Click to go to the Home Page
Back <<Back Printer Friendly Version Email this article to a friend Home

Harry Frankfurt on "Bullshit"


Harry Frankfurt on "BullShit"
   by Princeton University

PRINCETON, New Jersey - One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.
   But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical
   understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the
   rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a
   rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is
   not, or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less
   sketchily, the structure of its concept. Any suggestion about what
   conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the
   constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one
   thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely --
   simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal
   meaning. For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous
   that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being
   procrustean. Nonetheless it should be possible to say something
   helpful, even though it is not likely to be decisive. Even the most
   basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not
   only unanswered but unasked. So far as I am aware, very little work
   has been done on this subject. I have not undertaken a survey of the
   literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it. To be
   sure, there is one quite obvious place to look -- the Oxford English
   Dictionary. The OED has an entry for bullshit in the supplementary
   volumes, and it also has entries for various pertinent uses of the
   word bull and for some related terms. I shall consider some of these
   entries in due course. I have not consulted dictionaries in languages
   other than English, because I do not know the words for bullshit or
   bull in any other language.

   Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of
   Humbug by Max Black. I am uncertain just how close in meaning the word
   humbug is to the word bullshit. Of course, the words are not freely
   and fully interchangeable; it is clear that they are used differently.
   But the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with
   considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters,
   than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me
   most. It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!"
   than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall
   assume that there is no other important difference between the two,
   Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the
   following: "balderdash", "claptrap", "hokum", "drivel", "buncombe",
   "imposture", and "quackery". This list of quaint equivalents is not
   very helpful. But Black also confronts the problem of establishing the
   nature of humbug more directly, and he offers the following formal
   definition:

     Humbug: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by
     pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or
     attitudes.

   A very similar formulation might plausibly be offered as enunciating
   the essential characteristics of bullshit. As a preliminary to
   developing an independent account of those characteristics, I will
   comment on the various elements of Black's definition.

   Deceptive misrepresentation: This may sound pleonastic. No doubt what
   Black has in mind is that humbug is necessarily designed or intended
   to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In
   other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation. Now if, as a matter
   of conceptual necessity, an intention to deceive is an invariable
   feature of humbug, then the property of being humbug depends at least
   in part upon the perpetrator's state of mind. It cannot be identical,
   accordingly, with any properties -- either inherent or relational --
   belonging just to the utterance by which the humbug is perpetrated. In
   this respect, the property of being humbug is similar to that of being
   a lie, which is identical neither with the falsity nor with any of the
   other properties of the statement the liar makes, but which requires
   that the liar makes his statement in a certain state of mind --
   namely, with an intention to deceive. It is a further question whether
   there are any features essential to humbug or to lying that are not
   dependent upon the intentions and beliefs of the person responsible
   for the humbug or the lie, or whether it is, on the contrary, possible
   for any utterance whatsoever to be -- given that the speaker is in a
   certain state of mind -- a vehicle of humbug or of a lie. In some
   accounts of lying there is no lie unless a false statement is made; in
   others a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true,
   as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends
   by making it to deceive. What about humbug and bullshit? May any
   utterance at all qualify as humbug or bullshit, given that (so to
   speak) the utterer's heart is in the right place, or must the
   utterance have certain characteristics of its own as well?

   Short of lying: It must be part of the point of saying that humbug is
   "short of lying," that while it has some of the distinguishing
   characteristics of lies, there are others that it lacks. But this
   cannot be the whole point. After all, every use of language without
   exception has some, but not all, of the characteristic features of
   lies -- if no other, then at least the feature simply of being a use
   of language. Yet it would surely be incorrect to describe every use of
   language as short of lying. Black's phrase evokes the notion of some
   sort of continuum, on which lying occupies a certain segment while
   humbug is located exclusively at earlier points. What continuum could
   this be, along which one encounters humbug only before one encounters
   lying? Both lying and humbug are modes of misrepresentation. It is not
   at first glance apparent, however, just how the difference between
   these varieties of misrepresentation might be construed as a
   difference in degree.

