Speaking of bullshit . . .

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, and 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?

Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of non-sense.. He was apparently like that in his personal life as well. This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridge in the 1930s:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: I feel just like a dog that has been run over. He was disgusted: You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.

Now who knows what really happened? It seems extraordinary, almost unbelievable, that anyone could object seriously to what Pascal reports herself as having said. That characterization of her feelings.so innocently close to the utterly commonplace “sick as a dog” is simply not provocative enough to arouse any response as lively or intense as disgust. If Pascal’s simile is offensive, then what figurative or allusive uses of language would not be? So perhaps it did not really happen quite as Pascal says. Perhaps Wittgenstein was trying to make a small joke, and it misfired. He was only pretending to bawl Pascal out, just for the fun of a little hyperbole; and she got the tone and the intention wrong. She thought he was disgusted by her remark, when in fact he was only trying to cheer her up with some playfully exaggerated mock criticism or joshing. In that case the incident is not incredible or bizarre after all.

But if Pascal failed to recognize that Wittgenstein was only teasing, then perhaps the possibility that he was serious was at least nor so far out of the question. She knew him, and she knew what to expect from him; she knew how he made her feel. Her way of understanding or of misunderstanding his remark was very likely not altogether discordant, then, with her sense of what he was like. We may fairly suppose that even if her account of the incident is not strictly true to the facts of Wittgenstein’s intention, it is sufficiently true to her idea of Wittgenstein to have made sense to her. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall accept Pascal’s report at face value, supposing that when it came to the use of allusive or figurative language, Wittgenstein was indeed as preposterous as she makes him out to be.

Then just what is it that the Wittgenstein in her report considers to be objectionable? Let us assume that he is correct about the facts: that is, Pascal really does not know how run-over dogs feel. Even so, when she says what she does, she is plainly not lying. She would have been lying if, when she made her statement, she was aware that she actually felt quite good. For however little she knows about the lives of dogs, it must certainly be clear to Pascal that when dogs are run over they do not feel good. So if she herself had in fact been feeling good, it would have been a lie to assert that she felt like a run-over dog.

Pascal’s Wittgenstein does not intend to accuse her of lying, but of misrepresentation of another sort. She characterizes her feeling as .the feeling of a run-over dog.. She is not really acquainted, however, with the feeling to which this phrase refers. Of course, the phrase is far from being complete nonsense to her; she is hardly speaking gibberish. What she says has an intelligible connotation, which she certainly understands. Moreover, she does know something about the quality of the feeling to which the phrase refers: she knows at least that it is an undesirable and unenjoyable feeling, a EDG feeling. The trouble with her statement is that it purports to convey something more than simply that she feels bad. Her characterization of her feeling is too specific; it is excessively particular. Hers is not just any bad feeling but, according to her account, the distinctive kind of bad feeling that a dog has when it is run over. To the Wittgenstein in Pascal’s story, judging from his response, this is just bullshit.  

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. She does not even think she knows, except in the vaguest way, how a run-over dog feels. Her description of her own feeling is, accordingly, something that she is merely making up. She concocts it out of whole cloth; or, if she got it from someone else, she is repeating it quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are.  

It is for this mindlessness that Pascal’s Wittgenstein chides her. What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct. There is every likelihood, of course, that she says what she does only in a somewhat clumsy effort to speak colorfully, or to appear vivacious or good-humored; and no doubt Wittgenstein’s reaction.as she construes it.is absurdly intolerant. Be this as it may, it seems clear what that reaction is. He reacts as though he perceives her to be speaking about her feeling thoughtlessly, without conscientious attention to the relevant facts. Her statement is not .wrought with greatest care.. She makes it without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy.  

The point that troubles Wittgenstein is manifestly not that Pascal has made a mistake in her description of how she feels. Nor is it even that she has made a careless mistake. Her laxity, or her lack of care, is not a matter of having permitted an error to slip into her speech on account of some inadvertent or momentarily negligent lapse in the attention she was devoting to getting things right. The point is rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.  

This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal’s statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. 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.

 

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paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago

yes, agreed. When i read the Bulshit story, in small booklet-form, for the first time I also thought it a somewhat trite example. Much better to, for instance, take a famous speech by an American president. They are often full of bullshit and the audience loves them for it, providing both an example of bullshit and a rationale for it.

Who for instance, would not clap when hearing JFK saying “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”? And yet, when reflecting on it, who does not realise that the quote is bullshit from start to finish?

paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

Here’s a beauty by Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.”

Bullshit! Yes, change bloody well will come over time, brought by others. Obama and his audience are not the only bringers of change in this world! The quote is thus a good example of a disregard for truth on the part of both the speaker and his audience.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
6 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

The full quote is “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek”.

