Friday, March 04, 2005

A Load

On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt, Princeton University Press, 2005

This slender volume is merely a repackaging of Frankfurt’s original essay in Raritan in 1986 which was itself republished in a collection of essays entitled The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. This third incarnation doesn’t differ from the earlier ones, and if you cared you can even read it in its entirety online here.

It’s tempting to believe that Frankfurt’s entire essay is itself bullshit merely for how quickly he disposes of the subject, how quickly the argument seems to suddenly bore him at the end, how unfinished it is. A subject like this, more important than ever with the exponentially expanded quantity of advertising from when it was first written, cries out for more than a reprint, but an expansion, clarifications. And even if Frankfurt’s book is itself bullshit, then its expansion would seem necessary at least to keep up with the other jokers dominating the field

Setting aside the question of intention for the moment, let’s take a look at some of Frankfurt’s claims. The fundamental distinction made is that the bullshitter is the “greater enemy of the truth” than a liar would be, being described in a sense as amoral. Whereas the truth teller knows the facts of the matter and upholds a moral imperative toward them and the liar rejects that moral imperative, the bullshitter is flagrantly unconcerned with it. Further, he is unconcerned with whether or not his string of bullshit is true, factual information, or false, inaccuracies.

So while Frankfurt portrays bullshitters as terrible, amoral threats who corrupt our language and undermine our very notions of objective reality (is that a sneaky slam against post-modernism?) leading to moral relativism, he also notes that “people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront.” While one could argue that we do, as a species, indulge ourselves and amuse ourselves to death, Frankfurt never makes the case for this inherent contradiction.

And the case is there to be made. I don’t suspect the distinction between liars and bullshitters is as clear-cut as Frankfurt would have it, nor do I believe that bullshitting is inherently amoral or destructive to language. Mark Twain and much southern literature is filled with benevolent bullshitters who merely string along fanciful tales well aware that they are not telling the truth, well aware that their listeners know they aren’t telling the truth, and aware that the listeners are aware that they are aware of all this.

What is essential for bullshitting, it seems to me, and Frankfurt approaches this in his discussion of bull sessions, is that a compact is gone into by all parties involved that what is being said is insincere or at least not to be considered gospel truth. This is often disconcerting when you first meet a bullshitter, as talking with someone who routinely lies for fun is a bit off-putting. Typically, however, once you’ve made the intuitive leap regarding what spews forth, you cease to give much credence or weight to the bullshit itself.

And this element of compact is what Frankfurt misdiagnoses in bullshitting. He finds bullshit to be a process and a product of an inherent disinterest in the truth of one’s statements and the facts surrounding them, but that is more in tune with a liar. The liar knows the truth and deliberately misrepresents not only the facts in question, but his knowledge of those facts. The bullshitter may either know the facts or not but represents himself as knowing them on one level, while simultaneously presenting himself as unwilling to present them entirely straight. There is an element of an act, a needed suspension of disbelief as when one goes to the theater.

Ultimately, what sets Frankfurt on the wrong trail in the beginning is his using the word “humbug” as his analogue. The difference couldn’t be starker. In its most famous usage, this word stood to mean a massive lie that everyone believed in (Christmas for the unread), but one that was a fraud, not so much a deliberate deception but a massive misapprehension based on faulty reasoning. In short, a huge error.

In most usages of bullshit, there is the seeing through the fraud and the calling on it, but the understanding that it must be gone through pro forma. There is some slack practice in which simple lies are designated as bullshit in a derogatory sense, but this is language in its more metaphoric sense, as in calling someone a “motherfucker” in a negative fashion, as though you quite literally meant that they had intercourse with a mother (theirs possibly being the actual sting of the comment). More accurately, such out and out lies should be named “horseshit,” as this is more in line with a simple product and not a process. As Timothy Noah points out in Slate, only bullshitting is a verb, whereas no one horeshits. While the common man on the street probably won’t be swayed to this language police notion, I think we can perhaps see the fundamental soundness behind it.

In the end, Frankfurt has constructed his essay primarily around some literary quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary, a Wittgenstein anecdote, a hair of St. Augustine, and the definition of a close synonym, but he has done precious little work toward understanding much of the nature of the compact between liar and lied to. It isn’t that the bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, it’s that in pure bullshit, truth is irrelevant to both parties.

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