Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A theory of b***s***

In the New Yorker:
"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,” Harry G. Frankfurt, a distinguished moral philosopher who is professor emeritus at Princeton, says. The ubiquity of bullshit, he notes, is something that we have come to take for granted. Most of us are pretty confident of our ability to detect it, so we may not regard it as being all that harmful. We tend to take a more benign view of someone caught bullshitting than of someone caught lying. (“Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through,” a father counsels his son in an Eric Ambler novel.) All of this worries Frankfurt. We cannot really know the effect that bullshit has on us, he thinks, until we have a clearer understanding of what it is. That is why we need a theory of bullshit...

Where do you start if you are an academic philosopher in search of the quiddity of bullshit? “So far as I am aware,” Frankfurt dryly observes, “very little work has been done on this subject." ...The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is that it is produced without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn't be false: “The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” The bullshitter's fakery consists not in misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the truthteller are playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth.

Frankfurt's account of bullshit is doubly remarkable. Not only does he define it in a novel way that distinguishes it from lying; he also uses this definition to establish a powerful claim: “Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.” If this is true, we ought to be tougher on someone caught bullshitting than we are on someone caught lying...


Anonymous Kristi said...

Yes, lovely to know there are others who know a cow pie when they see one. Your intriguing post led me to the hilarious article, and finally to the Amazon order page. I'm going to give it to the man Demosthenes was searching for.

Once upon a time there was a pastor who tried to snow me, diminish me, and totally BS me...I finally said, "You know, my @ssh0le meter is in the red zone, so if I were you, I'd just stop talking now."

Thanks for the great post!

4:28 PM  
Anonymous script said...

speaking of bullshiters....drug reps. all so full of bullshit. its appalling.

7:06 PM  

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