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On Bullshit

By Harry G. Frankfurt

copyright 2005 by Princeton University Press

A book review.

“Because there is so much of it,” is the author’s contention. That is why Professor Emeritus Frankfurt began his quest to develop “a theoretical understanding” of bullshit.

This work began as a twenty-five page essay, which the editors at Princeton University Press thought might make a good book, if one played with the font and the margins a little. It looks something like a classic Beatrix Potter book, save that it is slightly thicker, has no pictures and little conversation, and is much less accessible if quite as dry prose. Of course, if your regular reading diet is hastily written high school students’ essays, the occasional Newsweek article and Harry Potter, On Bullshit is a refreshing challenge.

Harry G. Frankfurt enjoyed a long career as a philosophy professor at Princeton University. This book joins his other publications, which include The Reasons of Love, Necessity, Volition and Love, and The Importance of What We Care About. In On Bullshit, Prof. Frankfurt adds to the body of thought on truth and falsehood. While On Bullshit at first seems to dwell on drawing fine distinctions between terms, closer reading reveals that this is an exploration of a different kind of falsehood, and that the distinction Frankfurt draws marks a significant difference in conceptualization. According to Frankfurt, bullshit is distinct from a lie because a lie requires that the liar understand the truth, have a regard for it as an enemy and have a motivation to conceal the truth. Bullshit is generated when the bullshitter simply does not care what the truth is, but rather wishes to represent some image of himself or herself that is impressive, but not truth.

Frankfurt draws the analogy between shoddily produced goods and bullshit. There is the same laxity, the same lack of concern for the details of the product, and the same wish for the end product to seem as good as if it were carefully crafted. The first example of verbal bullshit is a conversation between Ludwig Wittgenstein and Fania Pascal. She had just had her tonsils out, and declares that she feels “just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein was “disgusted” and tells Fania “you don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.” His disgust arose from Fania’s apparent lack of concern for the truth of her feelings. She wasn’t conveying the exact state of her health; she was trying to make a harrowing-sounding metaphor. It wasn’t a lie because she really did feel bad. It was bullshit because she didn’t know and didn’t care what it was really like to be small, helpless, uncomprehending and recently bashed by a ton of metal.

Bullshit is generated, Frankfurt proposes, when a person feels pressured either by his situation or position to have a fine-sounding opinion on a topic without sufficient information. The statement may not in fact be false. An instance of not-false bullshit might be a person who has no intimate knowledge of computers asserting that computers are very useful. Such a person might then go on to say that a computer would be a useful thing in a classroom. This could be true. The statement is bullshit, however, because the person talking has not used a computer for anything, and has certainly never explored its uses in the classroom. The speaker’s intent renders the statement bullshit, for his intent is to show that really he is quite knowledgeable and is moreover quite a progressive in matters of education.

This book attempts “a tentative and exploratory analysis” of bullshit. It explores what bullshit is and why it is different from what it is not. Whether the study of this particular form of falsehood will ever become large and determined, I cannot say. All I can say is that this theoretical discussion has helped me put my finger on the very source of my annoyance with the political exploitation of educational issues. That, indeed, is bullshit. If I may…

One issue that particularly irked me was the Clinton era determination to put all US students into school uniforms. Politicians and parents embraced the idea. Uniforms were supposed to end distractions in the classroom, and were supposed to erase the distinctions between the haves and the have-nots. Those two statements are false, according to the observations of teachers who work in schools that use uniforms.. Regardless of the falsity, the statement is bullshit. Very few of the politicians advocating the uniforms were educators. The parents were not educators, and had never struggled with the reality of uniforms. They idealized the problem-solving potential of one style of clothing while demonizing the problem-causing potential of another style of clothing. Problem created, problem solved. Pure bullshit. Had any of those policy makers consulted even a small number of teachers who were familiar with uniforms (should they *gasp* ask a Catholic school teacher?), they might have found that in fact school uniforms are anathema to the cause of public education.

School uniforms were nevertheless tried in many districts. My colleagues and I had a pleasant chortle when reading about the difficulties teachers had enforcing uniform policies and about the problems uniforms didn’t solve. This is the danger, if danger is not too strong a word, of bullshit. Because bullshit has no concern for truth, but bullshit does seem so much like the truth, bullshitters eventually lose a grasp of truth. An unsuspecting audience embraces the bullshit as if it were truth, and finds itself committing a great deal and getting nothing in return.

A reading of On Bullshit may give some the relief I experienced. Some of the relief may come from the image of a kindly old man using a very naughty word in such a thoughtful and scholarly context. It made it all right for me to use it, too. With a definition and a theory holstered, I can point to an incident, a statement or a person and declare bullshit with confidence. I do not have to rely on my feelings to measure the encounter, nor do I have to give merit to sincerity in the company of bullshit. Read, and be liberated. Liberated from bullshit.

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