American philosopher Harry Frankfurt published an essay on bullshit in 1986. It worked its way into culture after 2005, when it was published as a small book. Now in the Trump age, it has worked its way into mainstream political commentary. It is routinely referenced in discussions about whether Trump is a liar or something else.
“On Bullshit” serves as the most salient tool for making sense of our politics that the so-called ‘analytic’ tradition of philosophy has to offer. Unfortunately, although the essay makes one insightful point, on the whole it is not an especially good piece of philosophy. I do not think people need to read it.
So, to spare you, this article is a critical summary. It is something of a book review. I will explain the important points while also discussing its shortcomings. That way you don’t have to read the book.
Let’s begin at the beginning. After some highly dubious but ultimately irrelevant claims, Frankfurt provides a thesis statement:
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.
In short, he is going to give you a theory of bullshit. Or in shorter, he is going to define ‘bullshit’. The passage epitomizes analytic philosophy writing style. I count five caveats or qualifications:
- He is only beginning the development.
- The analysis is “tentative and exploratory.”
- The essay doesn’t touch the rhetorical uses.
- The account is “rough.”
- The articulation is sketchy (plus a sub-caveat: “more or less” sketchy).
The rest of the introduction is a series of other caveats, some substantive and important: any “suggestion” (a meek act, to be sure) of necessary and sufficient conditions for bullshit is bound to be “somewhat arbitrary”; ‘bullshit’ is often used “loosely” and in a “vast and amorphous” way. Nonetheless, the goal is to say “something helpful.”
What is irritating is that Frankfurt sets the bar remarkably low and, in doing so, guards himself against criticism (“Hey, I’m only suggesting the beginning of a more or less tentative rough sketch!”). A classic philosopher’s trick. God knows I’m guilty too.
What is helpful, however, is that ‘bullshit’ is certainly not a precise concept. So we need to divide the caveats into two camps: 1) those about the essay and 2) those about the concept. And the two are orthogonal, to use a good philosopher’s word. Someone could give a tentative rough sketch of a precise concept. Someone could give a definitive account of a vague or amorphous concept (which would certainly be a challenging task). With a pile of both sorts of caveats, Frankfurt is telling you to lower your expectations.
The outline of the essay is roughly as follows:
- Max Black’s theory of humbug/bullshit
- The better theory of bullshit via 2 Wittgenstein references:
- The poem verse
- “I feel like a dog that’s been run over” example: the crucial insight
- Comparing bullshit to other similar terms
- Comparing lying and bullshitting
- Why there is so much bullshit
[Frankfurt does not divide his essay into sections. I am imposing them.]
The crucial insight of the essay comes in II.B. For the most part, the rest of the essay is unnecessary. It often reads as perfunctory, repetitive, or padding. (Notice the caveats, people.) An exception is the last paragraph. It introduces a couple deep thoughts about self-knowledge and sincerity. My last paragraphs will be on Frankfurt’s last paragraph.
Frankfurt models his essay on Max Black’s “The Prevalence of Humbug.” The two have similar structures and styles: conceptual analysis filtered through colorful yet sterile cases, an anecdote about a revered early analytic philosopher, comparing their respective target concepts with lying, and finishing with practical and personal points.
Frankfurt thinks that his and Black’s essays also have the same subject matter. For better or worse, Frankfurt takes ‘bullshit’ and ‘humbug’ to be the same concept. In discussing Black’s definition, Frankfurt offers a number of genuinely interesting points. For instance, lying to someone involves two deceptions: not only does the audience have a false belief about the world (or whatever the lie is about), but they also have a false belief about what the liar believes. Cool.
However, Frankfurt does not critique Black’s theory at all. He says, “It is correct to say of bullshit, as he says of humbug, both that it is short of lying and that those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way. But Black’s account of these two features is significantly off the mark.” Then Frankfurt moves straight to section II. We are left unsure about why we crawled through the logic obstacle course of section I. Was it mental warm up, obligatory literature review, or padding the word count?
Despite the section’s ultimate irrelevance to his central thesis, Frankfurt probably does his best philosophy here. It is some solid analytic-style logic chopping. Unfortunately Frankfurt doesn’t see fit to offer any significant critiques of a view that he thinks is “significantly off the mark.” His view is simply meant to supplant Black’s. (Either that or ‘humbug’ and ‘bullshit’ aren’t the same concept.)
As I said, section II is the only important one. It lays out Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Yet the presentation is deeply unhelpful. The section revolves around two references to the early analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The first is a poem verse that clumsily brings out the idea that shoddy and careless workmanship is related to bullshit. This is certainly true. Although Frankfurt doesn’t mention it directly, a common use of ‘bullshit’ is in describing someone’s attempt to cover over their ignorance. Students do it routinely. I know I did. My work was shoddy, and I was “trying to get away with something,” as Frankfurt says. This sense of bullshit, in my view, is in tension with the sense that Frankfurt draws out with the second Wittgenstein reference. More on that in a moment.
