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On Bullshit



On Bullshit is a 2005 book (originally a 1986 essay) by American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt which presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyzes the applications of bullshit in the context of communication. Frankfurt determines that bullshit is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn't care if what they say is true or false.[1] Frankfurt's philosophical analysis of bullshit has been analyzed, criticized and adopted by academics since its publication.[2]




On bullshit



Respect for the truth and a concern for the truth are among the foundations for civilization. I was for a long time disturbed by the lack of respect for the truth that I observed... bullshit is one of the deformities of these values.[8]


His book On Bullshit addresses his concern and makes a distinction between "bullshitters" and liars. He concludes that bullshitters are more insidious: they are more of a threat against the truth than are liars.[8]


Frankfurt's book focuses heavily on defining and discussing the difference between lying and bullshit. The main difference between the two is intent and deception. Both people who are lying and people who are telling the truth are focused on the truth. The liar wants to steer people away from discovering the truth and the person telling the truth wants to present the truth. The bullshitter differs from both liars and people presenting the truth with their disregard of the truth. Frankfurt explains how bullshitters or people who are bullshitting are distinct as they are not focused on the truth. A person who communicates bullshit is not interested in whether what (s)he says is true or false, only in its suitability for his or her purpose.[14] In his book, Frankfurt[13] defines: shit, bull session and bull. This is done in a lexicographical manner which breaks down the word bullshit and examines each component. The components of the word bullshit highlights the corresponding terms that encompass the overall meaning of the word bullshit: useless, insignificance and nonsense.[13]


Next, Frankfurt focuses on the complete word, and its implications and acceptance. He presents an example of advice provided to a child from his father which encourages choosing bullshit over lying when possible.[15] Frankfurt gives two reasons for the different levels of consequences between bullshit and lying. First, the liar is viewed as being purposefully deceitful or harmful because of the accompanying intent behind the act. Second, the person who bullshits lacks the kind of intention characteristic of the liar. Producing bullshit requires no knowledge of the truth. The liar is intentionally avoiding the truth and the bullshitter may potentially be telling the truth or providing elements of the truth without the intention of doing so.[16] Frankfurt believes bullshitters and the growing acceptance of bullshit is more harmful to society than liars and lying. This is because liars actively consider the truth when they conceal it whereas bullshitters completely disregard the truth. "Bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."[1] Frankfurt believes that while bullshit may be tolerated more, it is much more harmful.


Frankfurt concludes his book by discussing the rise of bullshit.[13] He does not argue that there is more bullshit in society now than there was in the past. He explains that all forms of communications have increased leading to more bullshit being seen, read and heard. He states that the social expectation for individuals to have and express their opinions on all matters requires more bullshit.[17] Despite a lack of knowledge on a subject matter, for example politics, religion or art, there is an expectation to participate in the conversation and provide an opinion. This opinion is likely to be bullshit at times as it is not based on fact and research. The opinion is motivated by a disregard of the truth with a desire to appear knowledgeable or adequately opinionated. Frankfurt acknowledges that bullshitting may not always be intentional but believes that ultimately it is performed with a disregard and carelessness of the truth.[18] Frankfurt argues that this rise in bullshit is dangerous as it accepts and enables a growing disregard of the truth.


The responses to Frankfurt's work have varied greatly. Since the publication it has been discussed, adapted, praised and criticized.[19] It has received a positive reception by many academics,[20] is considered remarkable by some,[21] and its popularity amongst the public is evident with its status as a best seller for many weeks.[22] His work has also received criticisms. One of the main criticisms has been that the work is overly simplistic[20] and too narrow:[23] that the book does not acknowledge the many dynamic factors involved in communication, or the dynamic nature of truth.[20] This criticism also explains that the work is limited in its analysis of other motives and forms of bullshit aside from one stemming from a lack of concern for the truth.[23] One critic notes that the book does not mention, or dismisses, the audience's ability to detect bullshit:[19] that Frankfurt's explanation of bullshit presents a narrative where bullshit goes unnoticed or is easily excusable by its audience.[24] Another critic points to the book's failure to rewrite the original essay to include an acknowledgement or discussion of criticism and accounting for any of the new developments and ideas within psychology and philosophy for the publication of his book.[25]


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.


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_OC_InitNavbar("child_node":["title":"My library","url":" =114584440181414684107\u0026source=gbs_lp_bookshelf_list","id":"my_library","collapsed":true,"title":"My History","url":"","id":"my_history","collapsed":true,"title":"Books on Google Play","url":" ","id":"ebookstore","collapsed":true],"highlighted_node_id":"");On BullshitHarry G. FrankfurtPrinceton University Press, 10 Jan 2009 - Philosophy - 80 pages 33 ReviewsReviews aren't verified, but Google checks for and removes fake content when it's identifiedA #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLEROne 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. 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, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."Frankfurt, one of the world's most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory here. With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.


