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A Reworked Thing I Wrote about Frankfurt's "On Bullshit"
Last week the great American philosopher Harry Frankfurt passed away. Despite his incredible work, most non-philosophers probably know him best for notorious essay/book “On Bullshit.” That’s quite a shame in my opinion, because I think the phenomenon Frankfurt talks about in that paper doesn’t really make sense. One of the few things I managed to write (though never publish) in my short career as a philosopher tried to make that argument, so I wanted to share that piece here. I hope this criticism isn’t seen as being in bad taste, but rather as an example of that perverse thing philosophers do in honoring each other through criticism.
To make things easier to read, I’ll split the essay in two parts: the first part—this part—will be just a criticism of Frankfurt’s view. The second part will be my own attempt to explain what bullshit is (spoilers: I think bullshitting is just lazy lying).
[NB: The page numbers in the footnotes reference the stand-alone book version of the essay that was published by Princeton University Press. Thus, there might be a mismatch between those numbers and the pdf linked at the top. Ctrl+F will help you find the places I’m referencing if you’re using the pdf]
In a 2016 interview former president Donald Trump told CNN reporter Chris Cuomo that one possible explanation for why he (Trump) was constantly audited by the IRS could be “because of the fact that I’m a strong Christian and I feel strongly about it, so maybe there’s a bias.”1 Anyone who heard this statement recognized it for what it was: bullshit. But what makes Trump’s statement a clear example of bullshit? What makes this utterance different from a straightforward lie or from a sincere utterance of the truth? In other words, what is the theory of bullshit that underwrites our judgment in this case?
To the best of my knowledge, the best and final word on the subject remains Harry Frankfurt’s seminal essay “On Bullshit.”2 There, Frankfurt not only aims to provide us with an adequate account of bullshit, but to also warn us of its pernicious nature; as he puts it, bullshit is an even “greater enemy of truth [than lying].”3 In what follows, I will argue that Frankfurt fails to achieve both aims. Although bullshit is both pervasive and problematic, the account he offers cannot be correct and the phenomenon itself is far from being the threat he makes it out to be. More specifically, I will argue that the core distinction between the liar and the bullshitter on which the entire account hangs has several troubling upshots: it either a) implies that the bullshitter is completely anarchic in speech, b) makes lying exceptionally rare, or c) makes bullshit exceptionally rare. Given that all three of these claims are wrong, I will argue that the distinction cannot be sustained, and that, consequently, Frankfurt’s account does not work.
One final preliminary remark is necessary before I begin. Following G.A. Cohen, we can note two different ways of thinking about bullshit: on the one hand, we can think of bullshit as any statement that’s rubbish or nonsense—in this sense, bullshit is a feature or property of statements themselves and does not rely on any features or intentions of the speaker. This is the sense in which, for example, we can say that the ChomskyBot program (https://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl) is designed to generate bullshit. On the other hand, we can also think of bullshit as a trivial or insincere way of speaking—in this sense, bullshit is a feature of the speech act itself and does rely on whether certain facts about the speaker obtain or fail to obtain.4 Both Frankfurt and I are only concerned with the second way of analyzing bullshit and I will have nothing to say about the first kind or the connection between the two.
I. Frankfurt’s Bullshit/Lying Distinction
Understanding Frankfurt’s account of bullshit requires understanding how he conceives of the relation between bullshit, lying, and telling the truth. This distinction is meant to be fairly simple: both the liar and the truth-teller are sensitive to the truth of their utterance; the bullshitter is not.
But in what sense are the liar and the truth-teller sensitive to the truth of their respective utterances? The matter is straightforward with respect to the truth-teller: he has certain beliefs about the way the world is and makes his assertions based on those beliefs.5 In other words, he uses the truth to guide his utterances. The truth thus exerts a normative force for the truth-teller—it is in reference to it that he determines what should be said. The matter is a bit more complicated when it comes to the liar, but a similar ‘guiding’ explanation is meant to be in place.
