The Truth About Bullshit

Mr.Conley

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http://www.slate.com/id/2114268/
"We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production," observes Laura Penny, author of the forthcoming (and wittily titled) Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit. But what is bullshit, exactly? By which I mean: What are its defining characteristics? What is its Platonic essence? How does bullshit differ from such precursors as humbug, poppycock, tommyrot, hooey, twaddle, balderdash, claptrap, palaver, hogwash, buncombe (or "bunk"), hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, bullpucky, and all the other pejoratives* favored by H.L. Mencken and his many imitators? The scholar who answers the question, "What is bullshit?" bids boldly to define the spirit of the present age.

Enter Harry G. Frankfurt. In the fall 1986 issue of Raritan, Frankfurt, a retired professor of philosophy at Princeton, took a whack at it in an essay titled "On Bullshit." Frankfurt reprinted the essay two years later in his book The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Last month he republished it a second time as a very small book. Frankfurt's conclusion, which I caught up with in its latest repackaging, is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created.

Eureka! Frankfurt's definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed. Although Frankfurt doesn't point this out, it immediately occurred to me upon closing his book that the word "bullshit" is both noun and verb, and that this duality distinguishes bullshit not only from the aforementioned Menckenesque antecedents, but also from its contemporary near-relative, horseshit. It is possible to bullshit somebody, but it is not possible to poppycock, or to twaddle, or to horseshit anyone. When we speak of bullshit, then, we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the bullshit into being: Somebody bullshitted. In this respect the word "bullshit" is identical to the word "lie," for when we speak of a lie we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the lie into being: Somebody lied.
Click Here!

Is "bullshit," then, a synonym for "lie"? Not exactly. Frankfurt asks us to consider an anecdote told about Ludwig Wittgenstein wherein the great philosopher phones a friend named Fania Pascal who's just had her tonsils removed. How are you, Wittgenstein asks. Like a dog that's been run over, Pascal answers. Wittgenstein then replies testily, "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like." In effect, Frankfurt argues, Wittgenstein is suggesting that Pascal is spouting bullshit. (A more reasonable person, Frankfurt concedes, would reach the charitable conclusion that Wittgenstein's friend is merely expressing herself through the use of allusive or at worst hyperbolic language.) Wittgenstein's grumpy outburst seems so absurd that very possibly the real bullshit here is the anecdote itself. But Frankfurt asks us to assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that the anecdote is true and that Wittgenstein's objection is rational and sincere.

So: Wittgenstein thinks Pascal is bullshitting him. But why, Frankfurt asks,

does it strike [Wittgenstein] that way? It does so, I believe, because he perceives what Pascal says as being—roughly speaking, for now—unconnected to a concern with the truth. Her statement is not germane to the enterprise of describing reality. She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels. Her description of her own feeling is, accordingly, something that she is merely making up.

Is Pascal lying? No. She isn't trying to deceive Wittgenstein about how she really feels, and she isn't trying to deceive Wittgenstein about how a dog would feel if run over. Her error, Frankfurt concludes, isn't that she conducted a faulty inquiry into how a dog would feel if run over, but that she conducted no inquiry at all (in this case, because none is possible)."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."

Frankfurt's definition is provocative because it allows for the little-recognized possibility that bullshit can be substantively true, and still be bullshit. Last summer, the Financial Times reported on evidence that the infamous war-justifying "16 words" in President Bush's 2003 State of the Union address ("The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa") may have been true after all. Previously, a consensus had dismissed the Bush administration's charge that Iraq had sought to buy yellowcake from Niger (implicit in Bush's use of the word "learned" rather than "concluded") as outright bullshit—a lie, even. Did the FT's stories mean that the 16 words might not be bullshit? No. They meant the 16 words might be true, but still didn't legitimize the shoddy White House research that had led to their inclusion in the speech. When those words were written into the speech, the president and his staff lacked the evidence needed to support them. They were bullshitting. The 16 words therefore remain bullshit, and will continue to remain bullshit even if the charge is eventually proved true.

More often, of course, bullshit is not true, in the same sense that a stopped clock is wrong 1,438 out of 1,440 minutes per day. Is bullshit as bad as a lie? Frankfurt thinks it's worse:

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. ...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.

Bullshit, Frankfurt notes, is an inevitable byproduct of public life, "where people are frequently 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." But politics is not a creation of the modern era; it's been around for centuries.

