On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 1: Frankfurt's Analysis

[Dear Reader:
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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?

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9 thoughts on “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 1: Frankfurt's Analysis”

  1. Richard,

    Not having read ON BULLSHIT and being who I am, I'll rush in where, er, angels fear to tread (and without my boots). It seems to me that in a university as well as from a pulpit bullshit is, in its production and acceptance, for the most part, a form of unreflective, opportunistic self-protection. The hunger for truth and authenticity is so underfed in our society and its institutions that disingenuous, even smelly stuff from gasbags, is filler for our bellies. Edmund Burke once wrote: "For a country to be loved, it must be lovely." We tolerate and participate in bullshit because we live as functional atheists in a nihilistic, unlovely culture.

    And that's no bullshit, or is it?


  2. Richard,

    It occurred to me after I made my initial comment that you might want to read Catherine Madsen's piece on religious language as a commentary on certain kinds of BS. See this url:




  3. George,
    Thanks for the link. I agree. Religion and churches generally are full of sloppy reasoning and vacuous language. I try hard to stay positive in these situations, trying to do my part to nuance the dialogue or lift the level of theological discourse. But, as I'm sure you can imagine, it's tough going.

  4. Please expound upon how bullshit is harmful. I bullshit about a lot of things. Football, movies, cars and innumerable other topics about which I am completely unqualified to offer an opinion. But to remain silent and/or claim ignorance when someone asks me about such things would be rude and antisocial. More often than not people are just looking for a pleasant social interaction. They know they are going to be bullshitted and don’t much care. How much of our day to day interactions with each other are nothing but bullshit?

    What level of knowledge of the truth is necessary to avoid bullshit? As the father of twins I feel I speak with authority on the subject. But I lack a PhD in child development. Is my advise on the raising of twins bullshit? What if I had a degree but no personal experience?

    What would a theology of bullshit like? Would it be similar to the theology of gossip you have already given us? I do not see how society would function without bullshit but there has to be some quantifiable criteria for sifting the harmless (or even necessary) bullshit from the harmful/destructive bullshit.


  5. JHR,
    Frankfurt states that bullshit is so prevalent because in a democracy people are expected to have opinions on just about any topic. Which kind of sounds like what you've just said. Personally, I preach to my students the virtues of the phrase "I don't know." I say "I don't know" all the time and I don't seem to be antisocial.

    However, there are many bullshit scholars (which is kind of funny to say) that disagree with Frankfurt's assessment that bullshit is so very pernicious. I agree with Frankfurt that bullshit is a problem and I don't like listening to it, but I do think lots of daily living needs some form of bullshit. The question for a theology of bullshit would be: Can bullshit be the part of a righteous life? If so, how? That's what I'd like to dwell a little on a little.

    But, as always, I'd like to keep expectations low for this blog. I often don't know where I'm going or what I'm going to conclude. I often have no real plans for these series. I'm more interested in being interesting than systematic:-)

  6. Great blog choice. I have noticed that alot of our interactions are "bullshit." Also, I have often wondered if higher education does promote this way of interacting. I have recently been called out on this "bullshit" by friends. And what I find ironic is that I have always blamed it on my higher education (I have a MS in Psychology). Friends blame it on my studies in psychology and the theories involved in this line of studies. So are we being trained to interact this way around others? And why do we feel that we have to "bullshit" everything, especially in our jobs and even in job interviews? I'll have to read the book.

  7. I am a retired public health scientist and was delighted to fairly recently stumble on Frankfurt's book "On Bullshit". It was a "eurika moment" for me as it ligitimated my feelings about what I had experienced throughout my career. As I found more and more references to Frankfurt's book in several languages I felt that the subject deserved a dedicated blog - http://bullshitcity.blogspot.com .

    What surprised me was that Frankfurt did not once use the word "sycopahnt" as it seems to me that one of the reasons there is so much bullshit is that most of us work/exist in environments where sycophanting and bullshitting are the essence for survival. What I found most surprising is that public health regulatory science is not without bullshit and I have coined the following:

    Science-based bullshit and scientist-spouted bullshit is still bullshit!

    While I have only started my blog I hope to make it a spot for listing references on the subject of bullshit and or bullshitology.

  8. I don't think anonymous really understands the concept of bullshit. Bullshitting is lying. It's not joking around or offering experience based rather than professional opinions. Bullshitting is often manipulation. This is why people don't like bullshitting.

    And btw admitting you don't know everything is a type of humility most people like, it's not rude.

    Strange strange comment

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