ON BULLSHIT By Harry G. Frankfurt PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright 2005 Princeton University Press All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4008-2653-7 Chapter One ON BULLSHIT 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. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not-or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept. Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely-simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning. For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean. Nonetheless it should be possible to say something helpful, even though it is not likely to be decisive. Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked. So far as I am aware, very little work has been done on this subject. I have not undertaken a survey of the literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it. To be sure, there is one quite obvious place to look-the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has an entry for bullshit in the supplementary volumes, and it also has entries for various pertinent uses of the word bull and for some related terms. I shall consider some of these entries in due course. I have not consulted dictionaries in languages other than English, because I do not know the words for bullshit or bull in any other language. Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black. I am uncertain just how close in meaning the word humbug is to the word bullshit. Of course, the words are not freely and fully interchangeable; it is clear that they are used differently. But the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters, than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me most. It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!" than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall assume that there is no other important difference between the two. Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery. This list of quaint equivalents is not very helpful. But Black also confronts the problem of establishing the nature of humbug more directly, and he offers the following formal definition: HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes. A very similar formulation might plausibly be offered as enunciating the essential characteristics of bullshit. As a preliminary to developing an independent account of those characteristics, I will comment on the various elements of Black's definition. Deceptive misrepresentation: This may sound pleonastic. No doubt what Black has in mind is that humbug is necessarily designed or intended to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation. Now if, as a matter of conceptual necessity, an intention to deceive is an invariable feature of humbug, then the property of being humbug depends at least in part upon the perpetrator's state of mind. It cannot be identical, accordingly, with any properties-either inherent or relational-belonging just to the utterance by which the humbug is perpetrated. In this respect, the property of being humbug is similar to that of being a lie, which is identical neither with the falsity nor with any of the other properties of the statement the liar makes, but which requires that the liar makes his statement in a certain state of mind-namely, with an intention to deceive. It is a further question whether there are any features essential to humbug or to lying that are not dependent upon the intentions and beliefs of the person responsible for the humbug or the lie, or whether it is, on the contrary, possible for any utterance whatsoever to be-given that the speaker is in a certain state of mind-a vehicle of humbug or of a lie. In some accounts of lying there is no lie unless a false statement is made; in others a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true, as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends by making it to deceive. What about humbug and bullshit? May any utterance at all qualify as humbug or bullshit, given that (so to speak) the utterer's heart is in the right place, or must the utterance have certain characteristics of its own as well? Short of lying: It must be part of the point of saying that humbug is "short of lying" that while it has some of the distinguishing characteristics of lies, there are others that it lacks. But this cannot be the whole point. After all, every use of language without exception has some, but not all, of the characteristic features of lies-if no other, then at least the feature simply of being a use of language. Yet it would surely be incorrect to describe every use of language as short of lying. Black's phrase evokes the notion of some sort of continuum, on which lying occupies a certain segment while humbug is located exclusively at earlier points. What continuum could this be, along which one encounters humbug only before one encounters lying? Both lying and humbug are modes of misrepresentation. It is not at first glance apparent, however, just how the difference between these varieties of misrepresentation might be construed as a difference in degree. Especially by pretentious word or deed: There are two points to notice here. First, Black identifies humbug not only as a category of speech but as a category of action as well; it may be accomplished either by words or by deeds. Second, his use of the qualifier "especially" indicates that Black does not regard pretentiousness as an essential or wholly indispensable characteristic of humbug. Undoubtedly, much humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover, "pretentious bullshit" is close to being a stock phrase. But I am inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as its motive. Misrepresentation ... of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes: This provision that the perpetrator of humbug is essentially misrepresenting himself raises some very central issues. To begin with, whenever a person deliberately misrepresents anything, he must inevitably be misrepresenting his own state of mind. It is possible, of course, for a person to misrepresent that alone-for instance, by pretending to have a desire or a feeling which he does not actually have. But suppose that a person, whether by telling a lie or in another way, misrepresents something else. Then he necessarily misrepresents at least two things. He misrepresents whatever he is talking about-i.e., the state of affairs that is the topic or referent of his discourse-and in doing this he cannot avoid misrepresenting his own mind as well. Thus someone who lies about how much money he has in his pocket both gives an account of the amount of money in his pocket and conveys that he believes this account. If the lie works, then its victim is twice deceived, having one false belief about what is in the liar's pocket and another false belief about what is in the liar's mind. Now it is unlikely that Black wishes the referent of humbug to be in every instance the state of the speaker's mind. There is no particular reason, after all, why humbug may not be about other things. Black probably means that humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point. Understanding Black along these lines suggests a hypothesis to account for his characterization of humbug as "short of lying." If I lie to you about how much money I have, then I do not thereby make an explicit assertion concerning my beliefs. Therefore, one might with some plausibility maintain that although in telling the lie I certainly misrepresent what is in my mind, this misrepresentation-as distinct from my misrepresentation of what is in my pocket-is not strictly speaking a lie at all. For I do not come right out with any statement whatever about what is in my mind. Nor does the statement I do affirm-e.g., "I have twenty dollars in my pocket"-imply any statement that attributes a belief to me. On the other hand, it is unquestionable that in so affirming, I provide you with a reasonable basis for making certain judgments about what I believe. In particular, I provide you with a reasonable basis for supposing that I believe I have twenty dollars in my pocket. Since this supposition is by hypothesis false, I do in telling the lie tend to deceive you concerning what is in my mind even though I do not actually tell a lie about that. In this light, it does not seem unnatural or inappropriate to regard me as misrepresenting my own beliefs in a way that is "short of lying." It is easy to think of familiar situations by which Black's account of humbug appears to be unproblematically confirmed. Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about "our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind." This is surely humbug. As Black's account suggests, the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs that he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine gu


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