On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 2: Deeper Into Bullshit

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In the bond of peace,

In 2002, G.A. Cohen published an analysis of Frankfurt's seminal essay On Bullshit entitled Deeper Into Bullshit. The essay appeared in a volume reflecting on the career, work, and legacy of Frankfurt.

In Deeper, Cohen takes issue with Frankfurt's formulation of bullshit and thus greatly expands what we may effectively call bullshit. Cohen's critique of Frankfurt creates what is known as the "Frankfurt vs. Cohen debate" in bullshit studies. In his essay in Bullshit and Philosophy, Cornelis de Waal argues that Cohen and Frankfurt stand for two tauroscatological schools, the structualist school (Cohen) and the intentionalist school (Frankfurt). Let's look at the two approaches.

Cohen starts Deeper by looking at the OED definition of bullshit:

Definition 1: Nonsense, rubbish. (noun)
Definition 2: Trivial or insincere talk or writing. (verb, bullshitted, bullshitting)

Cohen notes that Frankfurt's analysis of bullshit goes with Definition 2. That is, according to Frankfurt bullshit is produced by an indifference to truth, a lack of concern to get things right. de Waal also points out that bullshit can also be produced by "epistemic sloth," mental laziness.

This formulation places Frankfurt in the intentionalist school. That is, bullshit results from the intentions of the bullshitter, the bullshitter's stance in relation to the truth (i.e., an indifference).

Cohen, however, disagrees. Cohen makes this acute observation: There are lots of people who are very interested in truth but who still produce copious amounts of bullshit. Frankfurt's indifference-to-truth thesis cannot adequately explain this situation. Cohen's analysis is important for me because I work and move in places where people are very interested in truth (e.g., the university, church) but where I still hear a lot of bullshit. Thus, if Frankfurt's formulation goes with Definition 2 of the OED, Cohen goes with Definition 1.

Thus, Cohen says that bullshit is found not in the intentions of the speaker but in the content of their speech. For Cohen, a person's intentions are irrelevant for determining if what they say is bullshit. A person might be both deeply concerned with truth and feel that what they say is true but still produce bullshit. For de Waal, this places Cohen in the structuralist school of bullshit. Bullshit is not found in the intentions of the the speaker but in the structure (content) of the speech.

I think this is a valuable point for it greatly expands the cases where we might find bullshit. However, the problem for the structuralist school is how to determine if something, structurally, is bullshit or not. Cohen gets around this problem by greatly narrowing his focus to academic forms of bullshit.

In this focus Cohen unites with Frankfurt in that both, when they speak of bullshit, also have in mind certain trends in higher education. Specifically, they have in mind certain post-modern streams of scholarship where verbal wordplay and obfuscation are viewed as "deep." Both Frankfurt and Cohen take issue with this form of post-modern scholarship for different reasons each reflecting their tauroscatological orientation. Frankfurt dislikes post-modern scholarship in that verbal wizardry disinterested in attempting to communicate "how things stand" is a form of pretentious bullshit. Cohen agrees but focuses less on the intentions of the post-modern academics. Cohen notes that many of these scholars believe they ARE engaged in serious and truth-seeking dialogue; however they are still producing bullshit (i.e., rubbish and nonsense).

The bullshit-rich domain of post-modern studies was aptly displayed by the Sokal Hoax some years ago. Sokal wrote a bullshit piece (from both the Frankfurtian and Cohen definitions) of scholarship and submitted it as legit to a leading post-modern journal. The journal--unable to discern bullshit from truth--published the piece. This hoax was taken by many to be diagnostic that things have gone seriously wrong in certain sectors of the Academy. When wordplay, lack of clarity, and bullshit are taken to be signs of erudition something is amiss.

I think this is an important analysis for theology. It is possible, as jargon is acquired and we move upward into greater and greater areas of abstraction, that at some point our language loses touch with anything meaningful. I frequently hear theological discourse and suspect that this is just what is happening. I love jargon (e.g., I love the word tauroscatological) because it is concise and efficent. But I must beware that my jargon stays both clear and in touch with reality. Otherwise, my "erudition" just becomes hot air. Bullshit. I wonder how many university students suspect that their professors are just bullshitting them?

To conclude, let's back out from this particular focus on the Academy. I think Cohen helps us expand our notion of bullshit. In particular, he allows us to move past the motives of the speaker and focus directly on the quality of the speech. This expansion of focus will be helpful in the posts to come.

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3 thoughts on “On Bullshit, Psychology, and Theology, Part 2: Deeper Into Bullshit”

  1. Am I the only person who didn't know what "tauroscatological" meant? Until now I simply assumed it was the study of morally/biologically filthy people that also happened to bear the astrological sign of Taurus.

  2. Richard,

    One problem with treating bullshit in the way you propose is that it treats the bullshit as a discrete, impermeable object. Yet it ignores the role of reception, which I'd also like to propose. Imagine this situation: I'm teaching a class on a complicated theory that offers important insights into the world. I do my best to present the theory clearly and directly, offering examples and metaphors to help bring people along. One student understands what I'm getting at, gains access to the theory and sees it as valuable. The student sitting next to her doesn't get it--doesn't care, doesn't make the effort to see what I'm saying and thinks that what I'm saying is bullshit. Is that second student right?

    Let's put it another way--one that I think you're heading. A lot of people thought that Jesus was primarily spewing bullshit--worthless nonsense about his status as God's son, about reinterpretations of the law, etc.--yet some connected with what he was saying and realized that it offered an entirely new paradigm for understanding the world.

    If you treat the speech act as an isolated phenomenon, you run the risk of a definition that is worthless because it misidentifies the truly revolutionary (which can often seem like bullshit in the context of conventional wisdom)...

    I'd therefore like to see you keep some of the notions of intentionality. After all, most of us DO know when we're spewing it and when we're working to tell the truth...

  3. Bill,
    I think you're right. To call something "bullshit" is often a way for the hearer to say they wish to disregard the speech and this can be done for all kinds of reasons (e.g., fear, epistemic sloth, self-interest, pride).

    Just to linger with this a bit...

    In Cohen's essay he specifies a criterion for academic bullshit. It's called the Cohen-Brown test of unclarifiability: If adding or subtracting a negative sign from a text makes no difference to it level of plausibility than it's bullshit. Or, more succinctly, if a statement is "unclarifiably unclear" than it is bullshit.

    I think that is an interesting criterion, but it is probably limited to academic works (across all disciplines). It's not useful for structurally analyzing everyday speech acts.

    Regardless, you're right that just because something is called bullshit doesn't mean it is bullshit.

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