Bullshit on “On Bullshit”

At the recommendation of Matthew Mengerink, I printed off and read On Bullshit (HTML, PDF) by Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University. As one could guess, the 80 page investigation is thorough and well-developed, if a bit difficult to read and take in at the same time. Clearly, reading it in its entirety is not an option for everyone, so I’d like to make an effort to build a summary that can serve as both a jumping-off point for reading it, as well as a brief primer on the subject for those who lack the time to do so:

Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit.

I think that is self explanatory.

[When one is bullshitting,] the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. [...] What he cares about is what people think of him.

In other words, it is not a deliberate, well-planned misrepresentation of facts to sway the path of some decision as lying would be. It is a lack of concern for the accuracy (and, I say, value) of the facts.

Frankfurt goes on to note the self-discipline of the craftsmen of ‘the old days':

They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

This is then applied to the idea that bullshit is not carefully designed or crafted, but rather formed on-the-fly as what amounts to what is compared to excrement – material, noticeable, but of no value. As excrement is what remains of the removal of nutrition from nurture, bullshit is what remains of the removal of worthwhile thought from speech and writing.

Thus, it is noted through an anecdote about Fania Pascal, that this lack of thought, of evaluation of the truth and accuracy of facts, is what differentiates bullshit from lies, which is briefly summed up as follows:

Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying. [...] He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal’s statement [about her pain] is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says.

Note is then made of the social context and implication of bullshitting:

The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very personal and emotion-laden aspects of life — for instance, religion, politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too seriously.

Thus, it is proposed, that such a bull session serves as an exposition of ‘various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond…’ to such thoughts and attitudes.

Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the connection between what people say and what they believe are suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained.

The difference between lying and bullshit is then further reinforced:

… in order to invent an effective lie, [one] must design his falsehood under the guidance of [the] truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. [...] He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. [...] It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.

The purpose of lying is also clearly different from the purpose of bullshitting:

[When telling a lie,] what the person really wants is not to tell the lie but to attain the goal.

When bullshit enters the game, any rules regarding the validity and value of statements are thrown out the window:

The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.

This brings to my mind another thing somewhat tangential, yet strikingly similar: authorities do not worry about people preaching things that are clearly false. Noone pays much attention to those who cry the sky is falling. However, the moment something enters the realm of feasibility, the fear of people believing it is increased, and thus, the propagation of such information, factual or otherwise, is often much more threatening.