Salticidae Philosophiae is a series of abstracts, commentaries, and reviews on philosophical articles and books.
Harry Frankfurt asks, “What is bullshit, anyway?” Also, “What is truth?” but we all know that book proposal wouldn’t have flown except as a companion to the first one.
- Something can be true, and still be bullshit.
- Something can be a lie, and yet not be bullshit.
- Bullshit is that which is (1) unconcerned with truth and (2) intended to change attitudes rather than beliefs.
- Truth is useful to us as individuals and as societies
- Truth-seeking and truth-telling must be rewarded and their inverse must be punished.
- Truth is truth whether or not anyone believes it or even knows it.
New or uncommon terminology
- On Bullshit is described as a prolegomenon to On Truth, or an extended introduction that serves to discuss and interpret the work in a manner that is more exhaustive than the typical introduction.
There is not much literature on bullshit, and no "theory of bullshit" or rigorous analysis thereof. This is in large part because we all assume that we recognize and evade bullshit pretty well.
According to Max Black, humbug is essentially a (false) statement made, not to convince you about that thing, but to convince you of something else. For example, one might make blatantly and obviously exaggerated or otherwise false statements about U.S. history not to convince another of these things, but to convince another of one's patriotic fervor.
Starting from this definition of humbug, Frankfurt makes a number of comparisons and caveats that might be useful:
- Bullshit may be made carelessly, and we could easily compare bullshit to shoddy goods.
- Shit is excreted, not crafted. However, advertising can be carefully-crafted bullshit.
- Similes are not lies, but they can be made too thoughtlessly. In their own way, they can be bullshit.
Frankfurt argues that bullshit is, to start with, deliberate misrepresentation. Some say that lying requires intent; others, that any false statement is a lie. Bullshitting, however, is not exactly the same as lying. Indeed, bullshit can be true. Frankfurt's position is that bullshit is distinguished not by its truth or falsity, but by a disregard for the truth; as he puts it, honest folk and liars are playing the same game, to convey the facts or to obscure them, but the bullshitter is playing another game entirely.
Truth-tellers and liars are both concerned with changing your beliefs; a bullshitter is concerned with changing your attitude.
- "Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. [...] The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything but bullshit." [pg 61 para 2]
- "Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives." [pg 43 para 1]
This is a sequel to On Bullshit, which addresses an oversight of his: the author failed to make any argument as to why the truth is important, and bullshit is therefore reprehensible. This book is about why truth is important.
There is lots of bullshit but it hasn't destroyed civilization, so some people think that truth isn't important. Some people even refuse to admit that there is such a thing as truth. though these people are very silly (not least because they tend to represent themselves as truly holding this belief). The book therefore assumes that there is an "objectively meaningful or worthwhile distinction to be made between what is true and what is false," and concerns itself solely with addressing whether this distinction matters outside of academia.
He spends more that a tenth of the book explaining what he's doing and why he's doing it.
Truth is useful to us. Societies cannot function without fostering truth. Both individuals and groups must know facts and as societies become more complex they must know more facts, and more accurately (while many individuals, it must be said, can remain free riders).
Postmodernists reject the idea that truth has objective reality or value, at least as perceived by us; our view of the truth is determined by constraints that have been imposed upon us by personal and social environments and histories. It is interesting that postmodernism does not exist (in this form) in medicine, physics, and other fields whose assertions are easily testable. Even in history, there must be objective facts: "They will not say that Belgium invaded Germany," the author reports Georges Clemenceau as saying.
Even if some value statements are not verifiable, they can generally be connected back to facts that can be discussed. Knowing the facts of the matter lets us determine whether we ought to value the things that we do, or whether other goals and activities might better accomplish our terminal values.
- Healthy societies must reward truth-finders and punish truth-obscurers.
- Having facts is not enough to succeed (you must use them properly), but not having facts prevents you from taking any action at all.
One might argue that we could just not care about this need for truth. Spinoza argued that we cannot help but care, because of love, which is "nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause." essentially an experience that broadens one's understanding of oneself and improves one's capacity for perfection. or (in the author's words) "the way that we respond to something that we recognize as giving us joy." Additionally, joy is the experience of being ennobled or otherwise improved (and, preferably, knowing this). Therefore, truth gives us joy, because it improves us, and because we wish to preserve and keep nearby that which we love, we will seek to preserve truth.
When we act, we interact with reality, and we have a desire or at least an expectation regarding the outcome of our action. To the degree that we lack truth, we are disconnected from reality and that desire or expectation may be thwarted.
- It is always better to face uncomfortable truths than to hide away from them, because if we do not confront them then, one day, we will be confronted by them.
- Without truth, we are blind. We might not run into trouble immediately, but we will do so inevitably.
- "The relevant facts are what they are regardless of what we may happen to believe about them, and regardless of what we may wish them to be. This is, indeed, the essence and the defining character of factuality, of being real: the properties of reality, and accordingly the truths about its properties, are what they are, independent of any direct or immediate control by our will." [pg 55 para 2]
Truth fosters trust. Honesty is the foundation of society, while dishonesty undermines social fabric. Even the capacity for self-recognition (or self-awareness, we might say) ultimately depends on our relationship with the truth. If we do not know the world, then we cannot know ourselves.
- If someone starts getting into etymology as part of some Deep Explanation, then prepare for a torrent of bullshit.
- Immanuel Kant, "On a Supposed Right to Lie from Altruistic Motives": "A lie always harms another; if not some particular man, still it harms mankind generally.
- Michel Montaigne, "Of Liars": "If we did but recognize the horror and gravity of [...lying], we would punish it with flames more justly than other crimes."
Even the capacity for self-recognition (or self-awareness, we might say) ultimately depends on our relationship with truth. If we do not know the world, then we cannot know ourselves.
On Bullshit argues that bullshitting doesn't necessarily undermine society, at least not up to a point, but I I would expect a hypothetical society with even slightly less bullshit than ours to function more smoothly. I also disagree with the position that truth intrinsically gives us joy. Many of us love bullshit more than truth.
Frankfurt says that lying is bad at its core because the liar "tries to impose his will on us," even if it is for our own good, but he fails to argue that this in itself is bad. More convincing is Frankfurt's argument that we are being pushed into another world insofar as our beliefs are false, but what if the lie is believed on a large scale? Then we would be isolated by believing the truth. He also argues that the liar is personally isolated, and cannot even speak of that isolation, but this is untrue if the liar has partners.
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. [On Bullshit, pg 66 para 2]
Harry G. Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include The Reasons of Love (Princeton), Necessity, Volition, and Love, and The Importance of What We Care About.
Philosophers & works mentioned
Philosophers given significant attention include:
- Max Black, a British-American philosopher who, for some reason, has a longer article on the Unitarian-run New World Encyclopedia than he does on Wikipedia, even though the former takes its articles from the latter before it edits and builds upon them.
- Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher who argued that reason is the basis of morality, and drew attention to the difference between the world-as-it-is and the world-as-it-appears-to-us.
- Michel Montaigne, a French philosopher of the Renaissance period who wrote on child education, psychology, and other topics, and popularized (but did not invent) the essay format.
- Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish Portuguese philosopher who is best known for his writings on God, which have gotten him labeled as everything from a pantheist to an atheist.
Other articles & books on this subject
- The Prevalence of Humbug, by Max Black