A Bullshit Primer


Well, just six months away from the 2016 presidential election, we are up to our necks in bullshit. I know these are serious and important times we live in, but our political discourse does not reflect that reality very well. In fact, there’s so much bullshit being thrown around it’s becoming difficult to recognize it. So let’s go to the expert, Harry G. Frankfurt, renowned moral philosopher and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton, who has published a 67-page meditation titled “On Bullshit” (2005, Princeton University Press) to help us fine-tune our bullshit detectors. Some highlights:

Bullshit Defined     In less coarser times, the word for bullshit was “humbug,” defined by Max Black of Cornell University as “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.”


The Political Realm of Bullshit   “It is easy to think of familiar situations by which Black’s account of humbug appears to be confirmed. Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about ‘our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind.’ This is surely humbug. As Black’s account suggests, the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs that he himself regards as false. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country . . .”



Good Bullshit Takes a Lot of Work     “The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who – with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth – dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.”



Lies Are Science, Bullshit Is Art     Lying is difficult because it requires a hermetically sealed universe to survive. Bullshit imparts much more freedom because its “focus is panoramic rather than particular. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that (the bullshitter’s) task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color and imaginative play. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘bullshit artist.’”



The Positive Correlation of Bullshit and Ignorance     “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what they are talking about. Thus, the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.”

If any of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. So as we slog through this sad, dispiriting, rancorous political season, watch and listen – but keep your bullshit detector on at all times.


One comment

  1. Hello I can certainly understand it appreciate the visceral dissatisfaction with the current political system, Trump is a symptom not the answer. It makes me think that we should have an intelligence in sanity test in order to qualify to go to.

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