Monday, February 07, 2005

"On Bullshit"

Harry Frankfurt's classic essay has now been published as a book. I was a bit confused by this, at first, assuming that Frankfurt must have extended the original article to make a monograph (of 80 pages). But no: it's the very same essay, printed with big letters on small pages, like one of those student assignments in which manipulations of font and margin are meant to hide a chronic lack of material.

The book makes a nice gift, I think. And although it is very short, the material is amazingly good. I particularly like the style, which is not only witty, but a comment on its own topic. Consider this passage from the beginning of "On Bullshit":
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.
The message is: no bullshit here, no pretence, telling it like is. By the end of the essay, however, the style seems to have changed, the rhetoric has a different pitch:
But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
I don't see how it follows from Frankfurt's theory of bullshit — as talk that is unconcerned with truth, indifferent to how things really are — and the fact (if it is a fact) that our natures are insubstantial and hard to know, that sincerity is bullshit. You are still concerned with the truth if you mistakenly believe that your nature is in some respect determinate. Our natures are in some respects determinate, at least approximately so; and approximation is not bullshit. And you can be sincere in representing indeterminacy, even if you know you won't get it exactly right.

Frankfurt's paper begins with some modest and amusing remarks: no bullshit. And it ends with a passage that seems serious but is (I think) partly just bull. It is hard to deny, however, that the ending feels "deep". Is Frankfurt making a point on the sly, about the reasons, or one reason, why bullshit has such appeal?

2 Comments:

Anonymous Charles Stewart said...

I was caught out by Frankfurt's rhetoric when I read the essay first, a couple of years ago:

On bullshit, a lucid and humane exposition that succeeds in bringing discipline and intellectual rigour to this crucial, but underanalysed, category of discourse.

That was meant to be ironic, but the irony didn't really work.

1:59 PM  
Blogger Edward H. Binns said...

Frankfurt is very logical in his conclusion, with its connection between sincerity and bullshit:

"Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know."

Going back 3,000 years to the Homeric legends and Greek tragedies, the classic path of failure and tragedy accompanies the protagonist who does not know himself.


Because man is a social animal, he is always looking outward to other people and what they are doing and saying. It's just not possible to do this and simultaneously analyze oneself with photographic accuracy. Thus, "sincerity," the presentation of one's personality and values accurately, real time, involves guessing. Such guessing is necessarily bluffing.

There is, therefore, in the adoption of a sincere personality, an element of indifference to accuracy. Frankfurt has correctly defined bullshit as an indifference to truth (rather than an intentional representation of lies). And thus, yes, sincerity itself is bullshit.

This is a very hard truth, the punchline of Frankfurt's argument. And it is not well received by those who are proud of their sincerity.

5:51 AM  

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