“On Bullsh*t”

July 12, 2008 at 6:58 am | Posted in Nonfiction, Philosophy | Leave a comment

(November 29, 2007)

A hardbound book by a college professor entitled On Bullsh*t?  Complete with footnotes, references to Wittgenstein and St. Augustine, and the word ‘procrustean’?  Is it my birthday?

On Bullsh*t, written by Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, was published in 2005.  I find the book ironic because its presentation suggests a joke book, yet its message is fairly hard-hitting.  It starts out with an attempt to define BS and asks why there is so much of it, and 60 pages later we find ourselves at a major crossroads of moral philosophy.

What is the difference between BS and lying?  A lie requires the intent to deceive, whether the actual statement is true or not.  For example, if you beat on my motel room door and ask to speak to your husband, and I say, “He’s not here,” I am lying – even if, unbeknownst to me, he just snuck out the bathroom window.  A lie has to do with facts.  BS, on the other hand (eww), is a different story.

Frankfurt begins his exploration by comparing BS with humbug.  He suggests that there is a spectrum of truths and untruths, with several shades between that are not honest but not precisely lies, either.  Humbug has to do with a misrepresentation of truth for the purpose of influencing what others think of you.  It may not involve lying at all, even though it is an intentional manipulation of perception for the benefit of one’s ego.

BS also exists somewhere on the truth continuum.  Unlike humbug, it is not always motivated by pretentiousness.  Rather, it is defined by a sense of sloppiness, getting away with something, and not bothering with accuracy.  BS is not false as much as it is fake or phony – not necessarily inferior in quality to “the real thing,” but trying to pass itself off as such.  BS is very close in definition to “hot air.”  As a task, BS involves anything that is more concerned with tradition, reputation, or ceremony than utility, i.e. TPS Reports or what is commonly known as a “dog and pony show.”

The attitude toward BS tends to be more benign than toward lying.  Frankfurt says lying is “more austere and rigorous” because it requires strict attention to specific details and a regard for whether something is true or false.  BS, in contrast, is totally unconcerned with any truth value.  As such, BS makes a person unfit to tell the truth.

Here we come to the crux of the discussion.  Frankfurt says, “[BS] is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”  It comes from any occasion when a person has to speak extensively about matters concerning which he is ignorant.  Or, more clearly, “[BS] is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”  (This is especially true whenever someone starts tossing out statistics – at least, 97 percent of the time).  Why do people spew BS all the time?  Frankfurt says we feel we have a responsibility, as conscious moral agents, to evaluate events and conditions and to have opinions about everything.  We are concerned with being true to ourselves, not to the facts.  In conclusion, “sincerity itself is [BS]” because our natures are “elusively insubstantial.”

I had a teacher in high school – for AP US History – who used to mark up our papers with great attention.  He would write, sometimes across an entire page, “Be Specific.”  It was frustrating, but it inculcated a greater discipline and focus.  I shudder to think how my blog postings would be evaluated in academe.  Perhaps “BS” really should stand for “Blog-o-Sphere.”


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