On Humbug

In form, if not substance, Harry G Frankfurt's On Bullshit (Princeton, 2005), is a tract. There used to be many such small books of essay length, on subjects religious, political, and satirical. On Bullshit is philosophical, but even for a tract it is short. It is, however, serious and useful.

The title makes the best of a bad mess. On Bullshit is tractlike in its plain descriptiveness, and similarly old-fashioned. (Candid titles used to be the rule in the West, as they still are in China.) But the tonic is not strong enough to calm my discomfort at typing out a vulgar word. I am not squeamish, but because I associate four-letter words with anger and frustration (the conditions that provoke me to shout them), Dr Frankfurt's title triggers cognitive dissonance. Attentive readers will have noticed my home-grown euphemism, torosplat, which "means" the same thing but doesn't sound anything like bullshit. I shall not avail myself of it here. Dr Frankfurt has his reasons.

As Dr Frankfurt points out, bullshit can be true. But it is never precise, and therefore the task of fixing the concept with precision is also a matter of cognitive dissonance. What exactly are we doing here? Thankfully, Dr Frankfurt is a lucid, sensible writer, and he explains his purpose succinctly:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not - or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.

The dry, straightforward tone is most welcome. If ever there was an occasion for eschewing humor, this is it.

Where to begin? With the published work on the subject, of course. Of this there isn't much. There are dictionary entries, of course; but there is also an essay by Max Black, "The Prevalence of Humbug." (It appears in a book of the same name, published by Cornell in 1985.) Now he tell us: In Dr Frankfurt's opinion,"humbug" and "bullshit," if not exactly synonyms, can be used interchangeably. When and if the Times gets round covering On Bullshit, it will almost certainly present readers with On [Humbug] - wait and see. Meanwhile, let's parse Mr Black's definition of humbug.

deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

Testing this definition with considerable rigor, Dr Frankfurt concludes that it is "significantly off the mark." I could not summarize his analysis without repeating most of it, and I confess to have been more than a little annoyed by it. But then, I read it on the W train on my way to a concert. If you are in a hurry, you may proceed directly to page nineteen, where a remark of Ludwig Wittgenstein's sparks a more fruitful line of discussion.

There are actually two Wittgensteinian plums at the heart of On Bullshit. The first is a few lines of Longfellow that Wittgenstein told a friend would serve as his motto.

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the Gods are everywhere.

The second is an anecdote told by a woman who knew Wittgenstein in Cambridge. Having had her tonsils out, she told the philosopher that she felt like a dog that had been run over. "He was disgusted: 'You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like'." The verses and the anecdote alike attest to an extraordinarily deliberative temperament, and of course it was Wittgenstein who insisted that we stop trying to talk about things that we don't understand. Grappling with Wittgenstein's arguably inhuman retort, Dr Frankfurt fashions the rudiments of his theory of bullshit.

The point that troubles Wittgenstein is manifestly not that Pascal has made a mistake in her description of how she feels. Nor is it even that she has made a careless mistake. Her laxity, or her lack of care, is not a matter of having permitted an error to slip into her speech on account of some inadvertent or momentary lapse in the attention she was devoting to getting things right. The point is rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.

This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. 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 is unconnected to a concern for truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth - this indifference to how things really are - that I regard as the essence of bullshit.

You might want to read that quietly a few times until the intricacies of Dr Frankfurt's careful footwork become easy to follow.

Most people probably associate "bullshit" with "untruth" and "carelessness," but in the remaining pages of his essay Dr Frankfurt assiduously neuters these connections. Advertising is bullshit on its face: it presumes to know what we need and what we want, even though it hasn't a clue about the needs and wants of any actual individual. Nonetheless advertising may be accurate - a roomy seat on a flight to Paris might be just what my sagging spirits need right now, and this toothpaste may indeed whiten my smile - and it is certainly never careless. If advertisers don't know anything about me in particular, they know enough about men my age in my zip code to make some reliable predictions about all of us as a group.

Dr Frankfurt has some very useful things to say about bull sessions. If you had asked me about bull sessions while I was an undergraduate, I'd have shied away from the term and replied that I liked to participate in serious discussions. Looking back with Dr Frankfurt's definition of bull session in mind, I gather that I took part in very few of them.

What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out 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, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say: it is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.

If I'd known that my interlocutors were approaching our "serious discussions" with these provisos in mind, I'm sure that I'd have lost interest, for to my mind then there was nothing more trivial than insincerity. If you did not mean something, then you had better not say it. The idea of trying things out for size never crossed my mind. That's because I took things up with a naive conviction that I would never want to put them down. I see that I was something like Wittgenstein, something of a killjoy in the Larger Metaphor department. But where Wittgenstein was concerned about truth values, I was hung up on sincerity, as so many people were in the late Sixties. Happily, I got over it. Many of my contemporaries did not. The final paragraphs of On Bullshit ought to be engraved on the walls of every commons room in the nation's colleges and universities.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These "antirealist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit. 


Dr Frankfurt does not condemn bullshit. Indeed, he believes that it might play a lubricating role in civil discourse, where, as the citizen-sovereigns of a democracy, we feel called up to know about many things that are familiar to us only in the vaguest outlines. My own outlook is too austere, however, not to distinguish between ignorance and overstatement, on the one hand, and disregard for truth on the other. In a culture of bullshit such as the one that appears to me to prevail in the reflection of our lives thrown up by popular media, we find it difficult not only exercise an awareness that distinguishes what we do know from what we don't, but also to care, really, about making the effort. But life is reality-based, and utopianism has a way of dissolving in cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The older we get, the more impatient we ought to be with bullshit, and the more earnest about resisting inflated notions of our own expertise. A day that does not teach you that you know even less than you thought you knew the day before is a day that has proceeded in the wrong direction. (It is important never to confuse what you need to know with what you might know if you had all the time in the world.)

For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. ... Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through extensive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. 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 the truth than lies are.

It is clear to me that the American establishment - pundits, politicians, executives, and even journalists - have sunk into habits of bullshit from which I doubt that many of them could be personally rescued. Many who claim to speak from faith have so cherrypicked their scriptural sources that their pronouncements are nothing but bullshit, acts of dishonor to their own creeds. I do believe that most people whose characters haven't been metastasized by the radiation of fame and publicity hold firmly to the conviction that bullshitting is no better than lying. What they are going to have to learn, if the Republic is to be saved (and I run the risk of sounding like a humbug there), is that hearing what you want to hear and filtering out the rest is bullshit, too. (May 2005)

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