Why should bullshit be so prevalent now? The obvious answer is the communications revolution. Cable television and the Internet have created an unending demand for information, and there simply isn't enough truth to go around. So, we get bullshit instead. Indeed, there are some troubling signs that the consumer has come to prefer bullshit. In choosing guests to appear on cable news, bookers will almost always choose a glib ignoramus over an expert who can't talk in clipped sentences. In his underappreciated book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner found a negative correlation between media mentions and scholarly citations for the 100 public intellectuals most mentioned in the media—and these 100 accounted for 67.5 percent of all media mentions!
 

musicman

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So, the main thrust of this bullshit article is that the left is trying to cover its ass against the increasingly likely possibility that the bullshit they've been spewing for the last three years is going to be exposed for precisely what it is: bullshit.
 
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Mr.Conley

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musicman said:
So, the main thrust of this bullshit article is that the left is trying to cover its ass against the increasingly likely possibility that the bullshit they've been spewing for the last three years is going to be exposed for precisely what it is: bullshit.
In your opinion, is there anything bad in the world that "the left" is not responsible for?

Just out of curiosity.
 

Emmett

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I think and I am certain all will agree that it is now time to distinguish "left shit" from "right shit". Currently when it has been determined that mindless rhetoric spewing from the mouths of all politicians is simply "bullshit", we now need clarity.

Mr. Conley, your article was good actually but it failed to recognize "horseshit" which was unfairly left off the list in that article. I feel a vote by the polls would rate horseshit quite high and would make the following suggestion/

From now on only the lying ass words of Liberals can be classified as "bullshit"

Republicans spewing their god all mighty lies will now be classified as "horseshit"

You know, donkeys and Elephants. It is only fair that each should have its own proper description of their politics.
 
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Mr.Conley

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Emmett said:
I think and I am certain all will agree that it is now time to distinguish "left shit" from "right shit". Currently when it has been determined that mindless rhetoric spewing from the mouths of all politicians is simply "bullshit", we now need clarity.

Mr. Conley, your article was good actually but it failed to recognize "horseshit" which was unfairly left off the list in that article. I feel a vote by the polls would rate horseshit quite high and would make the following suggestion/

From now on only the lying ass words of Liberals can be classified as "bullshit"

Republicans spewing their god all mighty lies will now be classified as "horseshit"

You know, donkeys and Elephants. It is only fair that each should have its own proper description of their politics.
I like that, but I'd want to keep bullshit a general word and give the Democrats a special word as well. I don't know, maybe cowshit or something.
 

musicman

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In your opinion, is there anything bad in the world that "the left" is not responsible for?

Just out of curiosity.
Are you aware that your reply possesses no basis in reality, and has relevance to neither the content nor context of my post? Just out of confusion...

Let's review:

musicman said:
So, the main thrust of this bullshit article is that the left is trying to cover its ass against the increasingly likely possibility that the bullshit they've been spewing for the last three years is going to be exposed for precisely what it is: bullshit.
I reiterate: the article is bullshit. Weak, poorly-done, pathetically transparent bullshit, at that.
 
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Mr.Conley

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musicman said:
Are you aware that your reply possesses no basis in reality, and has relevance to neither the content nor context of my post? Just out of confusion...
Just a question that came to mind. You don't need to be so defensive.

musicman said:
I reiterate: the article is bullshit. Weak, poorly-done, pathetically transparent bullshit, at that.
So the article describing bullshit is, in fact, itself bullshit?

Amusing though that would be, you're wrong.
 

musicman

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musicman said:
Are you aware that your reply possesses no basis in reality, and has relevance to neither the content nor context of my post? Just out of confusion...
Just a question that came to mind.
And, as I stated in my reply, it was a question without any basis in reality. It addressed neither the content nor the context of my post; of any post I've EVER made, for that matter. It was a baseless accusation that you manufactured out of whole cloth.

Mr.Conley said:
You don't need to be so defensive.
Ah, yes - "No need to get all DEFENSIVE" - one of my favorite rhetorical devices - generally heard from those who have run out of ideas, and badly need a deflection. There's just one problem: there's nothing in my reply that could be remotely construed as defensive, not even by the most raving paranoid lunatic. I posed a perfectly reasonable question. I've gone to the trouble of re-posting it; perhaps you'd like to look it over.

