A new book gives a philosophical analysis of American culture’s obsession with nonsense.
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton University Press, 67 pages. $9.95.
By Harvey Blume
Hear Harry G. Frankfurt read an excerpt from his book
The most obvious selling point of this essay by Harry G. Frankfurt, a retired Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, is its catchy, open-ended title. On Bullshit — as compared to “Against Bullshit” or “Bullshit and How to Avoid It” — is neutral. It leaves room for Frankfurt to argue, if he likes, that not all bullshit is complete bullshit, and that, as with cholesterol, there might be good and bad kinds. On Bullshit also allows for a relativistic approach. Maybe Frankfurt will set out to establish that one person’s bullshit is another individual’s power bar.
In fact, Frankfurt takes a much more straightforward stand on bullshit. Despite that fact that, as he puts it, “each of us contributes his share,” we lack a “clear understanding of what bullshit is,” and are therefore not too good at defending against the stuff. He aims to rectify this situation by providing a “theoretical understanding” that would allow us to distinguish bullshit from other ways of twisting, tweaking or denying the truth, such as humbug, lying, and bluffing.
There’s nothing funny about Frankfurt’s effort to arrive at a theory of bullshit, at least nothing intentionally funny. I, for one, laughed out loud more than once at the philosophical earnestness and analytical zeal Frankfurt brings to bullshit. He delves into bullshit as if he were Aristotle inquiring into being, or Sartre into the meaning of existence. But then, after a few laughs at Frankfurt’s expense, I remembered that the attempt to identify bullshit and to eradicate it has been one of the driving forces of Western philosophy from the get-go.
Plato, for example, challenged the Sophists on grounds, roughly speaking, that they were bullshit artists. In the last century, analytic philosophers, headed up by the redoubtable Ludwig Wittgenstein, strove to deflate the deep thoughts of metaphysics by proving they really were nonsensical –“nonsense” being the polite, philosophical way of referring to bullshit. Not too surprisingly, Frankfurt turns quickly to Wittgenstein to shed some light on bullshit.
Wittgenstein, it should be said, has unique cachet among twentieth-century philosophers. His followers pore over not only his writings but his utterances and how he looked when he uttered them. It is in this vein that Frankfurt fastens on a story told by Fania Pascal, a woman who had what might be deemed the misfortune of knowing Wittgenstein at Cambridge. Pascal, still under medical care, was recovering from having her tonsils removed, and feeling miserable, when, to make matters worse, Wittgenstein happened to phone. She writes: “I croaked: ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’ He was disgusted: ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.'”
Frankfurt doesn’t pause for a second to consider the possibility that Wittgenstein sounded like a boorish bully. Instead, it leads him straight to the heart of bullshit. What bothered Wittgenstein, in Frankfurt’s view, is that Pascal “is not even trying” to get things right. Never mind that she was in pain and could only croak out her complaint. For Frankfurt, Pacal comparing herself to a squashed dog showed a “lack of connection to a concern with truth.” She wasn’t lying, exactly. Lying would be better; it shows a certain respect for reality, enough, at least for the liar to acknowledge and explicitly deny it. No, Pascal’s sin was her complete “indifference to how things really are.” Such indifference, concludes Frankfurt, is the very “essence of bullshit.”
Frankfurt’s point — that bullshit is unconcerned with rather than opposed to truth — is of interest. Too bad it has to come at the expense of human sympathy. Contemporary thinkers from a variety of disciplines have suggested that philosophy has for too long valued logic and reason above emotion. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, for example, has urged that emotion be seen as a “support system without which the edifice of reason cannot operate properly,” and has warned against “dismissing emotion as a luxury or a nuisance or a mere evolutionary vestige.” The Wittgenstein/Pascal story tells us less about bullshit than about the way reason has traditionally trampled feeling in the annals of philosophy.
Frankfurt’s second object lesson is hardly an improvement. Following the OED entry on bullshit, he quotes Ezra Pound (Canto LXXIV) as follows: “Hey Snag wots in the bibl? Wot are the books ov the bible? Name ’em, don’t bullshit me.”
What’s at stake here, according to Frankfurt, is “empty talk.” The speaker demands that the person he is addressing stop mouthing off and back up his claim to know Scripture with some facts. Frankfurt concludes that bullshitting, then, “is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie,” and, further, that “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” Again, the point Frankfurt makes is intriguing. It’s the way we get there that is problematic. The lines of Pound’s poetry that Frankfurt quotes happen to be embedded in one of the poet’s screeds against usury, with which, speaking of bullshit, he buttressed his anti-Semitism.
Once clear of Wittgenstein and Pound, Frankfurt becomes more engaging. His theory of bullshit holds that “telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to.” He reiterates the idea that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” And he wonders if there is more bullshit around these days than there used to be. It’s hard to be sure, he says. Given that “there is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before,” it’s likely that the quantity of bullshit has soared accordingly. Moreover, the information age encourages citizens of a democracy to “speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant,” which may well translate into astronomically more bullshit.
If, in fact, there is more bullshit these days, the blame, according to Frankfurt, goes to the prevalence in our culture of what others call postmodernist but he terms “‘antirealist’ doctrines.” These, he says, “undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false.” One result of today’s doubts about “reliable access to an objective reality” is that the old “ideal of correctness” has been replaced. We pay heed, instead, to the “ideal of sincerity.”
Being sincere, according to Frankfurt, implies that even though we can’t be sure about the outside world we can at least be sure about ourselves. In his finest flourish, Frankfurt pokes holes in that common assumption. We human beings, he observes, are “elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable [than] other things.” Therefore, sincerity is a false hope, or, as he puts it in the concluding words of the book, “sincerity itself is bullshit.”
If only Frankfurt had dwelled on that idea longer, and didn’t lead us through so much bullshit to get there.
Hear a WBUR On Point interview with Harry G. Frankfurt about his new book, On Bullshit.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.