Now, of course such a speech is supposed to be rousing, audience-affirming, and has a political use. But not only is the passage nonsense when taken literally, but even the underlying message is untrue: there is a complete lack of acknowledgement of constraints here and of dependence on other people elsewhere. The implied uniqueness and omnipotence of the audience is unfair on others not part of that audience because they by implication are deemed unnecessary. Its pandering as a replacement for content.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
6 years ago

It’s been a while since I read the Frankfurter essay (and I don’t plan to re-read it for sake of responding to this piece!), but on reading the examples you quote from the essay, it strikes me that you’re not using the term “bullshit” the same way Frankfurter uses it.

Certainly the second sentence in your two-sentence example is arguably redundant (unless you count the repetition as having rhetorical value), but is it “indifferent to truth or falsehood”? Similarly, you may well be right that Frankfurter uses the example you quote extensively at the end of the piece purely because it has Wittgenstein in it, and he probably could have used a more apposite example, but does that mean the example is “bullshit”? It doesn’t seem to be bullshit to me – it does seem to genuinely illustrate what he means.

I agree that excessive verbiage in academic and intellectual writing is often annoying, but I’m not convinced that necessarily makes it “bullshit” in the Frankfurterian sense of the word.

John Walker
John Walker
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Hmmm – On Bullshit was first published in 1986, at the height of post modernism’s rampage through the academies.
For example I vividly remember a serious debate where a leading proponent of PMO seriously argued that you could not know that the ‘Laocoön and His Sons’ inherently represented people in physical pain, it would all depend on ‘the cultural modes of representation’ of ancient Rome.

Nicholas, rereading ‘On bullshit’ in the context of the apparent triumph of everything is an ‘opinion’ , makes me think you are not in, this case, correct.

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things
truly are. These ‘anti-realist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity .
Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. 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….

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Does the research quality framework or whatever it’s called now give you extra marks for eponymous adjectives?

I have no idea what that means, but it sounds like bullshit. ;)

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
6 years ago
Reply to  Tim Macknay

I knew you were being ironic, but I must confess I have no idea what the “Research Quality Framework” (ERA?) is. Is it some kind of government policy document?

conrad
conrad
6 years ago
Reply to  Tim Macknay

I’ve noticed that the world is become KPIized too, generally for worse. It’s the new sloganeering. Instead of thinking up slogans that will inspire people to….reach for the moon/go further/extract their full possible potential/blah blah etc., now all you need to do is add some KPIs and they’ll suddenly be able to fulfill some of the slogans. My other favorite is the false sense of urgency which pervades every meeting, especially in universities where change occurs at a glacial pace. A lot of management haven’t quite worked out that constantly annoying your employees leads to worse, not better outcomes.

conrad
conrad
6 years ago
Reply to  Tim Macknay

Tim, it’s the governments measure for trying to quantify (at huge cost), the performance of areas of universities and research groups often doing qualitatively different stuff. It’s done in such a stupid way (and there’s no really sensible way to do at the granularity at which they are doing it) it basically destroys areas which are not set up to meet silly metrics that are used to measure performance. This includes many of the cutting edge areas that simply do not have journals and so on to play the game — so make sure you are in the old orthodoxy. It also includes areas which involve longer term objectives (e.g., a lot of useful health research), since these do not often produce lots of outputs, and they generally are not cited a lot by other people because they take years to run. So never run studies that take years to find the answer for.

Tim Macknay
Tim Macknay
6 years ago
Reply to  Tim Macknay

Thanks Conrad. So it’s not “bullshit”, so much as an apocalypse in bureaucratic garb

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
6 years ago

Nicholas
Hm, must have fast forwarded that bit, pretty windy. However ‘Windy’, is not the same as bullshit, no?

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
6 years ago

BTW Wittgenstein was being a idiot- while it is true that we will never know exactly what a run over dog feels, it is quite obvious that such a dog would feel like shit, so as a metaphor, Pascal’s statement fits.

John walker
John walker
6 years ago

Nicholas
He was writing about BS , so it was important to him to be , correct I.e be thorough even verbose , cross Ts and dot all the i’s.

John walker
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Yes , ‘the man with two brains’ keeps coming to my mind too :-)
The example he picked i.e what can we ‘ know ‘ had a lot of currency at that time( do not mean Wittgenstein as such). And they did go ‘on and on’ – you’d knock over one example and they would be back tomorrow with the same BS repackaged ( we call them the undead). I can understand why he felt compelled to write the
way he did ,at that time.

John walker
6 years ago
Reply to  John walker

Agree it’s not an example I would use.
Harry is a moral philosopher; can be vaguely annoying, too serious.

Would emphasize the context of 1986. Around that time Baudrillaud came to Sydney and gave a lecture at Uni Sydney. The actual lecture was incoherent. The audience sat in rapt attention, however, at the end there was a Q&A and Baudrillard’s answers were comprehensible. Most of the audience left. Don Aitken reported in SMH under the heading “The illiterate in pursuit of the incomprehensible”.
I have no idea whether the essay has been updated or post scripted. Do you?

john Walker
john Walker(@johnrwalker)
6 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Gruen

Its funny , as best as i know ‘On Bullshit” was one of those ‘unexpected hits’ a shortish pamphlet , that took off . Have not had the time to look but it seems a bit odd if there has been no post scriptum words from the author since ?