by Louisa Carroll*
Harry Frankfurt, a moral philosopher, starts this little book with the following observation: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” He then proceeds to develop a theoretical understanding of bullshit – what it is, and what it is not.
Aspects of the bullshit problem are discussed partly with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, Wittgenstein and Saint Augustine. Three points seem especially important – the distinction between lying and bullshitting, the question of why there is so much bullshit in the current day and age, and a critique of sincerity qua bullshit.
Frankfurt makes an important distinction between lying and bullshitting. Both the liar and the bullshitter try to get away with something. But ‘lying’ is perceived to be a conscious act of deception, whereas ‘bullshitting’ is unconnected to a concern for truth. Frankfurt regards this ‘indifference to how things really are’, as the essence of bullshit. Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit is not – bullshit may happen to be correct or incorrect. The crux of the matter is that bullshitters hide their lack of commitment to truth. Since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.
Having established the grave danger of bullshit, Frankfurt’s next step is to ask why there is so much bullshit around. The main answer to this is that bullshit is unavoidable when people are convinced that they must have opinions about “events and conditions in all parts of the world”, about more or less anything and everything – so they speak quite extensively about things they know virtually nothing about. Frankfurt is non-committal as to whether there is more bullshit around now than before, but he maintains that there is currently a great deal.
There is an interesting problem sketched at the end of the book, wherein sincerity is described as an ideal for those who do not believe that there is any (objective) truth, thus departing from the ideal of correctness. Now, Frankfurt does not mention the word ‘postmodern’ at all in his book (which is a good thing, I think), but to some extent the last pages may be understood to be a critical punch on a postmodern rejection of the ideal of the truth. Be this as it may, when a person rejects the notion of being true to the facts and turns instead to an ideal of being true to their own substantial and determinate nature, then according to Frankfurt this sincerity is bullshit.
Bullshit seems to be defined largely negatively, that is, as not lying. Frankfurt’s discussion – which he admits is not likely to be decisive – reveals that there is nothing really distinctive about bullshit when it comes to either the form or meaning of utterances. It is predominantly about the intention and disregard for truth of the bullshitter. How then do we discern bullshit from other types of speech behaviour? Is it really possible to accurately know the values (or lack thereof) involved when a person speaks?
Probably not. One may have some intuition that certain utterances constitute bullshit. Frankfurt does not provide any answers here, but one could perhaps suggest that the ‘cooperative principle’ of H.P. Grice (1913-1988) might provide some further food for thought within the emerging field of bullshitology (as I would like to call the scientific study of bullshit). Grice, in his 1975 book Logic and Conversation, outlined a number of underlying principles (‘maxims’) that are assumed by people engaged in conversation. Speakers and listeners assume that the others abide by certain, predominantly unstated, speech norms. The cooperative principle can be divided more specifically into the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. For bullshitological purposes, the violation of the maxims would appear to be relevant. So if utterances convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to any current topic or issue (relevance), and are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly (manner), they would seem to qualify, although not necessarily, as bullshit (minus the intentionally false utterance, of course). These elements may be added to the condition of the bullshitter’s indifference to the ideal of truth. Then again, can we be certain that to identify utterances as bullshit in any given situation necessarily is connected to an understanding of the bullshitter’s indifference to the truth?
Needless to say, there are numerous problems which may be expanded, looked into and analysed concerning bullshit. And I dare say that Frankfurt’s little book is a nice starting point.
*Supplied CV :-
Louisa Te Aroha Carroll
Date of Birth: 01-01-1978
Age: Non-disclosure on privacy grounds
Gender: Gender non-specific
Sexual preferences: Non-disclosure on privacy grounds (respecting multiple partners).
Siblings: none known or disclosed
Ideological identification: feminist/lgbtqia
Marital status: Non-disclosure on privacy grounds
Education: Manurewa High, Auckland University, the Sorbonne, Cambridge, University of California, Berkeley
Political Identification: Political non-specific, but ranging from Karl Marx to Jo Biden
Music: Rap, heavy metal, Messiaen.
Medical: Excellent health, HIV fully controlled by medication
Life expectancy: 135 years
Occupation: Cultural opinion maker, social theorist, bon vivant, philanthropist
Income source: Book royalties, especially those from great great great uncle Lewis Carroll
Employment and deployment
Academic Qualifications: MA Auckland University, Ph.D Sorbonne, MBA University of California, Berkeley.
Lecturer in Women’s Studies, Berkeley, 2 years
Author for 20 years, works include Anti-feminist structural biases in Local Government Bureaucracies (2015) Bantam
Salient Abbreviated Biography
Louisa was born at George V Hotel, Paris². The birth was fractionally premature due to her birth mother having just finished celebrating New Year. It was reported by the Times of London that the child was born prematurely due to it being precipitated by mother’s consumption of 5 bottles of champagne. (Louisa has been an aficionado³ ever since). In fact Louisa refused her mother’s breast, bawling endlessly till she was given champagne.
Louisa’s breastophobia has been attributed back to those first post-birth minutes. She is famous in medical history as being the earliest instance of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] ever recorded. There have been long term consequences. While Louisa is going through one of her lesbian phases, relationships often unravel — caught between the Scylla lust for the beautiful female form and Charybdis of breastophobia. Hence permanency in relationships is an unknown in the oeuvre of the Louisa love landscapes.
- For those of you who are etymologists at heart: the origin of “salient” is a military one-referring to a geographical feature such as the land jutting out-or a high point in a flat landscape. Thus the importance of taking the salient.
- An Art Deco landmark built in 1928, Hotel George V is nestled in the Golden Triangle of Paris, just off the historic Champs-Elysées. Oversized suites with Eiffel Tower views welcome you after a day of wandering the quaint, Parisian streets, and our three restaurants – with five Michelin stars among them – are home to some of the best food in France. A decadent spa, an elegant swimming pool and a courtyard for whiling away the afternoons with a glass of wine from our cellar are just some of the pleasures.
- A person who likes, knows about, and appreciates a usually fervently pursued interest or activity –Webster’s