“If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit”.
In general conversation bullshit refers to anything that one judges is nonsense, stupid, worthless or deceptive. Exemplifying this approach Penn and Teller, the magicians, have a long running TV programme in the USA called Bullshit which is engaged in debunking false claims of healers, UFOlogist and psychic phenomena. However, the Princeton philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, was not satisfied with this rather loose use of the term and wanted to pin down the essence of bullshit a bit more scientifically and wrote about it in his 1986 paper entitled 'On Bullshit'. This was re-released as a book in 2005 and it became a best seller. (I suspect it was mainly bought as a present for co-workers and bosses).
Unfortunately, the book is not quite as witty as the title might suggest. In fact it is an attempt at a very serious explication of what Frankfurt thinks is a very common and growing phenomenon in modern society:
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.
The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is that it is produced without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn't be false: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” The bullshitter's fakery consists not in misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the truthteller are playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth.
The questions that we will be setting out to answer in our session are:
- Is there more bullshit around now than in previous generations?
- If the is an increase in bullshit, how do we account for it?
- Why are we more forgiving of the bullshitter than the liar, given that the bullshitter has less respect for the truth than the liar?
- Is bullshit having a morally corrosive effect on society today?
We will also looking at various examples of bullshit in a number of domains including:
- Public relations
- Political propaganda
- Love, sex and romance
- News media
These will be illustrated by a number of video clip which, if they fail to illuminated at least will give you a laugh!
The paradigm-case bullshitter
Synonymns for Bullshit and related concepts
There are a number of synonyms for Bullshit and concepts closely related that we would do well to reflect on while we are thinking about Bullshit. For instance:
Here are some articles covering similar and related concepts:
Bullshit in politcs
Here are a couple of video clips that illustrate bullshit in politics:
Bullshit in the media
Bullshit in Business and Advertising
Bullshit in Education
Bullshit in Philosopy
At the end of his paper 'On Bullshit' Frankfurt blames some of the rise in the level of bullshit in the modern world onto a corrosive scepticism. Postmodernism is probably the main, but not sole culprit of this scepticism:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. 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. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
RationalWiki has a nice, succinct article on Postmodernism; there is a page on this site relating to a previous discussion of pomo philosophy but for a really pithy insight into pomo philosophy here is a simple, pictorial account (not much reading required).
Bullshit in the Arts
Books on Bullshit
Penny, Laura (2005). Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit. Random House. ISBN 1-4000-8103-3. — Halifax academic Laura Penny's study of the phenomenon of bullshit and its impact on modern society.
Frankfurt, Harry G. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12294-6. — Harry Frankfurt's detailed analysis of the concept of bullshit.
Kotzee, Ben. Our Vision and our Mission: Bullshit, Assertion and Belief. Cape Town, South Africa: Private Bag, 2007. 166. Press