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.