Sun, 22 May 2005

On Bullshit

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes aired as story, Ivy League Prof Sifts Through BS. While watching it, I ordered a copy of On Bullshit from Barnes and Noble.

This little 4 by 6 inch, 67 page, hardbound book is an essay by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus, of Princeton University. It purports to be a serious effort to "begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit."

Watching the 60 Minutes piece and reading the book was epiphanic for me. I finally understood what had perplexed me so many times before. I know a consummate bullshitter and have never understood, why, when armed with perfectly valid facts, he chooses to spout total BS instead. Now I know that bullshitters don't care to make any determination about the facts. The facts hold no meaning for them. It's all about the presentation and getting the desired response. Facts be damned.

Frankfurt says:

One who is concerned to report or to conceal facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

Frankfurt also seems to believe that BS is more insidious than outright lying:

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although 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 bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as a liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is the greater enemy of truth than lies are.

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