Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt


Rating: (Recommended)




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Harry Frankfurt’s short philosophical inquiry, On Bullshit, should become required reading for every incoming college freshman. Frankfurt presents an academic discourse on an unlikely topic and by so doing unveils some methods of philosophical inquiry and allows readers to savor some rare intellectual humor. Readers looking for gags won’t find them here, but there’s a pleasure in watching a philosopher do his thing on something as familiar as bullshit.


Here’s an excerpt, pp. 50-56:


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, so far as required, to fake the context as well. 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 more 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 to 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.


If it’s been more than a dozen years since you’ve read a work of philosophy, there’s no better time than now to open the pages of On Bullshit.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2005 issue of Executive Times


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