What’s so revolting about bullshitting?

Rereading Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit,’ which was originally published in 1986, only to become a surprise bestseller when it came out in book form in 2005, leaves one with the impression that Frankfurt has put his finger on a phenomenon that has, since then, grown uncomfortably, grotesquely large. When he writes that ‘bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are,’ he rightly signals the fact that bullshit is indeed a great threat to the viability of an honest, truth-seeking culture and to the philosophical enterprise. If bullshit is so pervasive these days, as I think it is, then no wonder that philosophy is so endangered.

Part of the appeal of this essay is owing to the sense of unblinking earnestness, the unstinting steadfastness of a man who is plying his trade–conceptual analysis–on the most ordinary of ordinary language: bullshit and bullshitting. When he asks, ‘What is bullshit?,’ he is not bullshitting us: he really wants to know what it is and, I do not doubt, very much wants us to care enough to follow along him as he embarks upon and deepens his conceptual inquiry. For the best riposte to bullshit is not just to stop it (to cut the shit out) but also to show how to conduct oneself in a bullshit-free sort of way.

The target I have in sight, of course, is a ‘bullshit artist,’ whom I take to be the consultant and to whom I turn at the end of this blog post. (The sophist, perhaps unfairly by Plato, was thought to be the first bullshitter, but that is another story for another day.) What Frankfurt, in this delicate, well-directed essay, wants to draw into focus are two conditions for something’s being bullshit. One is that the speaker is unconcerned with being accurate about his statements. This indifference cuts to the heart of things: whether one speaks truly or falsely or neither is not even in question. The other is that the speaker is trying to get away with something, to pull something off. Bullshit, then, is the kind of empty talk aiming, by means of being unconcerned with the truth, to pull something off.

I think Frankfurt has things about right, but I also believe he missed an opportunity to tug further on this thread. I think what is most distinctive about bullshitting is the bullshitter’s care for efficacy. His talk of ‘getting away with something’ or of ‘pulling something off’ calls to mind a stunt. And this seems to be more or less what a bullshitter is after: not a con but a stunt. He performs, he puts on this stunt in order to give off a certain impression. But what kind of impression?

The impression is that he knows something that he does not or may not know.   Better:

  • A bullshitter wants to give his listeners the impression that he knows what he is talking about when he is very much in doubt about this in order to pull off his stunt (e.g., get a good grade, be well-liked, be well-paid, impress his clients, etc.).

‘Why,’ asks Frankfurt, ‘is there so much bullshit around today?’ One answer he gives puts us on the right track:

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 are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Here is where the pragmatist consultant comes. He wants what is useful to say and believe. Sometimes, saying something truthy is useful; sometimes making shit up is. It’s all one to him. Recall that he is brought in from elsewhere, he has his schtick, and he is supposed to enlighten the organization about something or other. In the circumstances where he is supposed to know but doesn’t, in fact, know what he is talking about (that is, usually), he spews empty talk of all sorts–buzzwords, jingo, argot–and resorts frequently to charts, to models, to diagrams. Sure there is fakery; sure it’s a stunt that, if he is good at it, he gets to perform over and over again in front of different people. Some bullshitters, quite apart from being insincere, are utterly shameless.

By now, it should be clear that the consultant is the antagonist of the philosopher. Where the philosopher cares for truth and the revelation of ignorance, the pragmatist consultant as bullshit artist is indifferent to both of these and, by virtue of succeeding at being indifferent, helps to train others in this indifference. Hence, he is a trainer whose program involves producing a culture whose indifference to getting things right should be repulsive.