Mr.Conley said:
So the article describing bullshit is, in fact, itself bullshit?
Quite correct.

Mr.Conley said:
Amusing though that would be, you're wrong.
Then, either you're too dim to see it - which I doubt - or you think WE are. I'd put my money on the latter.
 
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Mr.Conley

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musicman said:
And, as I stated in my reply, it was a question without any basis in reality. It addressed neither the content nor the context of my post; of any post I've EVER made, for that matter. It was a baseless accusation that you manufactured out of whole cloth.
I'm glad you figured that out. It was, quite literally, a question that just popped into my mind.

However, I first thought of the question after reading your response. For some reason, you took an article that simply yet artfully described a general phenomenon and you "manufactured out of whole cloth"the idea that it applied solely to democrats. It did not. The article simply explained a feature found on both sides of the political landscape without any particular judgment of either side. It did present an example out of politics, but did not indict either party. Perhaps before you accuse people of failing to address content or context, you should examine your own words.

musicman said:
Ah, yes - "No need to get all DEFENSIVE" - one of my favorite rhetorical devices - generally heard from those who have run out of ideas, and badly need a deflection. There's just one problem: there's nothing in my reply that could be remotely construed as defensive, not even by the most raving paranoid lunatic. I posed a perfectly reasonable question. I've gone to the trouble of re-posting it; perhaps you'd like to look it over.
Perhaps you should examine the tone of your posts.
musicman said:
Quite correct.
Really? How so? I'd love to understand how you arrived at this conclusion.
 

sitarro

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In your opinion, is there anything bad in the world that "the left" is not responsible for?

Just out of curiosity.
You know the absolute King of Bullshit just turned 60 and he's not happy about it..waahhhh!!! I think what bothers him the most is when he goes after women half his age they will be at least thirty and what woman over thirty is going to buy his bullshit?

Then there's Ted Kennedy, bullshits daily about how concerned with the welfare of poor people, yea, sure.

How about Algore? He's done a Bullshit documentary and doesn't live anything like what he has suggested the rest of us to live like. Speaking of Bullshit documentary makers, who is one of the biggest bullshitters of all time..... Mikey Moore of course. Then there is exPresident Jimma Cotta or Nancy Pelosi. I guess it is true, leftist are the biggest Bullshitters.
 

musicman

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I'm glad you figured that out. It was, quite literally, a question that just popped into my mind.

However, I first thought of the question after reading your response. For some reason, you took an article that simply yet artfully described a general phenomenon and you "manufactured out of whole cloth"the idea that it applied solely to democrats. It did not. The article simply explained a feature found on both sides of the political landscape without any particular judgment of either side. It did present an example out of politics, but did not indict either party. Perhaps before you accuse people of failing to address content or context, you should examine your own words.
Do you really think that people are so dimwitted as to accept that article as a fun sort of fluff piece, instead of propaganda whose principal thrust is, "Even if Bush turns out to have been telling the truth, it's still bullshit"? Do you really believe that this kind of intellectual dishonesty can still sneak by? You sorely underestimate conservative America, Mr. Conley.

Mr.Conley said:
Perhaps you should examine the tone of your posts.
Perhaps you should try posting something that doesn't reek of manure. You might find out I'm a hell of a nice guy!

Mr.Conley said:
Really? How so? I'd love to understand how you arrived at this conclusion.
By reading that bullshit article you posted.
 
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Mr.Conley

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musciman said:
By reading that bullshit article you posted.
Excellent rebuttal! Truely a marval to behold. Good job!

musicman said:
Perhaps you should try posting something that doesn't reek of manure. You might find out I'm a hell of a nice guy!
Hmm, I've never heard of a personal computer that could accurately recreate smells. Where'd you get one?

If it makes you feel better, I think you're a nice guy.
musicman said:
Do you really think that people are so dimwitted as to accept that article as a fun sort of fluff piece, instead of propaganda whose principal thrust is, "Even if Bush turns out to have been telling the truth, it's still bullshit"? Do you really believe that this kind of intellectual dishonesty can still sneak by? You sorely underestimate conservative America, Mr. Conley.
I had a feeling this would happen. You got too infuriated by the example to bother examining the overall thesis. To me the example is inconsequential, it's the overall idea of bullshit and its place in our society that interested me. If anything, the article supports Bush by obliterating the frequent liberal premise that Bush lied. Your response indicates to me that you haven't fully comprehended the idea of bullshit that the author presents. Why don't you reread the article and exam the idea of bullshit as the author describes it? Trust me, it's interesting.
 

musicman

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Excellent rebuttal! Truely a marval to behold. Good job!
Just giving you a straight answer to your question.

