Book Review: On Bullshit

I must have a fascination with books with the word bullshit in the title, as On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt is the second I’ve read in the last twelve months (the other one was Another Bullshit Night in Suck City).

Frankfurt, a Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, has written a delightful half-book (half-book =< 100 pages). In this book, Frankfurt proposes to “begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit.”  You know you are in for a good time when the first sentence of the book is “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.”  Frankfurt asserts that even though bullshit is all around us, “the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.”

Given the massive proliferation of blogging, this seems like a highly relevant topic to explore, as anyone that reads blogs knows that bullshit is everywhere.  The basis of Frankfurt’s discussion is that lying and bullshit are different constructs, as a liar cares about the “truth-value” (e.g. the notion that what he is saying is false) while the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truthfulness of the statement or idea he is discussing.  Frankfurt suggests that “bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  Thus the production of bullshit 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.” 

Sound familiar – or is this just more self-referential or recursive bullshit?

  • This sounds like an intellectually adventourous journey through the multifaceted world of bullshit – sustained inquiry and deliberate concern of this important part of society is a serious void in academia.

    Just kidding. I think what’s really missing in this area is a how-to for ID’ing bullshit. I always follow this golden rule: if it looks like shit, and smells like shit, then it probably is: shit.

  • Dave Jilk

    His distinction between lying and bullshitting is an interesting one. Where does he place the construct of “spin”? Spin is what is used in sales, marketing, professional (as opposed to amateur/blog) politics, and any situation involving persuasion or manipulation. With Spin, one uses a combination of facts, omission of material facts, intentionally emotional and ambiguous language and loosely defined superlatives to advance an agenda by making the strongest statement possible without saying something provably false. In Spin, the speaker/writer cares greatly about the truth value, but only to the extent that it is not provably false (rather than whether it is an accurate reflection of reality).

    I find Spin to be far more insidious than Bullshit (on the definition you provided). I can usually tell a bullshitter because they eventually say something blatantly stupid. On the other hand, many people I know do a lot of Spinning. Take this phrase:

    “Given the massive proliferation of blogging, this seems like a highly relevant topic to explore, as anyone that reads blogs knows that bullshit is everywhere.”

    Wouldn’t the reader have been better served by stating it as follows (yes, you’re mainly prone to superlatives):

    “Given the proliferation of blogging, this seems like a relevant topic to explore, as anyone that reads blogs knows that bullshit is common.”

    Interesting also is my experience with the *traditional* media. In general I have found that when I read an article in the mainstream media about a topic in which I am highly knowledgeable, there are many supposed facts and interpretations that are just plain wrong, mostly because the writer doesn’t understand the topic. Thus I would assume that the same is true on topics I am less knowledgeable about. Consequently, I would conclude that bullshit is also very common in the mainstream media, since they are talking about something they don’t know much about. Arguably, they care about the truth value, though.

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