one OED entry has: 'bull' defined as 'hot air'. The presence of 'hot air' can certainly lead to a warming of the atmosphere and to the warming of the globe it surrounds. I must add that I am sincere about this matter as are the adherents of the Kyoto Accord who are earnestly seeking an end to emissions of gases that they sincerely claim are creating "global warming." And yet, paradoxically, all the sincere speeches made by the adherents of the Kyoto Accord are exacerbating the very condition the adherents claim to be against because most certainly the amount of hot air they exhale is surely warming the atmosphere.

Frankfurt also cites OED's example of the usage of "bullshit" as a verb. Pound's Canto LXXIV says, "Wot are the books ov the bible?/Name 'em, don't bullshit ME." (Page 45) Frankfurt then explains what the phrase means:

[page 45] This is a call for facts. The person addressed is evidently regarded as having in some way claimed to know the Bible, or as having claimed to care about it. The speaker suspects that this is just empty talk, and demands that the claim be supported with facts. He will not accept a mere report; he insists upon seeing the thing itself. In other words, he is calling the bluff. The connection between bullshit and bluff is affirmed explicitly in the definition with which the lines by Pound are associated: . . . "to bluff one's way through (something) by talking nonsense."

This leads us to better understand the position that the USA has taken recently by bowing out of the Kyoto Accord: they have seen through the bluff and called it, as one might call a bluff by a poker player one suspects of possessing a weak hand. That is not to suggest in any way that the adherents to the Kyoto Accord are insincere or that the scientists are lying about their data. Frankfurt shows us the difference between bluffing and lying is similar to the difference between falsity and fakery.

[page 47, 48] For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.

The scientists who are howling about greenhouse gases are not lying or insincere, but lacking cogently convincing data, they are collectively bluffing, and their bluff has been called by those nations who have remained apart from Kyoto Accord.

[page 49, 50] . . . the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.

Not only that, but a liar has a much more difficult job than the bullshitter because "to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth." (Page 53) Few can read this without thinking of the clever lies concocted by a recent president in the Monica Lewinsky affair, going so far as to discuss what the "meaning of is" is to support his prevarications. The bullshitter has no such constraints as "what is really true" to be concerned with. Now we can understand the phrase bullshit artist. The art comes in the bullshit artist's destroying the constraints which would hobble a liar by tying him to the truth(1). By throwing off any links to the truth, the bullshit artist reveals his true art. The bullshit artist, in effect, lies in process, not necessarily in content. He misrepresents what he is up to. What the Kyoto Accord is up to seems to be the hobbling of the world's industrial powers and humbling of their consumers all the while creating a cover story which they sincerely believe about some dire consequences if the actions they seek to happen are not followed. A classic bluff — as any poker player will recognize — and many excellent poker players come from Texas.

There would seem to be a greater problem from the Kyoto Accord, which anyone who recalls the fairy tale of the Boy Who Cried Wolf will worry about. When the global warming predicted does not come into being, will nations be gullible enough to fall for the next set of dire consequences predicted? Not to worry. When the forests were claimed to be dying due to acid rain caused by industrial pollution some 40 years ago, and it was discovered that the so-called acid rain was a natural phenomenon unrelated to industrial emissions, did that revelation stop the nations from believing that holes in the ozone and global warming were due to industrial emissions? History proves that the public, with a short memory, is more resilient than that when it comes to what it accepts as truth. Besides the scientists who cobbled together statistics to make the acid rain prediction were dead, and the new scientists wanted more of what the acid rain scientists got during their time in the limelight: government grants, public adulation, and tenured professorships.

Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.” If I may paraphrase my favorite poet, Samuel Hoffenstein:

Statistics subtract
Faith and Fallacy from Fact
The Illusory from the True
And Scare Us with the Residue.

Strange but true, bullshit is a greater danger than lies are, Frankfurt tells us. Read below as he describe the cheek-to-cheek dance that the liar and the truth-sayer do with the truth. When one steps forward, the other steps backward in sync — there is only one music in truth that our dancers swing to-and-fro to — but each are stepping in opposite directions holding true to the music while endeavoring not to step on the other's toes:

[page 60, 61] Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, of the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the responses of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

"Tis a subtle thing to study bullshit, Stephen," I can imagine Bloom saying as they walk back from Nighttown through the streets of Dublin together, "one can learn how the idea of correctness has come to be replaced by the ideal of sincerity."(2) This is the message that Professor Frankfurt has laid between the warm covers of this book for us to gnaw on and digest.

[page 65] One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by the dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit 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.

There were two creeds over the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece: 1) Nothing in Excess and 2) Know Thyself. It would seem to me that Apollo did not mean for the first creed to be applied to the second one — that there is no limit to the lengths one may go in knowing the truth of one's own nature. And part of knowing ourselves is knowing the things we find ourselves surrounded by, such as the brilliant and insightful mind of Harry G. Frankfurt. With that we close this review and let the good professor have the last word, in all sincerity.

[page 66, 67] Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. 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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Footnotes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Footnote 1. These constraints comprise the sameness described as being destroyed by the bullshit artist. The liar and the truth-sayer hold these constraints ever in mind as the former constructs his lie and the latter tells his truth. The bullshitter completely destroys these constraints and thus may lay claim to being a true artist by my definition of art as the process of destruction of sameness.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Footnote 2. Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus in the novel by James Joyce, "Ulysses".

Return to text directly before Footnote 2. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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