A sophomoric introduction to bullshit
In college, my adviser introduced me to elementary logic and opened my eyes to the beauty of academic philosophy, at once dispelling popular misconceptions of philosophy as mere intellectual masturbation and adumbrating the hows and whys of the bullshitty things that give philosophy a bad name. It’s been many years since I wrote my last paper on bullshit, and my life has taken numerous strange and shocking turns in the past year alone. Nevertheless, metaphysical and moral questions concerning bullshit still occasionally vex me, and if you are at all concerned about the current state of the world, then they should vex you too.
Here is the first paper I wrote on the topic way back when I first began to give a shit. This is also my first non-satirical blog post. I encourage all of you to earnestly discuss the phenomenon of bullshit and to write thoughtful blog posts about it.
A Handful of Bullshit and an Explanation of its Varieties
Perspectives on Bullshit
In common parlance, the term “bullshit” is frequently uttered, but usage of the term varies widely across situations. Sometimes, the term “bullshit” carries a connotation of insincerity (e.g., “There is so much bullshit in D.C.” or “Don’t bullshit me!”). Sometimes, the term is a pejorative dismissal of nonsense or deficiency in empirical evidence (e.g., “That’s pseudoscientific bullshit.”). Mild doses of bullshit can evoke chuckles. Large amounts of well-crafted, goal-directed bullshit, however, can be dangerous.
In this essay, I will first introduce Harry Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit. I will then contrast Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit with that of G.A. Cohen. I will explain “goal-oriented” bullshit and provide one case of how such seemingly innocuous bullshit, when abused, can be so powerfully destructive.
Harry Frankfurt provides an incisive analysis on bullshit in his essay, “On Bullshit”. The “essence of bullshit,” he asserts, is “a lack of connection to a concern with truth” (125). Consider Case 1:
(1) A college student must write a ten-page research paper on Latin American history, but he has only written nine pages’ worth of solid information. To meet the required page number, he changes the text font from Times New Roman to Arial, inserts a long quote by Fidel Castro, peppers his prose with space-consuming adjectives, and lengthens his title so that it covers two, instead of one, lines. He thereby satisfies the page requirement and turns in his work.
The college student in Case 1 exemplifies Frankfurt’s bullshit. Although the student has written a ten-page paper on Latin American history, he does not care about the truth or falsity of his essay’s content—he merely wants to impress his professor. To accomplish that goal, he inflates his paper. What is important here is not whether the content of the paper is flawed or unflawed, but that the student does not care about his work. The student’s attempt to hide his apathy does not necessarily render his work false ; his work is simply insincere. Frankfurt elucidates this distinction:
[…] the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony […] What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. (128)
This distinction between falsity and phoniness allows us to understand another feature of Frankfurt’s bullshit: deceptiveness. One who detects Frankfurt’s phony bullshit may feel deceived, as if one has been lied to, but crucial to this issue is that Frankfurt’s bullshit is not the same as lying. Regarding this relationship between bullshit and lying, Frankfurt reasons that, while the liar attempts to deceive others about the reality (i.e., by reversing the truth value of a proposition), the bullshitter attempts to hide the fact that he does not care about the reality. The liar pays attention to the truth and defies it. The bullshitter does not care about the truth at all. By virtue of such apathy, what he utters is invariably bullshit (132).
In his essay, “Deeper into Bullshit,” G.A. Cohen explains the term “bullshit” as roughly synonymous with the term “nonsense” (332). Cohen proposes three distinguishing features of nonsensical bullshit: unclarifiable unclarity (i.e., hopelessly vague stuff), rubbish (i.e., “arguments that are grossly deficient in logic or sensitivity to empirical evidence”), and irretrievably speculative statements (Cohen quotes David Miller: “Of course, everyone spends much more time thinking about sex now than people did a hundred years ago”) (333). Unlike Frankfurt, Cohen is less interested in the speaker’s mental state, but more in the product. By Cohen’s account, it is possible for a bullshitter to utter non-bullshit, and for a non-bullshitter to unwittingly utter bullshit (331). The latter is exemplified by Case 2:
(2) A man places his laptop on top of his lap. A child walks by. She stops. Horrified, she exclaims, “If you put that computer on your lap, the radiations will destroy your genitalia!”
