On Bullshit Paperback – 14 Jul 2016
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Frankfurt makes a distinction between lying and BSing. “It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing BS requires no such conviction.”
“The liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood… The essence of BS is not that it is false but that it is phony… to bluff one’s way through (something) by talking nonsense… Although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The BSer is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”
“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth” are both responding to the facts. “The response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The BSer ignores these demands altogether… He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, BS is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
“So why is there so much BS?”
“BS is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of BS is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled–whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.” This reminds me of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias wherein incompetent people are overconfident.
“The contemporary proliferation of BS also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality… One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.” This implies that political correctness and the academic climate of no wrong answers have played a role in making BS a socially acceptable alternative to truth.
The author makes an amusing analogy between hot air and excrement. “Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.” However, given that manure is widely used as fertilizer, I think this statement is an unintentional example of BS.
Frankfurt contradicts himself when he states on page 53 that BS “is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the ‘BS artist.’” On page 22 he made the opposite assertion. “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of BS so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who—with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth—dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.”
While only 67 4×6-inch pages, the book contains a lot of extraneous rambling before the author gets to his point. For example, on page five Frankfurt refers to Max Black, author of The Prevalence of Humbug. “Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery. This list of quaint equivalents of is not very helpful.” If it is not helpful, then why bring it up? Frankfurt is a master of verbosity.
This book has some giggle value as a gag gift. Or leave a copy on your coffee table to start a conversation.
Professor Frankfurt attempts to differentiate bulls***'s characteristics with other pertinent terms such as humbug, lie, and bluff. Humbug is homogeneous to lie in terms of the property of misrepresentation but humbug is heterogeneous to lie since the perpetrator of humbug is primarily designed to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in his mind but he does not think he knows the truth whereas a liar requires a conviction that he knows the truth and tries to conceal it. In terms of property of misrepresentation, humbug is germane to bulls*** but it does not grasp central characteristics of bulls*** in full.
By adopting Wittgenstein's biographical materials in Pascal story, Professor Frankfurt develops an independent account of bulls***. First, bulls*** is analogous to hot air. What come out from the mouth of a bulls***ter is mere vapor and what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true. Second, the essence of lie is its degree of falsity but bulls*** is a matter of its fakery. We cannot accuse a bulls***ter of lying but of making gibberish of another sort because bulls*** is produced without concern with the truth but it needs not be false. A bulls***ter is neither on the side of true nor on the side of the false. Third, the focus of bulls*** conversation is more panoramic than particular and a bulls***ter has much more freedom because he is not obliged to design his fakery under the guidance of truth.
The adage "never tell a lie when you can bulls*** your way through" implies that our attitude towards bulls*** is more benign than our attitude towards lying but bulls*** is a great enemy of truth than lies are. It is unavoidable and stimulated whenever circumstances require someone to speak about a topic which exceeds his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. Moreover, Professor Frankfurt maintains that people in the contemporary world do not believe in the existence of objective reality so that they can evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world without any concern of the truth.
This book is not too lengthy and Professor Frankfurt attempts to employ the term and phenomenon of bulls*** to pour ridicule on our human nature. With a high degree of intellectual humor and cutting-edge insights, this book is highly recommended to readers who are interested in thinking hard about the paradox of our contemporary world circumvented by bulls***.