Coping with Bullshit

One of the most unlikely philosophical bestsellers in recent decades was retired Princeton University professor Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Published in 2005, it remained on the New York Times best seller list for 27 weeks. It opens:

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.

What is bullshit? Frankfurt distinguishes between lying and bullshitting. A liar knows that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right—and opts for falsehood. A bullshitter, by contrast, believes that it is not possible to distinguish the false from the true. Yet this realization does not prevent him from making assertions about the way things are.

As portrayed in Plato’s dialogues, sophists such as Protagoras and Gorgias sought not the truth, but the power to persuade, to argue and win every time. Their most outspoken critic, Socrates, distinguished philosophy from sophistry, arguing that the philosopher seeks the truth about things. In a debate, like a boxing match, the end is to declare a winner and a loser. Dialogue, by contrast, aims to arrive at deeper understanding, an endeavor from which both parties can emerge enlightened.

Why is there so much bullshit? Frankfurt writes that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” The bullshitter, he argues, has ceased trying to describe the way things really are and instead substitutes sincerity. Reality having ceased to provide a standard by which to evaluate statements, it is replaced by the speaker, who seeks merely to be true to himself. Man, as the sophist Protagoras argued, becomes the measure of all things.

For bullshit to thrive, in other words, people must be convinced that there is no objective truth. One indirect means of advancing such an argument is to convert all argument into what logicians call ad hominem attacks. Instead of engaging a point of view on its merits, one simply assails the individual who holds it, impugning his character or motives. Consider the source, the argument goes—if the advocate is flawed, then his positions must be flawed. Such attacks have become a regular feature of contemporary political discourse, often descending to the level of mere name-calling.

In my view, the ascendancy of bullshit can be explained in part by the changing media through which we have become accustomed to communicate. The 1858 U.S. Senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas famously lasted three hours and were reproduced in their entirety in the newspapers of the day. Today, by contrast, political discourse often takes the form of soundbites, and the most salient political medium seems to be Twitter. Where there were once melodies, now there are tweets.

The Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan foresaw such a situation when he coined the phrase, “The medium is the message.” As political discourse moves from print media such as newspapers to broadcast media such as television, what a candidate has to say can be quickly superseded by how a candidate looks. As discourse moves from television to Twitter, it can be further degraded into mere flamboyance. What matters is no longer speaking the truth but simply attracting and holding attention. Getting it right gives way to getting noticed.

This point was amplified by another media theorist, Neil Postman, who contended that television is a supremely visual medium that rejects ideas. In his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman argued that “It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the content of ideas to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.” Recognizing that appealing to the emotions of the television audience is far more important than rational argument, bullshitters can quickly commandeer attention, a problem exacerbated by digital media such as Twitter.

The truth must be not only apprehended but also embodied, and someone whose life is grounded in falsehood cannot really be living. Where bullshit reigns, people are in chains.

Consider the experience of reading a Platonic dialogue such as the Protagoras. Socrates has no beef with Protagoras’ claim to be able to teach young men how to win arguments and manage their property. What he wants to know is whether Protagoras can teach them to be good. The question, in other words, is whether goodness is a form of knowledge and therefore learnable. If it is, then Protagoras is engaged in the worthiest form of life. But if he were leading such a life, why would he charge a fee for his teaching? The intrinsically most choice worthy should require no incentive.

Plato is inviting Protagoras, his interlocutors, and the dialogue’s readers to consider not why goodness might be useful but a more fundamental question—what goodness is. It is not a matter of simply producing a definition of goodness but exploring its nature, for if we can grasp what it is, then we will require no incentive for its pursuit. Protagoras and his heirs, however, turn out to care less about truth than the wealth and power that celebrity can bring.

For Socrates, this is a damning criticism, for the goal is not merely to command attention but to pursue wisdom. To lead a life grounded in falsehood, or at least to fail to put the truth above all else, is to subvert the higher to the lower—we end up living upside down. We must, says Socrates, “conduct our inquiry together in our own persons, making a trial of truth and ourselves.” The truth must be not only apprehended but also embodied, and someone whose life is grounded in falsehood cannot really be living. Where bullshit reigns, people are in chains.

To foster greater truth seeking and deeper devotion to goodness and wisdom for their own sake, we need heirs of Socrates who exemplify both such pursuits and their fruits—role models of the goodness-driven life in the arts, in the classroom, and yes, perhaps even in contemporary media. Without such teachers, we are consigned to continue along our path of descent, dumbing down not only the messages but the messengers, and making bullshitters of us all.

