In Michael Lynch’s book about Truth, which I mentioned back here, he mentions Harry Frankfurt’s paper “On Bullshit”. It has just been printed as a very short book. The paper was available on line here and elsewhere, but Frankfurt’s publisher – the Princeton University Press – has been asserting copyright. [Updated March 16/05; it was available when I wrote this post but taken down]. Frankfurt is going to be on The Daily Show. Blog news about that at Crooked Timber.
It’s a short paper – it would come to about 25 pages of a larger font, generously spaced, and it’s a nice piece of writing. It discusses truth and bullshit in ordinary talk, advertising, and politics. Bullshit is what we hear from people who don’t care about the truth. Liars care about the truth – they say things they know aren’t true. Bullshitters don’t care about the truth. It’s not that they are careless about their story – their presentation may be elaborate, beautiful, and even true in some measure. But the bullshitter isn’t trying to tell the truth. The bullshitter is a story-teller. Bullshitters believe in themselves, sincerely. They want you to listen to them and like them, and they want you to believe them. The problem is that their stories aren’t reliable.
It’s a nice piece of work, which has inspired a lot of thought.
[Update/addendum. In 2022, after the Donald Trump presidency had acquainted people with the term “fake news” as a synonym for bullshit, I read the article The Varieties of Bullshit by Peter Ludlow (who has published online under the name E.J. Spode).
4 responses to “On Bullshit”
I tape the Daily Show, and am looking forward to the interview with Frankfurt. Have you read the essay? I’m assuming you did.
Yes I read it. I wrote part of the post before I finished the essay and before your comment, and I added another couple of paragraphs later.
It is, indeed, a thought provoking essay. I have a personal appreciation of bullshit for a number of reasons. One, I work in advertising and it is, as he says, hot air. Very carefully crafted hot air. As well, I was recently put into a situation where I had to speak at considerable length on a subject I knew nothing about. While I made every effort to learn as much as I could about what I was doing, in the end I had to bullshit my way through. The client knew it, too, and didn’t mind. I realized later that they really didn’t have any concern for the truth, either… they simply wanted somebody in my position to say some things that they could then use to effect the kinds of change they wanted to see. I find bullshitting to be a tiring and draining thing to do.
As to lying, it’s sometimes said that writers of fiction are liars. I agree with that description, and it fits with Frankfurt’s definition of somebody who very carefully and painstakingly creates falsehoods. On the other hand, writers of Science Fiction tend to fit his definition of bullshitters… able to draw on every resource to tell their stories with no consideration but to be believed. In fact, their entire purpose is to suspend disbelief for the duration of the story.
I agree with parts of Steve’s comments. It seems to me that general fiction and fantasy, by definition, can’t be a lie or bullshit because writer and reader agree it is all make-believe. Fiction might be meaningful or true in a poetic or symbolic sense. Some fiction – I think of the Celestine Prophecy and some books like that are publicly presented as fiction, but sold with a side message, and that kind of fiction seems to me to become false. SF is a little different from general fiction and fantasy and from hidden message fiction. SF writers will argue that their science is true or could be true, even if the story is made up. Mainly they are speculating and just bullshitting. I don’t know where the Da Vinci Code fits – fiction with fictional Gnostic history that some people seem to think is true.