Bulls*** March 19, 2005

I caught a few minutes of an interview with Harry Frankfurt on some late night TV show recently. In a venue dominated by stars, the appearance of an Ivy League philosopher was, shall we say, surprising. Less surprising, though, when it became clear that he was speaking on the topic of his recent essay-book, On Bulls*** . Jonathan Lear has a fascinating review of the book in the March 21 issue of TNR .

Frankfurt notes that there has been a lot of philosophical attention to truth and lying, but very little to bulls***, even though our society is awash in it. Bulls***, he claims, is different from lying. A truth-teller and a liar share an important commitment. In Lear’s summary, “The person who aims at the truth tries to figure out what the world is like and to communicate that to others; the liar attempts to deceive. But by his very attempt to mislead others, the liar betrays his own concern, however perverse, with how things are.

As Frankfurt puts it, the truth-teller and the liar are playing opposite sides of the same game.” BS is neither a deliberate nor inadvertent falsehood, and in fact by Frankfurt’s definition it may well be true. What marks BS is the indifference of the speaker to the truth or falsehood of what he says: “although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bulls***ter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”

There is an element of deception in BSing, however: The bullsh***ter wants us to believe that he cares, when in fact he doesn’t: “The fact about himself that the bulls***ter hides . . . is that the truth-value 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.” Lear suggests that BS-analysis helps to explain John Kerry’s failure in the recent election: “Precisely because the candidate did want to win, he had to look as though he cared about the truth of what he was saying. And with all the post-election hand-wringing about why John Kerry lost, one overwhelmingly plausible explanation was overlooked: Kerry was not very good at bulls***ting.”

Frankfurt recognizes that bulls*** is endemic to certain social positions, particularly positions of authority: “Bulls*** is unavoidable whenever circumstances requires someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bulls*** is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic.

This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speaks extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.” Remember too that Frankfurt defines BS in terms of the speaker’s lack of interest in the truth or falsity of what he is saying. Public figures BS in order to maintain an appearance of compentence, and are not really interested in whether or not they really have compentence.

There is an interesting moral issue here: On the one hand, there is the bulls***ter’s unwillingness to acknowledge limitations or ignorance in public, an unwillingness to accept the shame of “I don’t know.” On the other hand, there is the problem of authority; if a public figure is asked a question about which he should be informed but isn’t, is it better to BS one’s way through in order to preserve authority – for the sake of the masses, of course – or risk losing authority by admitting to a lack of foresight. College professors, pastors, bloggers, as well as politicians, should take note.

Lear suggests that there is a meta-level to BS (everything today needing a meta-level), BS artistry. The ordinary bulls***ter is indifferent to the truth of his statements, but hides that indifference under a veneer of earnest concern for truth. The bulls*** artist doesn’t hide his indifference, but puts it on open display. He bulls***s, knows he’s bulls***ting, knows that we know he’s bulls***ting, and expects us to accept his “openness about his own bulls***” as “endearing.” (Lear uses Clinton here, and elsewhere, as a key example).

Lear continues, “the bulls*** artist raises a host of ethical problems that do not arise at the level of ordinary bulls***. For bulls*** artistry depends on our complicity. It is, in its own way, a demonstration of power. The bulls*** artist in effect says, ‘This is bulls***, but you will accept it anyway. You may accept it as bulls***, but you will honor it anyway.’ In this respect, the bulls*** artist is a knight of decadence.”

Lear is led to question Frankfurt’s fundamental theory: “It may be true that the ordinary bulls***ter needs to go through the motions of pretending that the truth of what he says matters to him – but this itself is bulls***, and it may be easily recognizable as such to us all. In this way we are all drawn into a complacent and rundown theatricality. We all know that what we are reading is spin; we all know that the person quoted is not really committed to the truth of what he is saying; and yet we are all somehow willing to go along with what we instantly recognize as ersatz news.” It is not about truth, it is about saving face and keeping up appearances; it is about power.

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