View Full Version : On Bullshit

02-22-2012, 01:11 PM
Harry G. Frankfurt

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, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no 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. Any suggestion about what
conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the
constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one
thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely --
simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal
meaning. For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous
that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being
procrustean. Nonetheless it should be possible to say something
helpful, even though it is not likely to be decisive. Even the most
basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not
only unanswered but unasked. So far as I am aware, very little work
has been done on this subject. I have not undertaken a survey of the
literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it. To be
sure, there is one quite obvious place to look -- the Oxford English
Dictionary. The OED has an entry for bullshit in the supplementary
volumes, and it also has entries for various pertinent uses of the
word bull and for some related terms. I shall consider some of these
entries in due course. I have not consulted dictionaries in languages
other than English, because I do not know the words for bullshit or
bull in any other language.
Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of
Humbug by Max Black. I am uncertain just how close in meaning the word
humbug is to the word bullshit. Of course, the words are not freely
and fully interchangeable; it is clear that they are used differently.
But the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with
considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters,
than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me
most. It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!"
than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall
assume that there is no other important difference between the two,
Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the
following: "balderdash", "claptrap", "hokum", "drivel", "buncombe",
"imposture", and "quackery". This list of quaint equivalents is not
very helpful. But Black also confronts the problem of establishing the
nature of humbug more directly, and he offers the following formal

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

A very similar formulation might plausibly be offered as enunciating
the essential characteristics of bullshit. As a preliminary to
developing an independent account of those characteristics, I will
comment on the various elements of Black's definition.

Deceptive misrepresentation: This may sound pleonastic. No doubt what
Black has in mind is that humbug is necessarily designed or intended
to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In
other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation. Now if, as a matter
of conceptual necessity, an intention to deceive is an invariable
feature of humbug, then the property of being humbug depends at least
in part upon the perpetrator's state of mind. It cannot be identical,
accordingly, with any properties -- either inherent or relational --
belonging just to the utterance by which the humbug is perpetrated. In
this respect, the property of being humbug is similar to that of being
a lie, which is identical neither with the falsity nor with any of the
other properties of the statement the liar makes, but which requires
that the liar makes his statement in a certain state of mind --
namely, with an intention to deceive. It is a further question whether
there are any features essential to humbug or to lying that are not
dependent upon the intentions and beliefs of the person responsible
for the humbug or the lie, or whether it is, on the contrary, possible
for any utterance whatsoever to be -- given that the speaker is in a
certain state of mind -- a vehicle of humbug or of a lie. In some
accounts of lying there is no lie unless a false statement is made; in
others a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true,
as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends
by making it to deceive. What about humbug and bullshit? May any
utterance at all qualify as humbug or bullshit, given that (so to
speak) the utterer's heart is in the right place, or must the
utterance have certain characteristics of its own as well?

Short of lying: It must be part of the point of saying that humbug is
"short of lying," that while it has some of the distinguishing
characteristics of lies, there are others that it lacks. But this
cannot be the whole point. After all, every use of language without
exception has some, but not all, of the characteristic features of
lies -- if no other, then at least the feature simply of being a use
of language. Yet it would surely be incorrect to describe every use of
language as short of lying. Black's phrase evokes the notion of some
sort of continuum, on which lying occupies a certain segment while
humbug is located exclusively at earlier points. What continuum could
this be, along which one encounters humbug only before one encounters
lying? Both lying and humbug are modes of misrepresentation. It is not
at first glance apparent, however, just how the difference between
these varieties of misrepresentation might be construed as a
difference in degree.

Especially by pretentious word or deed: There are two points to notice
here. First, Black identifies humbug not only as a category of speech
but as a category of action as well; it may be accomplished either by
words or by deeds. Second, his use of the qualifier "especially"
indicates that Black does not regard pretentiousness as an essential
or wholly indispensable characteristic of humbug. Undoubtedly, much
humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover,
"pretentious bullshit" is close to being a stock phrase. But I am
inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens
because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive
element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving
pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make
his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what
accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be
assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as
its motive.

Misrepresentation ... of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or
attitudes: This provision that the perpetrator of humbug is
essentially misrepresenting himself raises some very central issues.
To begin with, whenever a person deliberately misrepresents anything,
he must inevitably misrepresenting his own state of mind. It is
possible, of course, for a person to misrepresent that alone -- for
instance, by pretending to have a desire or a feeling which he does
not actually have. But suppose that a person, whether by telling a lie
or in another way, misrepresents something else. Then he necessarily
misrepresents at least two things. He misrepresents whatever he is
talking about -- i.e., the state of affairs that is the topic or
referent of his discourse -- and in doing this he cannot avoid
misrepresenting his own mind as well. Thus, someone who lies about how
much money he has in his pocket both gives an account of the amount of
money in his pocket and conveys that he believes this account. If the
lie works, then its victim is twice deceived, having one false belief
about what is in the liar's pocket and another false belief about what
is in the liar's mind.

More @ link:http://gwinnettdailyonline.com/articleB5BD6D4417AF444DBD8F9770AA729B26.asp

02-22-2012, 01:15 PM
Man that's a lot of bullshit.

Keyser Soze
02-22-2012, 01:24 PM
In the 80's I was going to write a book about Bullshit...I will read this with interest... :0)