A brief note – with a long appendix – about my recent re-reading of Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” in the writing of a recent post. I remembered the article fondly, but on re-reading it I found it was mostly bullshit – Srsly! It wasn’t the most odious of bullshit – which comes with all sorts of swagger. But it was bullshit nevertheless – not bullshit as swagger but bullshit as vapidity. The article has a single – very good – idea in it which accounts for its well deserved fame or notoriety which could have received just as good explication by the author in a 700 word op ed – 500 if you were pressed for space. The idea can be summarised very briefly. Firstly we have a great sentence. “Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain . . . not only unanswered but unasked.” And then the thesis. Bullshit is deception but the deception is not that of the deliberate untruth of the liar – which requires an interest in truth so as to deceive. Rather the deception is that though the words are delivered with apparent seriousness, they are rather delivered with complete disregard for the truth. And an environment in which people speak without knowing their subject is the bed in which bullshit grows.
That’s more or less it. Other interesting and important ideas have been set out by others. For instance I had originally remembered that Frankfurter had also drawn attention to the way in which both the bullshitter and bullshitee are complicit in the performance, but that insight appears to have been supplied by a later contributor. Anyway Frankfurter takes 16 pages to set out the simple ideas I’ve summarised above. Now of course it’s often the case that an article expounds a single idea – the assertion of which could be done in a paragraph or two, but in a good article the supporting pages - 15 in this case – help amplify and illustrate the point. I don’t think that’s the case here. Here are two sentences which appear towards end of the essay in sequence:
Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.
What does the second sentence add to the first? They seem to say not just the same thing, but precisely the same thing – two sentences which could be alternatives, but not complements. I think the whole article is like this. And in this it’s very like so many other academic material. Full of academic filler, or to use Frankfurter’s term, bullshit. (I recently bought a Kindle book called “Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources” by Brett M. Frischmann. I was anxious to read it because it was right up my alley – conceptualising infrastructure as a commons and drawing parallels between traditional economic infrastructure and non-traditional infrastructure – such as intellectual resources and social capital. It’s got some good stuff in it, but it had the same problem. Endless handling of possible objections often trivial only occasionally somewhat less so.)
If one took objections of that kind seriously one would never get anywhere. As exhibit A I extract below the fold a couple of pages of Frankfurter’s discussion which helps to establish what he thinks bullshit is. The example he provides is probably not a very good example. So he spends two pages going through possible objections to the example – only to conclude that if you ignore those objections it is a good example. Why not pick a better example – or make one up? I don’t know the answer but I presume it’s because his example has a famous philosopher in it and – after all – he’s writing a philosophy essay isn’t he?