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On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

no title has been provided for this book

Sometimes the truth in a book or essay resonates and leaps off the page, supported by the reader’s own experience. Such was the case with On Bullshit. Recent events in the Supreme Court could have been scripted to support the book’s thesis.

Justice Sotomayor is not a liar. Her statement claiming that 100,000 children are in “serious condition” from Covid during oral arguments on the Biden administration’s employer vaccine mandate on Friday, was patently, and unarguably untrue, but she is not a liar. She is something much worse, we’ll get to that in the course of this review.

On Bullshit is a short essay written by Harry G. Frankfurt, a moral philosopher and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. Unfortunately, it would be easy to dismiss the book, based on its title.  That would be a mistake. Frankfurt is quite serious about the subject and its ramifications. He provides a brief, but thorough etymology of bullshit, comparing it to humbug, discussing its purposes and usage.

Bullshit differs from outright lying.

Telling a lie is an act with 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.  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.

This is, as Frankfurt explains, the key distinction between the liar and bullshitter.

Both he [the bullshitter] and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of both 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 that he knows 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 it, and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

In other words, truth is not relevant. The end is all that matters. It is justifiable, in the minds of those unconcerned with truth or falsity, to say anything at all in support of their position.

To be sure, there is an attribute of intellectual laziness associated with bullshit if one is liberated from the necessity of actually knowing something of the topic about which one is speaking. But that is not the pernicious aspect of bullshit.

Sotomayor didn’t need to put any effort into finding out the facts, or verifying the numbers she used with all the pomp and solemnity her position bestows.  It was irrelevant to her.

Frankfurt argues that bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than are lies.

One who is concerned to report or 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 presupposed 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 any assertion whatever about the facts. The second is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but cannot be anything except bullshit.

Frankfurt explains that bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Sotomoyor’s ignorance is willful because being ignorant of the facts is of no importance. She doesn’t need to justify this.

Someone who divorces themselves so completely from the truth has only themself to use an arbiter of correctness.

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 though he decides that since it makes no sense to be true to the facts he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

This is untenable. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial and notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.

And so, Justice Sotomayor is much worse than a mere liar. She is a bullshitter.


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