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.

Frankfurt’s Bullshit

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).

Cohen’s Bullshit

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.

Goal-oriented Bullshitters

(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.

Conclusion

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

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

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.

 

 

Bears don’t understand why people say ‘awww’

NATURE—A bear and her cub fail to comprehend why people seem to say “awww” to them all the time.

“Yesterday, I was walking around on my paws just lookin’ for salmon, you know,” said Momma Bear. “Then I came face to face with some fat dude carrying a massive Smith and Wesson revolver. He sort of dropped his gun and said ‘awwww’. So I mauled him.”

Momma Bear said she then confronted the assailant’s buddy, who said, simply, “Awww, dude. Not cool.” She mauled him too, and then summarily ate his face.

When asked what he thought about the awesome issue, Momma Bear’s son, Teddy, declined to comment.

Surgeon reluctant to operate on conjoined twins

BALTIMORE—Scared that he might botch a complicated surgical procedure, an inexperienced and indecisive surgeon refused to separate conjoined twins Huckleberry and Ginger Cavendish. The Cavendish family is now threatening the doctor with legal action in case he does not honor their wishes.

This is not the doctor’s first clash with patients’ families. In 2010, he rebuffed a family’s request for him to operate on twins Berry and Haley Solanum, who were conjoined at the head.

conjoined tomatoes

Conjoined twins Berry and Haley Solanum are joined at the head

In 2008, he was also the subject of widespread public criticism for refusing to operate on conjoined octuplets.

“The last conjoined twins I worked on last time almost died,” said Dr.  Oliver Figgis. “It took me 22 hours just to separate them and there came a second and a third operation. One of them almost turned into a vegetable.”

The Cavendishes claim that, by refusing to operate on their children, Dr. Figgis has forsaken the most basic principle of medical ethics: primum non nocere (first do no harm), and should accordingly be sued for medical malpractice. “This shit is bananas, and he’s violated the Hypocritical Oath [sic],” they claimed, angrily wagging their appendages.

“I can’t for the life of me figure out what they’re yapping about,” said the doctor. “How can I even be sued for medical malpractice if I refused to practice for them? Are they nuts?”

Father Mike Cavendish reportedly said, “We’re not nuts. And if you keep on calling you that, we’ll sue you for slander and defamation, asshole.”

conjoined strawberry.jpg

The octuplets on whom Dr. Figgis refused to operate in 2008 remain conjoined to this day.

mutant pineapples.jpg

Mutant(s)

Las Vegas shooter had salad before rampage

LAS VEGAS—Mass murderer Stephen Paddock had a Caesar salad before killing at least 58 people and injuring almost 500.

“He said he didn’t want croutons and that he doesn’t like Italian and would rather have room temperature water than iced water,” said Mandalay Bay hotel staff. “Hey, man. Whatever satisfies the public’s appetite for new and exciting stories, right?”

Claiming that the hotel staff is remiss to disregard such an “important piece of the puzzle,” avid television-watcher-cum-amateur-forensic-psychologist Mike T. Vie countered that the killer’s choice of comestibles can lend insight into his mind. “We’re talking about a person who’d rather have Caesar salad than, say, an egg salad sandwich. What’s wrong with him? Does he have Celiac disease or some other gluten sensitivity? Is that why he didn’t want croutons? Is that why he’s so angry? Because he is sensitive to gluten?”

A massacre survivor who preferred to remain anonymous said, “Who gives a flying fuck? You think this is an episode of Twin Peaks? I saved 30 people and took two bullets from an assault rifle. You think I give a shit about what that motherfucker ate?”

The shooter also allegedly scratched his nose with his left index finger and wiped bits of cheese off his beard with the wrong napkin.

Woman gives tips on how to subtly show off book in public

NEW YORK—Eager to take the world by storm, a young graduate of a prestigious liberal arts college carries a difficult book in public every day, painstakingly ensuring that the book cover is somewhat visible to passersby at all times.

21-year-old Carrie Campbell stated, “As a general rule, you want to place the book cover at a 32-degree angle from your face and two inches below your eyes. This way, the hoi polloi can see what you’re reading and I can scan my surroundings to see if they’re glancing at what I’m reading.

“You want to be subtle. You don’t want to place the book parallel to your face because it’ll look like you’re trying too hard. Retro glasses are generally okay, but you want to be careful with them because they’ve been misappropriated by hipsters and you don’t want to be mistaken for a pseudointellectual.

“Also, it’s hard to make standing people see what you’re reading, especially if you’re sitting down or if they’re walking around. In this case, you want to stand up and casually place the book between the index finger and thumb of the hand that’s facing your spectator. Don’t block the title of the book. Especially if the book is in a foreign language.

“If all else fails, wear your college t-shirt and be sure that, if anyone else in public wears clothing from some school that’s higher ranked than yours, carry three other books to show them you’re definitely more academic.

“Don’t ever read The Fault in Our Stars or Divergent or any of those YA novels. You have to show them you’re mature, or no one will take you seriously.”

Man who killed Hugh Hefner gets all the girls now

LOS ANGELES—The man who assassinated Hugh Hefner is reportedly cavorting and fornicating with scores of ebullient, barely legal, scantily-clad women who until recently lived with the founder of the Playboy empire.

