On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt

Summary

  1. Frankfurt on the essence of bullshit

Key Takeaways

  1. 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.
  2. It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this.
  3. However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline. The pertinent mode of laxity cannot be equated, evidently, with simple carelessness or inattention to detail.
  4. Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of “nonsense.” He was apparently like that in his personal life as well.
  5. 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.
  6. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.
  7. 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.
  8. It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than it is like the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie? Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing, too, is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.
  9. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.
  10. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.
  11. 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.
  12. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
  13. Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. 

What I got out of it

  1. Really relevant book given today’s context. 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. The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. It is produced without the concern for truth, but need not be false