Title: On Bullshit
Author: Harry G. Frankfurt.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, essay.
Publication Date: 1986 (Raritan Quarterly Review journal), January 1st, 2005 (book).
Summary: A philosophical essay that presents a theory of bullshit that defines the concept and analyses the applications of bullshit in the contexts of communication, and explains the division between bullshitting and lying.
My rating: 8/10
♥ When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker's mouth is just that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance, any more than hot air can serve those of communication.
♥ «Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say... One of the first thing he taught me was, "Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through."»
This presumes not only that there is an important difference between lying and bullshitting, but that the latter is preferable to the former. Now the elder Simpson surely did not consider bullshitting morally superior to lying. Nor is it likely that he regarded lies as invariably less effective than bullshit in accomplishing the purposes for which either of them might be employed. After all, an intelligently crafted lie may do its work with unqualified success. It may be that Simpson thought it easier to get away with bullshitting than with lying. Or perhaps he meant that, although the risk of being caught is about the same in each case, the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar. In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront. We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely t turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage lies often inspire. The problem of understanding why our attitude toward bullshit is more benign than our attitude toward lying is an important one, which I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
♥ It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statement to be false. 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 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.