Mr.Conley said:
Hmm, I've never heard of a personal computer that could accurately recreate smells. Where'd you get one?
Devastating retort. Have you ever considered writing for Err America?

Mr.Conley said:
If it makes you feel better, I think you're a nice guy.
I think you're a nice guy, too. It's just disappointing to see you post things like:

Mr.Conley said:
I had a feeling this would happen. You got too infuriated by the example to bother examining the overall thesis. To me the example is inconsequential, it's the overall idea of bullshit and its place in our society that interested me. If anything, the article supports Bush by obliterating the frequent liberal premise that Bush lied. Your response indicates to me that you haven't fully comprehended the idea of bullshit that the author presents. Why don't you reread the article and exam the idea of bullshit as the author describes it? Trust me, it's interesting.
It tells me that you're sticking by the preposterous premise that the article is anything but a poorly-disguised Bush hit piece - a pre-emptive strike by Democrats fearful of what's going to come out of the Sadaam Hussein trial in the next few weeks.

It tells me that the level of respect you have for me and the rest of the USMB is so dismal that you really expect this bullshit to fly.

I thought you liked us.
 
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Mr.Conley

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musicman said:
Just giving you a straight answer to your question.
I need more than 'because I said so' to be convinced of anything. As do, hopefully, most people.

musicman said:
Devastating retort. Have you ever considered writing for Err America?
It's not a devastating retort. It's not even a retort. What ever gave you that idea?

musicman said:
It tells me that you're sticking by the preposterous premise that the article is anything but a poorly-disguised Bush hit piece - a pre-emptive strike by Democrats fearful of what's going to come out of the Sadaam Hussein trial in the next few weeks.

It tells me that the level of respect you have for me and the rest of the USMB is so dismal that you really expect this bullshit to fly.

I thought you liked us.
Hmm... here's my suggestion then. Go to your bookstore, ask them for a book with the title On Bullshit, read it, and then get back to me. I had a feeling someone was going to act like this. I guess your going to stick to your guns though. I'll try and find an essay that's both politics free and easier to understand.
 
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Mr.Conley

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I got this description off wikipedia. It's a good, totally politics-free description of bullshit in the sense that I'm trying to get across.

wikipedia said:
In his 1986 essay On Bullshit, philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University characterizes bullshit as a form of falsehood distinct from lying. The liar, Frankfurt holds, knows and cares about the truth, but deliberately sets out to mislead instead of telling the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, does not care about the truth and is only seeking to impress:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit
 

sitarro

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Hey Conley,
When the fuck are you going to come pick up those 150,000 losers from N.O. that are screwing up Houston. They have killed, stolen and burned enough apartments.....come bring them home where they belong!
 

musicman

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I need more than 'because I said so' to be convinced of anything. As do, hopefully, most people.
You're babbling now, Mr.Conley. At least try to give your replies some obscure relevance to the conversation.

Mr.Conley said:
It's not a devastating retort. It's not even a retort. What ever gave you that idea?
You're sinking fast, man.

Mr.Conley said:
Hmm... here's my suggestion then. Go to your bookstore, ask them for a book with the title On Bullshit, read it, and then get back to me.
But you didn't POST "On Bullshit". You posted a "tried - unsuccessfully - to be sneaky" hit piece that used "On Bullshit" as a point of departure. You have an agenda, Mr.Conley; you're just not terribly clever about it.

Mr.Conley said:
I had a feeling someone was going to act like this. I guess your going to stick to your guns though. I'll try and find an essay that's both politics free and easier to understand.
Ah, good - you've abandoned all pretense of having any respect for me whatsoever. I much prefer fresh air and the light of day.
 

musicman

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I got this description off wikipedia. It's a good, totally politics-free description of bullshit in the sense that I'm trying to get across.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bullshit
Immaterial. This is not what you initially posted. This is not what you tried to slide in under the door. And, "what you're trying to get across" couldn't be any clearer if it was a buttonhook in the well water.
 

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