Frankfurt on Bullshit

Frankfurt argues in his essay on bullshit that it is even more detrimental than lying. Lying is a conscious act of deception, where the liar knows the truth and chooses to conceal it. Bullshit, on the other hand, is something that sounds like it could be true, but is not necessarily true. The person speaking the bullshit is not necessarily trying to deceive, but they are also not particularly concerned with the truth.

Frankfurt quotes Saint Augustine, who notes that there are many types of liars, but only one truly lies for the sake of lying, because they derive pleasure from it. Other people just bullshit. Frankfurt gives the example of Wittgenstein’s encounter with a woman, Miss Pascal, who once received a call from him. She felt terrible and told him she felt like a dog that was hit. But then he immediately interrupted her and told her to stop speaking nonsense. The story illustrates that bullshit is a part of everyday language and is everywhere.

Frankfurt notes that some writers are skilled at disguising bullshit. For example, they might allude to an earlier point in time or to some future date. They might say something like, “the man of the past did not fear for his life, he was blissfully happy, because society did not drown him in obligations.” Or, “the man of the future, will be different to any other man who has existed, since for him, truth will not be real, but an artifact of the past.” These statements are clearly bullshit, but they are not always obvious.

Frankfurt argues that specificity is often confused with truth and generality is often confused with bullshit. Any blanket statement, when not supported with data points, can be considered bullshit. But there must be a better way to define bullshit. Frankfurt, in his book on the topic, defines bullshit as vagueness or ambiguity. In other words, it is not that it intentionally distorts the truth, it simply evades conforming to truth. By this definition, much of philosophy would be bullshit. All of poetry would be too. This only leaves us with science and mathematics, which are precise, unambiguous, and falsifiable.

But Frankfurt does not believe that this definition should be seen as derogatory. He notes that bullshit is all too natural to be viewed as derogatory. We need some degree of bullshit. Frankfurt also discusses “bullshit sessions” where a group of friends, usually male, speak about topics they don’t know much about, each with the freedom to play with ideas without fear of being silenced. A bullshit session is like a mutual exploration of loose threads. Of course, there is play acting and all of that. Each person acts as if they truly believe what they are saying but of course they don’t. The taking of sides serves an important function: to express latent ideas.

Frankfurt argues that the kind of bullshit that is pernicious is when someone is expected to comment on something they don’t know anything about. For example, if someone asks for advice about a financial matter and you oblige, even though you don’t know anything about finance, you have misdirected them. You have claimed to have knowledge about something you do not. They might actually believe what you say, and if they ever do find out that you had no idea what you were talking about, they won’t be happy. So, it’s safer to abstain from bullshit altogether. A good rule is to not talk about things you don’t understand.

In society, many people are famous for bullshit. Many journalists and writers write ambitious manifestos about heavy topics, while making loose references to various subjects without truly understanding what they are talking about.

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