The crucial insight of the essay comes in Frankfurt’s discussion of a story about the notoriously eccentric Wittgenstein. A friend named Pascal complained to him that she felt “just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein responded, “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”
The fact that the story depicts a philosopher making an irritating pedantic point in the face of someone’s real suffering should tell us that the story is probably accurate. In fact, Frankfurt spends an irritating amount of time pedantically analyzing how we should interpret Wittgenstein’s line. Since the story is supposed to bring out a point about bullshit, and it is difficult to see how the story is about bullshit, it is safe to say that Frankfurt should have chosen a better example.
After stipulating his semi-plausible interpretation of the story, Frankfurt makes the key move:
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. […] 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.
What the suffering woman said was bullshit because she didn’t even try to get things right. What she says is unconnected to the truth. “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.”
That is it. The crucial insight. It is what people reference in political commentary today. There is no real argument for it (though there might not need to be). It is brief and filtered through a stilted construal of a bizarre anecdote.
Frankfurt then moves to section III. But first, note that the two Wittgenstein references serve different roles. Frankfurt does not relate them. In my view, they bring out two conflicting and therefore different senses of ‘bullshit’. The lack of concern for truth is certainly a type of ‘bullshit’. But the bullshitting I did on my high school English tests was not indifferent to how things really are. I couldn’t concoct answers out of whole cloth. I had to make true (sounding) statements but phrase them in vague, prolonged, and superifically impressive ways. I was trying to get away with something, but my statements were also “germane to the enterprise of describing reality.”
In sum, the two senses of bullshit share broad similarities (both involve misrepresentation) but they are two separate senses. Frankfurt does not acknowledge this.
You can probably skip to the last paragraph. Of the remaining sections, only IV provides some philosophical insight, though it is mostly derivative of section II. But for the sake of completeness, here goes.
Frankfurt compares ‘bullshit’ with some similar concepts: ‘bull session’, ‘shooting the bull’, straight up ‘bull’, and ‘hot air’. The connections tend to be tenuous or insignificant. The most interesting point of the section is the link between bluffing and bullshitting. But the link is not discussed. Instead, Frankfurt uses it to transition to the next section.
Bullshit is phony and fake. It isn’t necessarily false. A liar must construct their lies within the constraints of the truth. The truth-values of statements are relevant to a liar. A bullshitter has more freedom.
This is the crux of the distinction between [the bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. […] 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.
We can derive the difference between the bullshitter and the liar from the difference between bullshit and lies found in section II. Frankfurt reiterates the difference at length in this section—even to the point of invoking St. Augustine’s essay on lying. The reference to Augustine is brief and unexplored. It reads like an afterthought, which is unfortunate, since Augustine’s essay is nuanced and interesting.
The high point of the section is Frankfurt’s suggestion that people are more tolerant of bullshit than lies. I doubt this is true. Frankfurt does not pursue the topic. He leaves it as an “exercise for the reader.” I would suggest that we should take bullshit as more of an affront than lies. Whether I am right about that I will leave as an exercise for the reader.
The final section is too short for its aim. In it Frankfurt attempts to explain why there is so much bullshit. An ambitious goal! (Though we must bear in mind the pile of caveats.) He suggests that the bullshit might be the result of the constant demands that people give their opinions on various topics. This phenomena is supposedly “common in public life,” but who exactly Frankfurt has in mind is difficult to discern.
He also blames skepticism and “anti-realism” generally. Here is where shit gets real. The anti-realism undermines the notion of “objective inquiry.” We move away from the ideal of correctness and towards an ideal of sincerity. The focus is not on describing the external world but on coming to know oneself honestly.
But what exactly is wrong with this? Frankfurt implies that the turn inward is reactionary: after giving up on the inherent nature of reality, we accept ‘being true to ourselves’ as a consolation. He appears to be targeting some form of anti-science anti-materialism, but he doesn’t say. It also feels like we are dealing with a false dichotomy.
The Last Paragraph
Frankfurt wants to reject the anti-realist drive. It is fundamentally incoherent, on his view: if we can give right and wrong descriptions of ourselves, the same must be true of the external world. Plus, it is a mistake to think that we live private, internal lives. We live among others. And a condition of knowing ourselves is knowing others. Knowing ourselves is not as easy as we might assume. We are fluid, changing, hidden—at least, far more than other things in the world. When we notice this, the ideal of sincerity turns out to be bullshit.
With that nice tie-in, the essay ends. Frankly, I don’t see how the last sentence is true. The ideal of sincerity may be false or misguided, but it exists in the context of attempting to find the best way of finding truths. The ideal is predicated on honesty. How, then, is it bullshit?
The essay takes a marked philosophical turn in its last two paragraphs. Frankfurt steps into obscurity. He is discussing deep issues (by his explicit admission), and yet the essay ends abruptly with a perfunctory call back. Why the brevity when he is so prolix in other sections? There are numerous possible interpretations. Surely one of them is that the last paragraph is bullshit. Is that true? I’m more or less indifferent.