If you are offended by this post, please, as a Christian, respond ethically and in a Christ-like manner. That is, following the directives of Jesus in Matthew 18: 15-17 please contact me first. You should also know that I've submitted my spiritual life to the direction of the elders at the Highland Church of Christ. Please feel free to contact them about your concerns as well.
In the bond of peace,
I've been thinking of bullshit lately.
In 2005 Harry Frankfurt, Princeton philosopher, republished his 1986 essay entitled On Bullshit as a stand-alone book. The book was published by Princeton University Press, an Ivy league academic publisher, as a tiny, hardback book. It immediately became a media sensation spending 26 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
When I saw On Bullshit at a bookstore in 2005 I picked it up wondering if it was a joke. I noted the publisher and the author and was curious. Princeton University Press and Princeton philosophers are not known for joke books. So, I settled in to read and was quickly engrossed. It was my first introduction to bullshit studies.
Over the holidays I read some more in bullshit studies (Bullshit and Philosophy) and also picked up Frankfurt's follow up to On Bullshit: On Truth. My reading is leading me to write a little about bullshit, its nature, and its implications for both theology and psychology.
Today, to start, we'll look at Frankfurt's analysis of bullshit. You should know that there is some controversy surrounding Frankfurt's analysis. However, Frankfurt, as the seminal thinker in bullshit studies, is where all analyses of bullshit begin.
Frankfurt opens On Bullshit with these words:
"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 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..." (On Bullshit, p. 1)
Frankfurt then begins to do what analytic philosophers do, he begins to analyze and clarify the concept of bullshit. Just what is bullshit?
The main analytic tool Frankfurt uses is the comparison of lying with bullshit. The two concepts seem related and yet distinct. We instinctively feel that both lying and bullshitting have some relation/application to truth, or, more precisely, the lack of truth. That is, when we call a speech act a "lie" or "bullshit" we are stating that we are unsatisfied with what we have just heard. Specifically, we don't think we have been spoken to truthfully.
But it is more complex than that. Lying and bullshitting seem distinct as well. We know that when someone is bullshitting us they might not be, technically, lying. Further, when someone tells us a boldface lie our response isn't to say "That's bullshit!" but "You're a liar!" Finally, Frankfurt notes that, sociologically, we treat bullshit and lying differently. We are intolerant of lies but we appear to tolerate a huge amount of bullshit in our lives and public discourse. Why the difference?
In sum, lying and bullshit seem both related and distinct and Frankfurt sets about clarifying the relationship.
Summarizing greatly, Frankfurt's analysis is this. Lies and liars are very concerned with truth insofar as they are trying to hide the truth from us. In fact, a necessary condition of a lie is a knowledge of "how things stand," of the truth.
But bullshit, according to Frankfurt, is a speech act that is indifferent to truth. A bullshitter speaks about things asking us to treat their speech as a legitimate transmission of information, but in reality the bullshitter neither knows of what they speak nor is concerned to "get things right." Quoting Frankfurt:
"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 pertain 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." (On Bullshit, pp. 55-56)
This indifference-to-truth is so pernicious Frankfurt makes the following claim:
"[The bullshitter] 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." (On Bullshit, p. 61)
I agree with Frankfurt that we are surrounded by bullshit, and I am intrigued by his analysis for a couple of reasons. First, I work in a bullshit rich culture: The University. It is unbelievable the amount of bullshit faculty, administrators, and students produce. So, I'd like to shed some light on this particular milieu. Second, Christians are deeply invested in truth. Thus, bullshit studies should be in conversation with theology. I'm no theologian, so I'll only offer a few amateurish remarks on this interface. I hope, in doing so as an amateur, I don't produce even more bullshit. So be forewarned. Finally, as a psychologist I'm interested in the workaday pressures to bullshit, the world of manners, spin, self-presentation, and the conflicts between truth-telling and being a jerk. How to adjudicate?