On Bullshit
February 1, 2005 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" 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.... I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis.
posted by trharlan (17 comments total)
That's the most self-referential article I've ever seen.
(Does sarcasm qualify as bullshit?)
posted by Plutor at 7:08 AM on February 1, 2005

My favorite passage:

"One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit." - from "On Bullshit"

"On Bullshit" can be found in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge). It has also recently been published as a small monograph by Princeton.

I also recommend G.A. Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit" in Contours of Agency (MIT), a collection of extremely high quality essays on themes from Frankfurt's work.

Harry Frankfurt has recently (1/24/05) appeared on NPR promoting his book-length edition of "On Bullshit":
Marketplace: On Bullshit
(The censorship of the term makes the report pretty damn funny.)

Plutor: Don't confuse wit with bullshit -- Frankfurt is no bullshitter!
posted by chrisgrau at 7:17 AM on February 1, 2005

Oh, the hell he isn't, chrisgrau. It takes one to know one, and every time we think we're in the Golden Age of Bullshit ((c) Fred C. Dobbs), the next age comes and buries us even deeper.

The ability to bullshit effectively is truly the one trait that separates us from the other animals on this planet. It might not elevate us, but it sets us apart.
posted by chicobangs at 7:51 AM on February 1, 2005

No, I can testify that Frankfurt really know his stuff. His work on free will and agency are some of the most carefully reasoned philosophy one can find. It surprises me that this is available for free on-line given the little book version that was being sold at a recent philosophical convention.

In regards to taking one to know one. Maybe. But I think an adequate substitute would be reading thousands of graduate and undergraduate papers throughout a career. And not to completely undermine you, chicobangs, but my cat is one of the best bullshitters there is. He will try any method of deception to drink the milk out of a cereal bowl.
posted by ontic at 7:59 AM on February 1, 2005

ontic, you're assuming I have any idea what I'm talking about.
posted by chicobangs at 8:21 AM on February 1, 2005

If you managed to get through the whole article, following carefully Frankfurt's analysis of the Pascal/Wittgenstein exchange, you are a better scholar than I.

It may be that when on the Net my attention span is set at a default level far below that involving that Gutenberg printed-out-and-bound stuff.

Looks like a good article, though. I'm rethinking the word bullshit. The word (like many abstract words, especially those relating to our extraordinary powers related to deception) has a lot more subtleties than we think.
posted by kozad at 8:24 AM on February 1, 2005

Yeah, but I really wanted to get through the thread without using the word "meta-bullshit". Damn.
posted by ontic at 8:25 AM on February 1, 2005

Well, maybe we need a theory of bullshit, but I'm a praxis man myself.
posted by QuietDesperation at 8:40 AM on February 1, 2005

The entire planet spins on bullshit... We need only be honest with ourselves about whether or not it's destructive in our lives, and if we can recognize it when it's hurled at us.
posted by LouReedsSon at 9:17 AM on February 1, 2005

Today there is such a bombardment of information in daily life that people have to evolve, get used to it, and survive it. Editing is a great function of life. People have to learn how to control their own destiny; you have to learn how to think for yourself. You have to be prepared to accept that things are changing, and have fluid thought, or you'll be in trouble. —Japhet Asher, quoted in Media Virus [Douglas Rushkoff]
posted by rushmc at 9:31 AM on February 1, 2005

The entire planet spins on bullshit...

Well, this might explain why the polar ice caps are melting...and here I was thinking it was because things were going to hell!
posted by bachelor#3 at 9:39 AM on February 1, 2005

Checkout Penn and Teller Bullshit!. They gloss over stuff a lot but it's a fun show. I was thinking of making a little parody and calling bullshit on some of the science they use in their show.
posted by jsares at 9:41 AM on February 1, 2005

Great link. Thanks, trharlan.
posted by homunculus at 10:20 AM on February 1, 2005

This whole article was a crock.

Great piece, btw.
posted by psmealey at 11:38 AM on February 1, 2005

This is one of my favourite articles from when I was in school, and while it's as hard to trawl through as most cult. studies papers, there's a lot to be said for his argument.

For those too frustrated/lazy/busy to read the whole thing:

Frankfurt starts by exploring different definitions of bullshit, mapping their limitations. Bullshit seems hard to define, even though most of us can easily recognize individual instances.

But what makes the article good is that he does come up with a definition. Truth-telling is when you say something that you believe is the truth. A lie is when you tell something that you believe to be false. And bullshit is when you say something without caring if it's true or false.

Which, to me, isn't a bullshit thing to say - rather, it's a truth. And brilliant.

(Given my degree, though, I do admit that I might be biased.)

I'd never found this essay online, trharlan. Thanks!
posted by Marquis at 12:10 PM on February 1, 2005

When the earth's magnetic field reverses- all the bullshit falls off the world and we die.
posted by Sparx at 12:19 PM on February 1, 2005

Sparx: Bullshit is magnetic? What are they eating?
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:14 PM on February 1, 2005

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