   Especially by pretentious word or deed: There are two points to notice
   here. First, Black identifies humbug not only as a category of speech
   but as a category of action as well; it may be accomplished either by
   words or by deeds. Second, his use of the qualifier "especially"
   indicates that Black does not regard pretentiousness as an essential
   or wholly indispensable characteristic of humbug. Undoubtedly, much
   humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover,
   "pretentious bullshit" is close to being a stock phrase. But I am
   inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens
   because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive
   element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving
   pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make
   his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what
   accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be
   assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as
   its motive.

   Misrepresentation ... of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or
   attitudes: This provision that the perpetrator of humbug is
   essentially misrepresenting himself raises some very central issues.
   To begin with, whenever a person deliberately misrepresents anything,
   he must inevitably misrepresenting his own state of mind. It is
   possible, of course, for a person to misrepresent that alone -- for
   instance, by pretending to have a desire or a feeling which he does
   not actually have. But suppose that a person, whether by telling a lie
   or in another way, misrepresents something else. Then he necessarily
   misrepresents at least two things. He misrepresents whatever he is
   talking about -- i.e., the state of affairs that is the topic or
   referent of his discourse -- and in doing this he cannot avoid
   misrepresenting his own mind as well. Thus, someone who lies about how
   much money he has in his pocket both gives an account of the amount of
   money in his pocket and conveys that he believes this account. If the
   lie works, then its victim is twice deceived, having one false belief
   about what is in the liar's pocket and another false belief about what
   is in the liar's mind.

   Now it is unlikely that Black wishes that the referent of humbug is in
   every instance the state of the speaker's mind. There is no particular
   reason, after all, why humbug may not be about other things. Black
   probably means that humbug is not designed primarily to give its
   audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the
   topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a
   false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the
   speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is
   its main purpose and its point. Understanding Black along these lines
   suggests a hypothesis to account for his characterization of humbug as
   "short of lying." If I lie to you about how much money I have, then I
   do not thereby make an explicit assertion concerning my beliefs.
   Therefore, one might with some plausibility maintain that although in
   telling the lie I certainly misrepresent what is in my mind, this
   misrepresentation -- as distinct from my misrepresentation of what is
   in my pocket -- is not strictly speaking a lie at all. For I do not
   come right out with any statement whatever about what is in my mind.
   Nor does the statement I do affirm -- e.g., "I have twenty dollars in
   my pocket" -- imply any statement that attributes a belief to me. On
   the other hand, it is unquestionable that in so affirming, I provide
   you with a reasonable basis for making certain judgments about what I
   believe. In particular, I provide you with a reasonable basis for
   supposing that I believe there is twenty dollars in my pocket. Since
   this supposition is by hypothesis false, I do in telling the lie tend
   to deceive you concerning what is in my mind even though I do not
   actually tell a lie about that. In this light, it does not seem
   unnatural or inappropriate to regard me as misrepresenting my own
   beliefs in a way that is "short of lying." It is easy to think of
   familiar situations by which Black's account of humbug appears to be
   unproblematically confirmed. Consider a Fourth of July orator, who
   goes on bombastically about "our great and blessed country, whose
   Founding-Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for
   mankind." This is surely humbug. As Black's account suggests, the
   orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention
   to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as
   false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great,
   whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and
   whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for
   mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks
   about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our
   country's history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in
   what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It
   is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not
   fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false.
   Rather, just as Black's account suggests, the orator intends these
   statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying
   to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is
   what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot,
   as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and
   the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of
   religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose
   pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.
   Black's account of humbug appears, then, to fit certain paradigms
   quite snugly. Nonetheless, I do not believe that it adequately or
   accurately grasps the essential character of bullshit. It is correct
   to say of bullshit, as he says of humbug, both that it is short of
   lying and that chose who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a
   certain way. But Black's account of these two features is
   significantly off the mark. I shall next attempt to develop, by
   considering some biographical material pertaining to Ludwig
   Wittgenstein, a preliminary but more accurately focused appreciation
   of just what the central characteristics of bullshit are. Wittgenstein
   once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve
   him as a motto:

     In the elder days of art
     Builders wrought with greatest care
     Each minute and unseen part,
     For the Gods are everywhere.

   The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not
   cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every
   aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and
   each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These
   craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with
   respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be
   visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite
   right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So
   nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there
   was no bullshit.

   It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in
   some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance
   that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or
   self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the
   making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with
   detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very
   nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined?
   The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not
   designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may
   have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any
   case certainly not wrought.

