On On Bullshit. (Or, “Ich bin ein Frankfurter!”)

Harry Frankfurt is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Princeton. “Emeritus” in this case means “too old to be a threat to younger members of faculty”, although “Philosophy” in this case means “a subject nobody in the United States takes seriously anyway”. Princeton is one of the most prestigious of the so-called Ivy League “liberal arts” colleges, and also one of the most nominally liberal. Thus it is not a full-blown establishment institution like Harvard or Yale — which gave the conspicuously unacademic George W Bush the degree with which he did nothing of consequence before becoming (thanks to his Daddy the President) Governor of Texas and eventually, President in his turn. Nor is it a conservative technocratic institution like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where Noam Chomsky works) although Princeton does host the Institute for Advanced Studies (where Albert Einstein worked, although he produced no workable theories while he was there).

All that this means is that maybe Frankfurt works for an institution which can be taken seriously, though Frankfurt himself might be a pea-brained blowhard. Is he? It takes a certain amount of guts for an American and an academic to produce a book — actually, a short essay printed up in a small well-bound volume — called On Bullshit. After all, no country in the last two centuries has contributed more to bullshit than the United States, and few professions — outside law and public relations — contribute much more to bullshit than those of academia.

Frankfurt modestly does not try to claim to understand all of bullshit. He argues that it is a decidedly neglected field and that he wishes only to try to establish first principles in it — provide guidance towards the development of a theory of bullshit. That’s a worthy goal, to be sure. It’s also a goal which suggests that Frankfurt is not trying to bullshit his audience.

As a philosopher should, he starts out with the basics. Is bullshit equivalent to other better-understood terms, such as humbug? Is it simply another name for lies? No, he says; humbug seems to be related to bullshit, but definitions of humbug seem narrower than that of bullshit. On the other hand, it seems to be possible to bullshit without necessarily telling lies. (Towards the end of the volume he quotes Eric Ambler, “Never, never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through”.)

The Creator suspects that sometimes Frankfurt’s etymology lets him down. Frankfurt equates “bull sessions” with “bullshit sessions”, but the Creator doubts that this is legitimate. Most probably these sessions, originally undertaken by such figures as advertising executives, are intended to identify these people as the lead bulls in the herd, and the fact that they extrude gigantically more shit than other bulls, far from being a defining feature, is artistically neglected in such contexts.

Frankfurt goes off on what seems like a tangent about Wittgenstein — almost certainly this is, in part, meant to show us that Frankfurt takes his philosophy seriously. Wittgenstein, who constructed a Tower of Babel of precise philosophical structures, only to acknowledge that it was a load of crap and tear it down with a theory of language-games and the impossibility of attaining such precision in the last portion of his life, is a big, serious bloke who at the same time is a hoot. Sometimes he is inadvertently a hoot, as in the example quoted in the book, an example which takes the call for precision in language beyond the call of philosophical duty. Even Frankfurt admits that in this instance Wittgenstein was a bloody odious idiot, but when he deconstructs his statement, Frankfurt points out that his chief criterion was seriousness; that one should genuinely pursue the truth rather than making statements the truth of which could not be verified.

Aha. If Wittgenstein were President, we should probably be engaged in a War on Bullshit. But what would we be making war on? Is bullshit simply imprecision and vagueness?

No, says Frankfurt, finally getting down to brass tacks. Imprecision and vagueness is a tactic for bullshit, just as lying is, just as misrepresentation is. (Frankfurt even quotes St Augustine, who felt that lying was all right as long as you got something out of it — since St Augustine’s religion is based on a bookload of big fat lies and he served the Lords of the Lie all his life, this is startling but not surprising.) But bullshit is not a neutral thing.

Bullshit is where you have something which you want someone else to do, or refrain from doing. You want this because their doing, or not doing, something will act to your advantage. For some reason, you are not in a position to persuade that person, or those persons, by logical argument or any other legitimate means. Therefore you proceed by constructing an artificial construct of lies, misrepresentations, imprecise statements and various truths cherry-picked to sustain arguments in favour of the action or inaction you desire. Bullshit is the simulation of an argument rather than the thing itself; it always has huge holes in it which the object of bullshit is expected not to notice — and indeed much of the bullshit is designed to cover up those holes.

One interesting thing which Frankfurt also says about bullshit, and which may be true, is that it is not necessarily resented as much as lies. As in the Eric Ambler quote, if you tell a lie, you will probably get into trouble if caught. If you stand up in court and say “I was nowhere near that ATM machine on the 15th” and then the courtroom watches the CCTV video of you packing gelignite against the ATM machine and running the det cable away from it, you will not only go down for the crime, you face the possibility of a perjury charge on top of it. On the other hand, if you explain that when you were little your mother almost smothered you with a twenty rand note and you can find psychiatrists to testify that you have always hated money (improper toilet training) plus you bring a raft of Trotskyites into the courtroom to give evidence that property is theft and money ought to be abolished, maybe you will get some years knocked off your sentence. Bullshit baffles brains; lies, when exposed, alert them.

