08/24/05 - bullshit

In today's excerpt - a prominent current day philosopher takes a thoughtful but unexpected look at the nature of 'bullshit':

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshitt," Harry G. Frankfurt, a distinguished moral philosopher who is professor emeritus at Princeton, says. The ubiquity of bullshit, he notes, is something that we have come to take for granted. Most of us are pretty confident of our ability to detect it, so we may not regard it as being all that harmful. We tend to take a more benign view of someone caught bullshitting than of someone caught lying. ('Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through', a father counsels his son in an Eric Ambler novel.) All of this worries Frankfurt. We cannot really know the effect that bullshit has on us, he thinks, until we have a clearer understanding of what it is. 'That is why we need a theory of bullshit'. ... The difference between lies and bullshit, it seemed to him, was more than a matter of degree.

"The essence of bullshit, [he] decides, is that it is produced without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn't be false: The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. The bullshitter's fakery consists not in misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the truthteller are both playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth. ... 'Bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are', Frankfurt says."


Jim Holt


'Say Anything'


The New Yorker Magazine


August 22, 2005


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