Reader Discussion

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on September 11, 2020 at 08:35:08 am

Neat essay, Gunderman's first, here, and I hope not his last. However, his title is misleading since he offers no advice on "coping with bullshit." A few pointers would have been helpful to those unaccustomed to Democrat politicians and their bullshit co-conspirators in left-wing establishment media and cable news. Yet, perhaps no pointers are needed nowadays since coping with bullshit is a survival skill which comes as naturally as breathing. BS is everywhere, so we grow up knowing how to cope with it. Either we cope with bullshit, or we suffocate in it. My further thought is that the book, written in 2005, is badly outdated. A citizen's survival guide for today's hyperbolic polis would be entitled "Coping With Bullshit, Lies, Defamation, and Feigned Moral Outrage."

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on September 18, 2020 at 10:28:40 am

The most bullshit in politics is coming form Trump and is apologists. So sad that this site, which could be an honest intellectual resource, is ignoring the the threats to our democracy due to your knee jerk opposition to any opposition to republican head in the sand behavior. Defend the indefensible and watch our country truly disintegrate. And for what? The most corrupt, ignorant, etc., etc,. president in our history who's only hold on you seems to be his pandering on judges and abortion. Why is none of this being addressed on this site?

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on September 11, 2020 at 13:17:07 pm

In polite company, it is important to note, the word boloney is more accurate and to the point.

less common spelling of BALONEY ENTRY 2
: pretentious nonsense : BUNKUM—often used as a generalized expression of disagreement

For example, it is boloney to suggest that China’s bat expert is not aware of the role that hepcidin plays in hypoxia, and that the elderly and immune compromised would be extremely vulnerable to a Coronavirus that targets hepcidin receptors, so why isn’t The World Health Organization concerned about what exactly is happening at the Wuhan Lab or what is happening in regards to The Uyghur Genocide?











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Image of Nancy
on September 11, 2020 at 13:56:22 pm

So should we buy the book, or not? Or wait for Paladin's more up to date version, which sounds more reasonable.

Sounds like Plato and Socrates also should have had a conversation with Hayak, Adam Smith, Don Boudreau, Milton Friedman, et al., on the merits of a free market as the best means (philosophically and practically) to advance the state of mankind's health and wisdom. I learned about Keat's Ode to a Grecian Urn in high school English class at age 15 and immediately recognized the following as my foundation for worship: 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,' - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

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on September 12, 2020 at 10:57:37 am

We're not so simply dealing with bullshit, we're dealing with bullshit to some exponential power. Though even that doesn't truly suggest what is going on. It isn't simply lies, it's highly polished and sophisticated forms of disinformation. It's Kafkatrapping. It's at times milder forms and at other times truly pernicious and insidious forms of gaslighting. Gaslighting at "lower" or more personal levels occasionally ends in murder and suicide, which fact reflects just how insidious a form of manipulation it can be. At the level of national politics it's differently oriented, but it's equally vile. It's the moral/ethical equivalent of using nerve or mustard gas during warfare. It's a reprehensible step or more beyond mere post-consensus politics. Utterly vile, insidious, pernicious stuff. Yet at the level of national politics, it does work, it's effective in deceiving and manipulating large swaths, masses of people. Comparing mere bullshit to this stuff is like comparing the deceptions of a car salesperson to the manipulative ploys a serial killer like a Ted Bundy might use to entice his prey. Bullshit, even imagined at some exponential level, does not suggest just how reprehensible, how pernicious this stuff can be. Sorry, it doesn't. Which, in turn, reflects just how deeply into the bottom of the waste treatment plant, the sewage system, our contemporary forms of political warfare and the culture at large has sunk, and become content, satisfied with. It sadly is a testament of dissolution, debasement and shame.

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Michael Bond
on September 15, 2020 at 13:35:05 pm

He understates the problem in my opinion, but Conrad Black is a reliable voice and in The New York Sun, Democrats Descend To Appalling State Of Incivility, he presents an aspect of the problem, the dissolute quality of it all, from his own vantage point:

"Seven weeks from the 2020 election, American politics have reached such an appalling state of incivility that there is no precedent for it in American presidential history." Is this correct, in our entire history? Given what I emphasized in the previous comment, I suspect it is correct. And pointedly:

"The particular failure and hypocrisy of the Trump-haters is that the crudeness they claim to hate in Mr. Trump is magnified in their own antagonism toward him. This undermines their case, and it incites the suspicion that some of the charges they make against President Mr. Trump are more accurately directed against them." Yes, and this should be patently obvious. Whether it is psychological projection, Alinskyite premeditation, simply a descent into debasement and crudity or, most likely, some combination thereof, is of secondary if still significant concern.

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Michael Bond
on September 18, 2020 at 07:47:46 am

[…] & Liberty recently printed a review of Harry Frankfurt’s book On Bullshit. I can see now that I’m going to have to read this book, but following are some […]

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