Mike Ehrmantraut, 69, infiltrated the Playboy Mansion in Holmby Hills more than a week ago, using only his wrinkled old fingers as lock picks to break into a secret underground passageway that leads to a luxurious wine cellar.

Disguised as a young cocktail waitress, Ehrmantraut laced a bottle of Zafiro Añejo tequila with ricin, a deadly and difficult-to-trace neurotoxin, before serving the fatal drink to the unabashed and elderly Lothario.

Due to poor eyesight, Hefner, 91, mistook Ehrmantraut for a woman and promptly quaffed the tequila without suspicion. Ehrmantraut waited for a week for Hefner to pass away, and then removed the victim’s iconic red velvet robe and silk pajamas before changing into them, professing to be the world’s newest and most eminent playboy.

“When I set my mind on something, I do it,” Ehrmantraut stated to reporters. “I take full measures only and the girls know they deserve something better than Hugh’s four-inch measure.”

Ehrmantraut was last seen in a jacuzzi with five other women with whom he was sharing a generous portion of pimento cheese and caviar. All the girls seem to love Ehrmantraut more than they loved Hefner.

Trump plagiarizes Gettysburg Address, delivers formal apology to nation

After his fire-breathing diatribe against the NFL, President Trump issued a formal apology to the American people. Many who heard the speech identified it as Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, which reaffirms such fundamental principles of American democracy as human equality and liberty.

“Four scores and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Trump intoned. He added, “Notice how I said ‘men’.”

Trump’s apology fell flat and backfired almost instantaneously. Amid jeers and general chaos outside Trump Tower, the president shouted, “I don’t understand why you sons of bitches don’t like my speech. It’s fucking patriotic.”

University of Chicago professor of political science Leo Strauss remarked, “Trump’s delivery of one of the most beloved orations in American history evinces his thoroughgoing ignorance of elementary history and disrespect for core democratic ideals as well as a low proficiency in vocabulary and logic. ‘Four score’ means 80, so the speech was made 87 years after America was founded. What year is this?”

“That’s not what ‘score’ means,” Trump replied in a recent press briefing. “‘Score’ means the football player scored, get it? And why am I even talking to you fake news reporters?”

Trump detractors commented on the inappropriateness of delivering a wartime speech during our present period of peace. They also noted that the speech does not serve well as a formal apology.

“Fuck you, bitches,” said Trump. “‘Apology’ means ‘defense for my conduct’, and I’m here to defend my so-called unbecoming conduct. We’re at war now. War is what makes our nation great. You want peace? Prepare for war. War of the people, by the people, and for the people. Do not twist the words of our great President Lincoln.”

Faithful man enraged that wife is cheating on taxes

NASHVILLE, TN—Suspecting that something funny is going on with his wife, an Internal Revenue Service agent purposefully came home early to catch his wife in the act.  “Motherfucker, I knew you were cheating on your taxes,” he yelled.

Salvatore Goodman, 45, noted angrily that his spouse Skyler Beneke did not fill out her Form 1040 properly. “She should have checked Box 3 instead of 1, and then she checked Box 6a. What the fuck is wrong with her?” he wondered.

According to Goodman, Beneke was wholly incapable of talking reason. “She was just escalating. ESCALATING!” he explained. “She left me no choice but to haul her ass to jail.” In response, Rizzi spat in his face and called him a “limp dick cocksucker who doesn’t even have the balls to be a good tax evader, let alone launder money.”

After throwing lots of defamatory statements at each other, the couple cooled down and sought marriage counseling.

1040_tax_form_2014

Filling out Form 1040 is really fucking easy.

Surgeon General warns young women pouring antifreeze on tampons

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Surgeon General called for action to reduce the number of tampon users using antifreeze as a blood substitute, noting antifreeze has been the liquid of choice among those who use tampons for the past few decades.

The nation’s top gynecologist, Dr. Stephanie Miracle, cautioned women who engage in such risky behavior. She states, “Ethylene glycol, or antifreeze, is poisonous and is not a safe alternative to menstrual blood. Its sweet taste can lead to accidental ingestion or allow its deliberate use as a murder weapon. Antifreeze is difficult to detect in the body, but can severely damage the brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys. Preliminary studies suggest that antifreeze has deleterious effects on the reproductive system.”

Tamponologists attribute the rise in the number of women using antifreeze during menstruation to the spate of false and misleading commercials that have plagued American and international television for the past few decades. They also urge the pubic school system to initiate or bolster sex ed programs.

Student’s butt destroys university card, causes all of life’s woes

SEATTLE—After having one too many tacos at the library, a slightly overweight student sat on her university ID, unintentionally snapping it in half with the weight of her buttocks.

Noting that her university ID also serves as her dormitory card, credit card, restaurant discount card, and source of self-esteem, Shelby Li, 21, broke down and promptly fell into clinical depression. “How am I supposed to get University Teriyaki now?” she shrieked. “How am I ever gonna get a boyfriend if I can’t go back to my dorm to sleep or shower?!”

Since her breakdown, Ms. Li has not had food, water, sleep, sex, or anything that gives her pitiful life a modicum of evolutionary or philosophical meaning. And she still has a one-page writing assignment to look forward to.

Although her friends worry about her mental health, Ms. Li is too deeply depressed to have the energy to contemplate suicide.