In this case, the young child utters empirically unverified bullshit about genitalia-destroying radiations. She speaks the proposition not because she is a bullshitter unconcerned about the truth, but simply because she does not know any better. By contrast, a deliberate bullshitter utters bullshit in this scenario:
(3) A cantankerous driver is stuck in traffic. Angry, the driver utters the proposition, “This traffic stinks,” followed by the conclusion, “All women are stupid.” The driver’s wife, an astute logician who happens to be in the car, asks her husband to justify his sexist proposition. The driver makes numerous specious and untenable arguments, all of which are defeated by his wife. They argue for two hours. The driver refuses to give in.
Case 3, by contrast, exemplifies a combination of Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s bullshit. The cantankerous driver has thoughtlessly uttered the proposition, “All women are stupid.” He acts like he believes in that proposition, but his wife suspects that he is bullshitting. The driver defends his arguments, which his wife obliterates. Without a tenable argument, the driver is left defending nonsense. Nevertheless, he continues to blabber. Indifferent to the authority of logic and truth, the driver is a Frankfurt-bullshitter. The product—his untenable nonsense—is Cohen’s bullshit.
(4) An attorney is defending his client, who is accused of murder. The attorney knows who the murderer is, so he knows that his client is not guilty. The attorney therefore wants to do everything in his power to help his client, but, at the same time, does not want to reveal the identity of the murderer. He thinks about bribing the jury, but that seems too risky. Instead, he gets several witnesses to testify in his client’s favor. He presents a great closing argument, which persuades the jury to acquit the defendant.
This case is slightly more complicated. The attorney seems to care about the truth, namely, that somebody else is the murderer, and his client is innocent. The case is not unclarifiable, illogical, empirically unverified, or irretrievably speculative nonsense—at least not from the judge’s perspective. The attorney therefore does not seem to be Frankfurt-bullshitting, nor does he seem to be producing Cohen’s bullshit. Nevertheless, I call him a bullshitter. Why?
We can decipher this scenario by heeding Cohen’s analysis on Frankfurt’s essay. Cohen notes that Frankfurt does not clearly distinguish between the bullshitter’s tactics from the bullshitter’s goal. Cohen points to Frankfurt’s example of the 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’” (121). The problem that Cohen sees is that, while the bullshitting orator is indifferent to the truth about the Founding Fathers, the orator is not necessarily unconcerned about what the audience thinks about the Founding Fathers. In fact, his goal might very well be to persuade his audience about the greatness of the Founding Fathers (Cohen 330). Cohen notes:
If the orator had been Joseph McCarthy, he would have wanted the audience to think that the “new beginning” that the Founding Fathers “created” should persuade the audience to oppose the tyranny supposedly threatened by American communism. The fact that it is not “fundamental” that “the speaker regards his statement as false” in no way implies that “he is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history.” [emphasis added] (330)
This sheds light on our crafty attorney. The attorney is not guilty of Cohen’s bullshit because his argument is well-articulated and supported by evidence. He is, however, guilty of Frankfurtian bullshitting, because, as much as he cares about his client’s acquittal, the truthfulness of his tactic is irrelevant to him. As long as he can avoid getting caught, the attorney is just as inclined to bribe the jurors as he is to bullshit them with witnesses and rhetoric.
The goal of this paper is not to inveigh against bullshit, but to allow the reader to understand some of the types and subtypes of bullshit. Although the college student, the Fourth of July orator, the attorney, and Joseph McCarthy are all truth-indifferent Frankfurt-bullshitters, McCarthy and the lawyer bullshit in a less desultory, more goal-oriented manner. The lawyer bullshits to get his innocent client acquitted, and McCarthy bullshits to accomplish a hidden political agenda. The versatility and insidiousness of Frankfurt’s bullshit is quite clear.
Cohen’s bullshit—nonsense—can be uttered by both naive speakers and deliberate bullshitters. The naive speaker (in our case, the little girl) utters bullshit much like a chess novice forgetting the rules of chess. The deliberate bullshitter—the rationalizing driver—simply cheats.
I hope this paper can serve as an informative guide to recognizing insincere or nonsensical talk. But to borrow Cohen’s words, what I have presented are only a few “flower[s] in the lush garden of bullshit” (323).
Word Count: 1,500
Cohen, Gerald Allan. “Deeper into Bullshit.” Computational Philosophy of Science (1993): 321-44. MIT CogNet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web.
Frankfurt, Harry G. “On Bullshit.” The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988. 117-33. Print.