‘One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit’. So begins Harry Frankfurt’s seminal essay ‘On Bullshit’. Although originally published in 1986, and republished as a booklet in 2005, Harry Frankfurt’s opening statement is as true today as it was when it was first published 40 years ago. We truly are surrounded by bullshit.
Interestingly, despite the prevalence of bullshit all around us, philosophers have paid little attention to it. Unlike the concepts of truth, knowledge, falsity, and lying, there had been no analyses of the notion of Bullshit until Harry Frankfurt’s seminal essay. Nor had there been a theory of why bullshit occurs, or why it is bad. The basic questions about bullshit hadn’t been asked, let alone answered. The terrain is thus ripe for philosophical analysis.
What Is ‘Bullshit’ According to Harry Frankfurt?
Harry Frankfurt’s goal is to ask these basic questions and provide a basic theory. His goal is to provide an explication of the term. An explication is a type of definition in which we respect some of the original uses of the term, but are stimulative on others. Popularized by the logical positivist Rudolf Carnap, when we provide an explication of a term, we are proposing ‘a good thing to mean’ by a concept. The goal is to improve the term by making it clearer.
Frankfurt starts his analysis with the dictionary to see how the word is generally used. Even if, as J L Austin reminds us, natural language isn’t always the last word on what concepts mean, it is generally the first word. The dictionary is, thus, as good a place to start as any, especially when there is so little else written on it.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
What, then, is bullshit? To get the discussion of the ground it will be useful to have an example. We all know a bullshitter, and can probably recall a particularly memorable piece of bullshit they said. Frankfurt provides the following example of a paradigmatic case of bullshit:
‘Consider a 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.’ (p. 16)
This, Frankfurt tells us, is surely bullshit. The reason it is bullshit, he argues, is because what is being said is ‘hot air’. The utterance conveys as much information as if it were mere vapor. What the orator says is bullshit because the orator doesn’t care whether what they are saying is true. They don’t care whether the country is blessed or whether it is great, or whether some men a long time ago were inspired by God. One can’t care about whether these things are true because it isn’t clear what it would mean for them to be true. It is pure rhetoric. The orator isn’t concerned with making his audience come to believe these things, he is concerned with showing allegiance to the country, with demonstrating he is a patriot.
This, then, is the essence of bullshit: what we say is bullshit when we say it without any concern for whether it is true. When people bullshit, the problem is that they offer a description of reality ‘without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes’ (p. 32). It isn’t that bullshitters necessarily get it wrong, it is that they don’t even try to get it right. Bullshit, in this sense, is a statement made ‘in the wrong way’, i.e. without concern for reality and the truth.
What Is the Difference Between Bullshit and Lying?
So, if bullshitting is saying things without caring about whether they are true, how is bullshitting different to lying? Unlike bullshitters, liars know the truth, they just choose to hide it. To lie is to intentionally and deliberately express something one knows to be false with the goal of passing it off as being true. As a consequence,
‘The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.’ (p. 51)
Bullshit, on the other hand, is essentially about not caring about the truth. As a consequence, bullshit can actually be true. The key is the person not knowing or caring whether it is true when they profess it.
Why Is Bullshit Dangerous?
Now that we’ve got a good idea of what bullshit is, and distinguished it from lying, we are in a better position to think about why bullshit is dangerous.
Harry Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more dangerous than lying. At first sight, this seems counter-intuitive. Surely lying is worse than bullshitting? Liars are intentionally and deliberately trying to deceive us. Normally, doing something bad (e.g. deceiving someone) intentionally makes the action worse than if it is done unintentionally, for example accidentally or absentmindedly. If this is the case, how can bullshit be worse than lying?
The reason Frankfurt gives is that, whereas liars at least pay some respect to the difference between what is true and what isn’t, bullshitters completely disregard it. They simply don’t care about the difference. This, Frankfurt argues, means that compulsive bullshitters become progressively less able to tell the truth than compulsive liars. Liars and truth tellers are playing on opposite sides of the same game. Bullshitters are playing a different game entirely where the rules of truth don’t matter. This lack of concern, Frankfurt argues, is more corrosive of one’s ability to distinguish the truth than deliberately obscuring the truth. Once one gets into the habit of bullshitting, it is difficult to get out of it.
Misinformation, Conspiracies and Bullshit
It isn’t hard to think of contemporary examples of notorious bullshitters. Public life is full of them. Disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories and general lack of concern for the facts are a pervasive feature of the post-truth public sphere.
When Donald Trump claimed that he was going to stop immigration by building a wall, that was bullshit. He didn’t care whether it would be possible. When Alex Jones claimed that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, that was bullshit. He didn’t care whether it was true or not. His goal was to get people to watch his show and buy his nutritional supplements. Considering examples like these, it is clear that bullshit can be dangerous. It muddies the waters and makes it harder for the rest of us to get our facts straight.
Is All Bullshit Bad?
Is all bullshit as bad as these instances of bullshit? The reason bullshit is dangerous on Frankfurt’s account is that it fails to pay enough respect for the truth. However, conveying true beliefs is not the only function language plays. To illustrate this, it will be helpful to consider another example of bullshit Frankfurt considers. This case involves the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The story goes that Wittgenstein went to meet his friend who had recently had her tonsils removed. When he asked her how she was, she replied ‘I feel like a dog who’s just been run over’, to which Wittgenstein replied ‘you have no idea what a dog that’s been run over feels like’.
It seems pretty clear that Wittgenstein is right, but he is missing the point. Sure, his friend doesn’t truly know what it feels like, but it seems she wasn’t aiming to claim that. She wasn’t trying to accurately report her feelings. She was being hyperbolic, using language colorfully to entertain and amuse. Perhaps she was trying to raise everyone’s spirits by being good humored. The fact what she is saying is bullshit is part of the point of saying it.
Truth isn’t the only thing that matters in these contexts. If I am sitting around chatting with friends in the pub I, for one, don’t care whether the story about a friend of a friend of a friend’s cousin doing something outlandish is actually true. It just needs to be a good story, preferably with a good punchline or surprising ending.
Harry Frankfurt’s Take on the Utility of Bullshit: Eliciting Candor
Bullshit isn’t just entertaining. It can also have other positive uses. In situations where we are all aware of the fact that people might be bullshitting (such as in a bull session), bullshit might allow us to speak more candidly. When discussing topics like religion, politics, or sex; ‘people are generally reluctant to speak altogether openly about these topics if they expect they might be taken too seriously’ (p. 36)
Bullshit, thus, allows us to try out positions, see what it feels like to say certain things, and see what sticks. In other words, it provides an avenue for intellectual exploration. In this sense, it plays a similar role to the Chatham House rule. When a meeting is conducted under the Chatham House rule, participants are allowed to report what is said, but not who said it. Here, as in a bull session, the goal is to increase sincerity and candor, providing people with the freedom to say things which might be controversial without it being leaked or attributed to them publicly.
In sum, despite the dangers of unrestrained bullshit, it does have some positive roles. The question of whether bullshit is bad, then, depends on the situation and circumstances in which the bullshit is being uttered. In serious situations like politics, academic conferences, or journalism where we rely on each other to be truthful, bullshit is indeed dangerous. In other less important areas of life, or where there is an implicit acceptance of the possibility of bullshit, not being fastidious about the truth is less of a problem.