On Bullshit

May 20, 2016

On Bullshit
Some time ago a friend sent me a little book on the nature of bullshit, which is something much discussed but which I’d never seen or heard thoroughly analyzed until the book, titledOn Bullshit, was unexpectedly delivered to my door in a little white truck branded USPS. This was a year or so before one of the greatest bullshitters of modern times made his successful hostile takeover of one of two major political parties of the United States of America due largely to his superb skill in the art of bullshit.

The author of On Bullshit is Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University. Dr. Frankfurt’s major areas of interest include moral philosophyphilosophy of mind and action, and 17th century rationalism. So we can see that the good doctor is a solid member of the academic community and we can understand how On Bullshit may have naturally developed from those interests.

Dr. Frankfurt’s book is not a silly satire intended to evoke derisive laughter at the expense of those who practice it, but is a thoughtful and implicitly funny examination of a rhetorical tool employed by homo-sapiens since the time Cain explained to God his part in the homicide of his brother Abel. It’s implicitly funny because the idea of bullshit being the subject of a scholarly send-off is funny. It’s like learning your uncle’s often told fish story had won a Pulitzer.

It’s safe to say there’s never been a bullshit famine on the planet. It’s like kudzu, that invasive vine of Southeast Asia and our own deep south that eventually covers everything. The utility of bullshit, especially in certain professions like politics is probably the reason for its prevalence, but there is another. In a novel cited by Dr. Frankfurt a character says, “One of the first things my father taught me was, ‘Never lie when you can bullshit your way through,’” which goes to that other reason. Bullshit is often tolerated and is usually not considered as morally reprehensible as an outright lie (although lies too are coming into wider acceptance). As Frankfurt observes this is probably not because bullshit is morally superior to lying but that “the consequences of its being used are less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.” The interesting thing about this, Frankfurt notes, is that the idea of “bullshitting your way through” (which is too often winked at) involves a “program of producing bullshit”. Whereas a liar is constrained by the truth (a liar must believe a truth in order to produce a true lie –no pun intended) —a bullshitter has more freedom. A bullshitter’s focus is panoramic (I love that), the author says. It’s not particular.

Now, for the purpose of this column (which is to present Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president of the United States, as one of the hands-down most masterful and successful political bullshitters of modern times) Frankfurt gets to what I think is the foundation of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric: a bullshitter, he says, “does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and is thus not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it.”  He goes on to say, as if elaborating on a particular Trump speech, that this lack of constraint is more expansive than a lie, with spacious opportunities for improvisation, color and imaginative play, suggesting a certain artistic bent as in the familiar term, “bullshit artist” (Trump as artist) and art, as well as its intent (unlike analytical discourse), is often oblique.

In fact, our good doctor says, what a bullshitter misrepresents is not fact nor what he takes to be fact. What he intends to obscure is his enterprise. What he misrepresents is what he’s up to. Frankfurt states that the truth value of what a man like Trump states “is of no central interest to him” and that his motive is unconcerned with how things really are. The truth is simply inconsequential to a bullshit artist.

The crux of On Bullshit may be found in its observation that a bullshitter, “…does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” And if things made up come up against reality and you have to, let’s say, “be presidential” it requires new BS and so we see Trump lately moon-walking, shuffling backward (Ryan no. Ryan yes. Ayotte no. Ayotte yes. McCain no. McCain yes.)but without the grace of Michael Jackson, as in this. or this, or this, etc.

As I’ve listened to Trump speeches over the past few months I’ve come away floored not only at how few actual ideas Trump’s speeches contain, but how he plows along stringing streams of thoughtless word-beads as if fashioning a colorful noose of nada to throttle the minds of listeners to the point of common-sanity deprivation. In fact I’d been completely stupefied until I pulled Harry Frankfurt’s little book from a stack, read it again and realized that fate (through the generosity of my philosopher friend) had worked to shed some light on the profound absurdity of the triumph of Trump.

Wrapping up, I’d like to share one more thing Harry Frankfurt’s said because it suggests the danger that men like Trump, in positions of power, pose to us all. He says the bullshitter “…does not reject the authority of truth as the liar does … he pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
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by Jim Culleny
5/19/16
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2 Responses to “On Bullshit”

  1. vito bovino Says:

    Having been born in the era of bullshit, 1931, I love this. Fits Trump to a tee. Thanks.

  2. Norman Costa Says:

    Great Summary!


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