But why should this be? A lie is intended to fool you. But bullshit is a whole structure intended to fool you. It is a generalised fraud rather than a specific one, and it sucks you in much more than a lie does — accepting the bullshit, you become complicit, whereas if a person is lied to and does not know the truth, nobody can be blamed for being taken in. So the Creator would have thought that bullshit would arouse more resentment, and garner more punishment, than lies. Why should it be the other way around?

A puzzler. Frankfurt, instead of responding directly to this, devotes the last part of his thesis to another issue, the question of whether there is more bullshit now than there used to be. He sidesteps this, partly because he has no objective information (indeed, has not looked for any). Instead, he points out that bullshit will be generated whenever people are obliged to talk about things they don’t understand. (Reversing Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one remain silent”, many many people insist on talking in the absence of information on the topic or any capability of generating reasoned relevant arguments or even appropriate questions. This makes the Creator very cross, and Frankfurt somewhat grumpy.) The question whether this is happening more than it used to, and if so, why, Frankfurt leaves open — which is disappointing.

More substantively (in theory, anyway), Frankfurt blames contemporary philosophical discourse. He says that anti-realism, the refusal to accept that an objective reality can ever be attained and therefore that the pursuit of such a reality is not worth attempting, is the problem. As a result, he says, what he calls the ideal of correctness has been replaced by what he calls the ideal of sincerity. This is a very moot point indeed, since in many cases “correctness” has been a cloak for bullshit and hence what was called devotion to this ideal was actually nothing of the kind; however, he has a point with regard to sincerity. The fact that one genuinely believes in something does not necessarily make it true; no doubt many people in Zimbabwe today genuinely believe in the righteousness of their causes, but this does not mean that they are not deluded people willingly manipulated by corrupt puppet-masters inside or outside the country.

Frankfurt also makes the point that by making sincerity their objective, people are valorising something which cannot be tested. If an economist says that poor people should have their salaries cut so that the money can be spent on hiring more people, is that a sincerely held viewpoint? There is simply no way of telling. Sincerity, indeed, can be artificially generated; if it is in your interest to hold a viewpoint (as in the case of an economist who knows that corporate consultancies are more likely to arrive if views are expressed which happen to benefit those corporations) then eventually you will probably come to believe that viewpoint. People do not usually persistently express opinions at variance with their principles; however, instead of the principles determining the opinions, the opinions often determine the principles. In other words, in the world of sincerity, bullshit trumps the truth — people bullshit themselves. Sometimes they do this in order to bullshit other people, sometimes they do it because they are bullshitting other people. Hence, says Frankfurt, sincerity is actually bullshit. (Or, perhaps to be more precise, you cannot bullshit anyone unless you can display sincerity, and the most effective way to display sincerity is to be sincere.)

This rather relates to the SACP now — but also, probably, to the ANC members who first hailed the development of the RDP Office in 1994 and then hailed its abolition in 1996. Bullshit seems to be an important way of avoiding or concealing the contradictions of politics even from oneself.

And that seems to be why bullshit is a more acceptable thing than lying. Officially, we are all supposed to oppose lies. Most of us get through life without telling more than a couple of lies an hour (unless we are in professions depending on telling lies, such as hairstylists). Most of us would prefer not to be lied to most of the time. But we are all bullshitters and we are quite happy to be bullshitted when it benefits us. If we live in a mansion, we desperately need the bullshit which protects us from thinking too deeply about people living in corrugated-iron shacks.

Of course we recognise bullshit when it does not benefit us, and particularly when it challenges us. There are no flies on us! (Except where we smear ourselves with bullshit — but we redefine those flies as winged arthropods of the species musca domestica, which makes it all right.) We cannot escape bullshit all the time.

Frankfurt does not explicitly express a solution, but it seems obvious that he would like people to return to the notion of the pursuit of truth and correctness. Thus, instead of filling the air with bullshit conspiracy theories, bullshit allegations of racism, bullshit claims of unfairness and bullshit claims of the revolution being in danger, we should simply ask ourselves questions of truth. Thus: are the charges against Jacob Zuma serious charges and are they backed by testable evidence? Can we find out whether he is guilty? Should we find this out? These questions have simple answers. The beauty of the bullshit which Zuma’s cabal generate is that there is no real answer to them — in many cases it is probably impossible to produce an answer and in others there is no hard sustaining evidence — but many people sincerely believe what Zuma’s cabal are saying. Thus bullshit is used to discourage people from pursuing the truth, and to encourage them to sincerely adopt bullshit positions.

It’s definitely a book worth glancing over. Frankfurt is — inevitably — not without his own bullshit. However, in that sense the book is self-deconstructing, because applying Frankfurt’s notions to his own book will help to clear the bullshit away. Certainly there is a valuable skeleton there. Plus, it is nice and short and handy to carry around. At least one academic from one country is working on a field for which he is well qualified and which potentially provides social value. Throw the man a few bucks.

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