   The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain
   inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and
   objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that
   forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness
   that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in
   fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising
   and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of
   politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that
   they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of
   the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated
   craftsmen who -- with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of
   market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing,
   and so forth -- dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word
   and image they produce exactly right.

   Yet there is something more to be said about this. However studiously
   and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he
   is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his
   work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity
   which resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere
   discipline. The pertinent mode of laxity cannot be equated, evidently,
   with simple carelessness or inattention to detail. I shall attempt in
   due course to locate it more correctly.

   Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying
   and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of
   "non-sense." He was apparently like that in his personal life as well.
   This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in
   Cambridge in the 1930s:

     I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling
     sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: "I feel just like
     a dog that has been run over." He was disgusted: "You don't know
     what a dog that has been run over feels like."

   Now who knows what really happened? It seems extraordinary, almost
   unbelievable, that anyone could object seriously to what Pascal
   reports herself as having said. That characterization of her feelings
   -- so innocently close to the utterly commonplace "sick as a dog" --
   is simply not provocative enough to arouse any response as lively or
   intense as disgust. If Pascal's simile is offensive, then what
   figurative or allusive uses of language would not be? So perhaps it
   did not really happen quite as Pascal says. Perhaps Wittgenstein was
   trying to make a small joke, and it misfired. He was only pretending
   to bawl Pascal out, just for the fun of a little hyperbole; and she
   got the tone and the intention wrong. She thought he was disgusted by
   her remark, when in fact he was only trying to cheer her up with some
   playfully exaggerated mock criticism or joshing. In that case the
   incident is not incredible or bizarre after all.

   But if Pascal failed to recognize that Wittgenstein was only teasing,
   then perhaps the possibility that he was serious was at least not so
   far out of the question. She knew him, and she knew what to expect
   from him; she knew how he made her feel. Her way of understanding or
   of misunderstanding his remark was very likely not altogether
   discordant, then, with her sense of what he was like. We may fairly
   suppose that even if her account of the incident is not strictly true
   to the facts of Wittgenstein's intention, it is sufficiently true to
   her idea of Wittgenstein to have made sense to her. For the purposes
   of this discussion, I shall accept Pascal's report at face value,
   supposing that when it came to the use of allusive or figurative
   language, Wittgenstein was indeed as preposterous as she makes him out
   to be.

   Then just what is it that the Wittgenstein in her report considers to
   be objectionable? Let us assume that he is correct about the facts:
   that is, Pascal really does not know how run-over dogs feel. Even so,
   when she says what she does, she is plainly not lying. She would have
   been lying if, when she made her statement, she was aware that she
   actually felt quite good. For however little she knows about the lives
   of dogs, it must certainly be clear to Pascal that when dogs are run
   over they do not feel good. So if she herself had in fact been feeling
   good, it would have been a lie to assert that she felt like a run-over
   dog.

   Pascal's Wittgenstein does not intend to accuse her of lying, but of
   misrepresentation of another sort. She characterizes her feeling as
   "the feeling of a run-over dog." She is not really acquainted,
   however, with the feeling to which this phrase refers. Of course, the
   phrase is far from being complete nonsense to her; she is hardly
   speaking gibberish. What she says has an intelligible connotation,
   which she certainly understands. Moreover, she does know something
   about the quality of the feeling to which the phrase refers: she knows
   at least that it is an undesirable and unenjoyable feeling, a bad
   feeling. The trouble with her statement is that it purports to convey
   something more than simply that she feels bad. Her characterization of
   her feeling is too specific; it is excessively particular. Hers is not
   just any bad feeling but, according to her account, the distinctive
   kind of bad feeling that a dog has when it is run over. To the
   Wittgenstein in Pascal's story, judging from his response, this is
   just bullshit.

   Now assuming that Wittgenstein does indeed regard Pascal's
   characterization of how she feels as an instance of bullshit, why does
   it strike him that way? It does so, I believe, because he perceives
   what Pascal says as being -- roughly speaking, for now -- unconnected
   to a concern with the truth. Her statement is not germane to the
   enterprise of describing reality. She does not even think she knows,
   except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels. Her description
   of her own feeling is, accordingly, something that she is merely
   making up. She concocts it out of whole cloth; or, if she got it from
   someone else, she is repeating it quite mindlessly and without any
   regard for how things really are.

   It is for this mindlessness that Pascal's Wittgenstein chides her.
   What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her
   statement is correct. There is every likelihood, of course, that she
   says what she does only in a somewhat clumsy effort to speak
   colorfully, or to appear vivacious or good-humored; and no doubt
   Wittgenstein's reaction -- as she construes it -- is absurdly
   intolerant. Be this as it may, it seems clear what that reaction is.
   He reacts as though he perceives her to be speaking about her feeling
   thoughtlessly, without conscientious attention to the relevant facts.
   Her statement is not "wrought with greatest care." She makes it
   without bothering to take into account at all the question of its
   accuracy.

   The point that troubles Wittgenstein is manifestly not that Pascal has
   made a mistake in her description of how she feels. Nor is it even
   that she has made a careless mistake. Her laxity, or her lack of care,
   is not a matter of having permitted an error to slip into her speech
   on account of some inadvertent or momentarily negligent lapse in the
   attention she was devoting to getting things right. The point is
   rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a
   description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting
   to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate
   representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to
   get things right, but that she is not even trying.

   This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not,
   he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an
   informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as
   engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true
   and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether
   what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal's
   statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned
   with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be
   regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth,
   and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition
   that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a
   belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is
   not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth
   -- this indifference to how things really are -- that I regard as of
   the essence of bullshit.

   Now I shall consider (quite selectively) certain items in the Oxford
   English Dictionary that are pertinent to clarifying the nature of
   bullshit. The OED defines a bull session as "an informal conversation
   or discussion, esp. of a group of males." Now as a definition, this
   seems wrong. For one thing, the dictionary evidently supposes that the
   use of the term bull in bull session serves primarily just to indicate
   gender. But even if it were true that the participants in bull
   sessions are generally or typically males, the assertion that a bull
   session is essentially nothing more particular than an informal
   discussion among males would be as far off the mark as the parallel
   assertion that a hen session is simply an informal conversation among
   females. It is probably true that the participants in hen sessions
   must be females. Nonetheless the term hen session conveys something
   more specific than this concerning the particular kind of informal
   conversation among females to which hen sessions are
   characteristically devoted. What is distinctive about the sort of
   informal discussion among males that constitutes a bull session is, it
   seems to me, something like this: while the discussion may be intense
   and significant, it is in a certain respect not "for real."

   The characteristic topics of a bull session have to do with very
   personal and emotion-laden aspects of life -- for instance, religion,
   politics, or sex. People are generally reluctant to speak altogether
   openly about these topics if they expect that they might be taken too
   seriously. What tends to go on in a bull session is that the
   participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see
   how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to
   discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are
   committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull
   session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what
   they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make
   possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome
   approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made
   for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be
   encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety
   that they will be held to it.

   Each of the contributors to a bull session relies, in other words,
   upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be
   understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes
   unequivocally to be true. The purpose of the conversation is not to
   communicate beliefs. Accordingly, the usual assumptions about the
   connection between what people say and what they believe are
   suspended. The statements made in a bull session differ from bullshit
   in that there is no pretense that this connection is being sustained.
   They are like bullshit by virtue of the fact that they are in some
   degree unconstrained by a concern with truth. This resemblance between
   bull sessions and bullshit is suggested also by the term shooting the
   bull, which refers to the sort of conversation that characterizes bull
   sessions and in which the term shooting is very likely a cleaned-up
   rendition of shitting. The very term bull session is, indeed, quite
   probably a sanitized version of bullshit session. A similar theme is
   discernible in a British usage of bull in which, according to the OED,
   the term refers to "unnecessary routine tasks or ceremonial; excessive
   discipline or `spit-and-polish'; = red-tape." The dictionary provides
   the following examples of this usage:

     "The Squadron ... felt very bolshie about all that bull that was
     flying around the station" (I. Gleed, Arise to Conquer vi. 51,
     I942); "Them turning out the guard for us, us marching past eyes
     right, all that sort of bull" (A. Baron, Human Kind xxiv. 178,
     1953); the drudgery and `bull' in an MP's life." (Economist 8 Feb.
     470/471, 1958)

   Here the term bull evidently pertains to tasks that are pointless in
   that they have nothing much to do with the primary intent or
   justifying purpose of the enterprise which requires them.
   Spit-and-polish and red tape do not genuinely contribute, it is
   presumed, to the "real" purposes of military personnel or government
   officials, even though they are imposed by agencies or agents that
   purport to be conscientiously devoted to the pursuit of those
   purposes. Thus the "unnecessary routine tasks or ceremonial" that
   constitute bull are disconnected from the legitimating motives of the
   activity upon which they intrude, just as the things people say in
   bull sessions are disconnected from their settled beliefs, and as
   bullshit is disconnected from a concern with the truth.

   The term bull is also employed, in a rather more widespread and
   familiar usage, as a somewhat less coarse equivalent of bullshit. In
   an entry for bull as so used, the OED suggests the following as
   definitive: "trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing;
   nonsense." Now it does not seem distinctive of bull either that it
   must be deficient in meaning or that it is necessarily unimportant; so
   "nonsense" and "trivial," even apart from their vagueness, seem to be
   on the wrong track. The focus of "insincere, or untruthful" is better,
   but it needs to be sharpened. The entry at hand also provides the
   following two definitions:

     1914 Dialect Notes IV. 162 Bull, talk which is not to the purpose;
     "hot air."

     I 932 Times Lit. Supp. 8 Dec. 933/3 "Bull" is the slang term for a
     combination of bluff, bravado, "hot air" and what we used to call
     in the Army "Kidding the troops"

   "Not to the purpose" is appropriate, but it is both too broad in scope
   and too vague. It covers digressions and innocent irrelevancies, which
   are not invariably instances of bull; furthermore, saying that bull is
   not to the purpose leaves it uncertain what purpose is meant. The
   reference in both definitions to "hot air" is more helpful. When we
   characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the
   speaker's mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty,
   without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does
   not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more
   information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled.
   There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally,
   which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for
   bullshit. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all
   informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything
   nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of
   nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been
   exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death
   which we ourselves produce and which, indeed, we cannot help producing
   in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making
   death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event,
   it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance, any more than hot air can
   serve those of cummunication.

   Now consider these lines from Pound's Canto LXXIV, which the OED cites
   in its entry on bullshit as a verb:

     Hey Snag wots in the bibl'?
     Wot are the books ov the bible?
     Name 'em, don't bullshit ME.

   This is a call for the facts. The person addressed is evidently
   regarded as having in some way claimed to know the Bible, or as having
   claimed to care about it. The speaker suspects that this is just empty
   talk, and demands that the claim be supported with facts. He will not
   accept a mere report; he insists upon seeing the thing itself. In
   other words, he is calling the bluff. The connection between bullshit
   and bluff is affirmed explicitly in the definition with which the
   lines by Pound are associated:

     As v. truns. and intr., to talk nonsense (to); ... also, to bluff
     one's way through (something) by talking nonsense.

   It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer
   to bluffing, surely than to telling a lie. But what is implied
   concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than
   it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here
   between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of
   misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the
   distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is
   essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing
   too is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain
   lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of
   fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the
   essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it isphony. In
   order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake
   or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself)
   inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be
   defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What
   is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was
   made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential
   nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the
   truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But
   this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.

   In Eric Ambler's novel Dirty Story, a character named Arthur Abdel
   Simpson recalls advice that he received as a child from his father:

     Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still
     remember him very well and some of the things he used to say. ...
     One of the first things he taught me was, "Never tell a lie when
     you can bullshit your way through."

   This presumes not only that there is an important difference between
   lying and bullshitting, but that the latter is preferable to the
   former. Now the elder Simpson surely did not consider bullshitting
   morally superior to lying. Nor is it likely that he regarded lies as
   invariably less effective than bullshit in accomplishing the purposes
   for which either of them might be employed. After all, an
   intelligently crafted lie may do its work with unqualified success. It
   may be that Simpson thought it easier to get away with bullshitting
   than with lying. Or perhaps he meant that, although the risk of being
   caught is about the same in each case, the consequences of being
   caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the
   liar. In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of
   lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a
   personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but
   we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated
   shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often
   inspire. The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit
   is generally more benign than our attitude toward lying is an
   important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader. The
   pertinent comparison is not, however, between telling a lie and
   producing some particular instance of bullshit. The elder Simpson
   identifies the alternative to telling a lie as "bullshitting one's way
   through." This involves not merely producing one instance of bullshit;
   it involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the
   circumstances require. This is a key, perhaps, to his preference.
   Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a
   particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of
   beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point
   occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in
   which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed
   by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned
   with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he
   knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must
   design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other
   hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much
   more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does
   not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific
   point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that
   point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well,
   so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which
   the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his
   task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity
   upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than
   that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and
   independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation,
   color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of
   art. Hence the familiar notion of the "bullshit artist." My guess is
   that the recommendation offered by Arthur Simpson's father reflects
   the fact that he was more strongly drawn to this mode of creativity,
   regardless of its relative merit or effectiveness, than he was to the
   more austere and rigorous demands of lying.

   What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of
   affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning
   that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of
   being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in
   its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or
   even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes
   the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about
   is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic
   is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

   This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he
   and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to
   communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us
   about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he
   is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality;
   we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes
   to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the
   other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no
   central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his
   intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it. This does
   not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the
   motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things
   about which he speaks truly are.

   It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the
   truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who
   lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent
   respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he
   believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly
   indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the
   bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the
   side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the
   facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are,
   except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting
   away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says
   describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up,
   to suit his purpose.

   In his essay, "Lying," St. Augustine distinguishes lies of eight
   types, which he classifies according to the characteristic intent or
   justification with which a lie is told. Lies of seven of these types
   are told only because they are supposed to be indispensable means to
   some end that is distinct from the sheer creation of false beliefs. It
   is not their falsity as such, in other words, that attracts the teller
   to them. Since they are told only on account of their supposed
   indispensability to a goal other than deception itself, St. Augustine
   regards them as being told unwillingly: what the person really wants
   is not to tell the lie but to attain the goal. They are therefore not
   real lies, in his view, and those who tell them are not in the
   strictest sense liars. It is only the remaining category that contains
   what he identifies as "the lie which is told solely for the pleasure
   of lying and deceiving, that is, the real lie." Lies in this category
   are not told as means to any end distinct form the propagation of
   falsehood. They are told simply for their own sakes -- i.e., purely
   out of a love of deception:

     There is a distinction between a person who tells a lie and a liar.
     The former is one who tells a lie unwillingly, while the liar loves
     to lie and passes his time in the joy of lying. ... The latter
     takes delight in lying, rejoicing in the falsehood itself.

   What Augustine calls "liars" and "real lies" are both rare and
   extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few
   people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively
   from a love of falsity or of deception. For most people, the fact that
   a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and
   easily overridden, not to make the statement.

   For St. Augustine's pure liar it is, on the contrary, a reason in
   favor of making it. For the bullshitter it is in itself neither a
   reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the
   truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things
   are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world
   correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies
   does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way
   that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter
   activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to
   anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of
   attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.
   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
   the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no
   attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy
   of the truth than lies are.

   One who is concerned to report or to conceal the 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.

   Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure
   that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times.
   There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before,
   but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without
   assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I
   will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact
   that it is currently so great.

   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. This
   discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently
   impelled -- whether by their own propensities or by the demands of
   others -- to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some
   degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread
   conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy
   to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that
   pertains to the conduct of his country's affairs. The lack of any
   significant connection between a person's opinions and his
   apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for
   someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral
   agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

   The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in
   various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable
   access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the
   possibility of knowing how things truly are. These "anti-realist"
   doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts
   to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the
   intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to
   this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline
   required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite
   different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an
   alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to
   arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual
   turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.
   Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to
   identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true
   to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no
   sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to
   be true to himself.

   But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate,
   and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions,
   while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else
   has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in
   response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without
   knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly
   nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it
   is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.
   Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to
   skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively
   insubstantial -- notoriously less stable and less inherent than the
   natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity
   itself

Back <<Back Printer Friendly Version Email this article to a friend Home

2001-2005 RealNet CMP L.L.C. All rights reserved Paul O. Martin Web Producer 770.831.6795