To see how Frankfurt thinks this works, we have to briefly look at what he thinks lying requires. Although he never gives us an explicit definition of lying, Frankfurt appears to have something like the following in mind: a speaker A lies about P (where P is just some claim—e.g., “I took out the trash like you asked”) just in case i) A believes P to be false and ii) A asserts P with the intention of convincing his audience that P is true (i.e. A asserts P with the intention of deceiving).6 7 We can then see how lying involves being guided by the truth by focusing on i). If A asserts P but believes it to be true, then A is not lying—he may be saying something false if, contrary to his believe, P does not obtain, but he’s certainly not lying. If for example, I replace the gin in your cup with gasoline while your back is turned and then ask you what you’re drinking, you wouldn’t be lying if you said it was gin. I genuinely believe it to be such even though you’re technically speaking falsely. Conversely, even if P were true, but A believed it to be false and asserted it with the intent to deceive his audience, then he would be lying. If you believe that the liquid I’m about to drink is gasoline but tell me that it’s gin (perhaps intending to punish me for my earlier prank), then you’ve lied to me even if, in fact, the liquid in the cup is gin.
So, it seems that in order to lie, the speaker must believe that his utterance is false or that it falsely represents the world. But, Frankfurt reasons, if the person who lies believes his utterance to be false, then, a fortiori, it’s certainly true that he has some belief about the way the world is. And if that’s the case, then his utterances are guided by what he believes to be true just like the truth-teller. He differs from the truth teller only insofar as he uses the truth as a guide to utter false things rather than true ones, but when it comes to the speakers’ sensitivity to the truth, both represent two sides of the same coin.
Frankfurt summarizes this point:
Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully…Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands.8
It is in contrast to this concern with the way the world is that the bullshitter is defined and distinguished from the truth-teller and the liar. Whereas the latter two recognize the normativity of the truth, the bullshitter takes no heed of it. “He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays not attention to it at all.”9 In other words, for Frankfurt it is a kind of indifference to the truth that is at the core of bullshit and which constitutes its distinctive mark.
II. Bullshit Problems
This way of carving up the distinction between lying, telling the truth, and bullshitting appears plausible. However, once we take a closer look, it’s hard to see how the concept of bullshit is supposed to hang together. I’ll first give what I take to be the most plausible interpretation of how everything is supposed to work in part (a) before arguing that the view can’t work in part (b).
a. A Matter of Motivation
Let’s begin by granting Frankfurt the claim that both the liar and the truth-teller are guided by the truth just in the way that he describes. And let’s also grant that the bullshitter is not guided by his beliefs about the way the world is. There are two ways in which this could be the case. In the first way, the bullshitter fails to be guided by his beliefs about the world because he doesn’t have any such beliefs about the world as pertains to whatever he’s bullshitting about. This is the way that Frankfurt seems to suggest things are with certain unnamed post-modern ‘anti-realists’ who claim to have given up on the idea that there are any facts about the world and have substituted the notion of truth with an ideal of ‘sincerity’.10 These folks, I take it, are paragons of bullshit in Frankfurt’s eyes.
But this cannot be the way in which the bullshitter operates because, as Frankfurt himself points out, even these anonymous post-modern anti-realists have some beliefs about the way the world is. In particular, they have beliefs about who they are, what it means for them to honestly represent themselves (the mark of sincerity), and which utterances will do the job well. In turn, they use those beliefs to make their assertions, and, consequently, it follows that even the anti-realists are guided by their beliefs about the truth. So, if the production of bullshit quite literally requires that one isn’t guided at all by his beliefs about the way the world is in making his utterances, then it turns out that not even the paragons of bullshit engage in it.
Thus, it seems that on this interpretation the only people who engage in bullshit are those people who make mindlessly disconnected utterances to others. But if this were the case, then not only would bullshit be exceedingly rare (and easy to spot), but it also wouldn’t do justice to the phenomenon: Trump’s statement from the top is bullshit but it is not a string of irrelevant utterances.
Not only is this the case, but this first interpretation would also go against Frankfurt’s own description of bullshit. Failing to be guided by the truth “does not mean that [the bullshitter’s] speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.” Clearly, then the lack of interest in being guided by the truth must be cashed out as a difference in the motive of the speaker. So, it must be the case that unlike the truth-teller and the liar, the bullshitter doesn’t pay heed to the truth because it doesn’t motivate him in the right way.
This brings us to the second possible interpretation of how one could fail to be guided by the truth: namely, we can think of the bullshitter as someone who does have some beliefs about the way the world is, but for whom these beliefs offer no reason for making an assertion one way or another.11 This seems to be what Frankfurt has in mind when he says that “for most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make that statement…for the bullshitter it is in itself neither a reason for nor against it.”12 On this interpretation, then, we can think of bullshit as a kind of rational failure—a refusal or inability to recognize reasons for or against making certain utterances.
On the face of it, this interpretation seems to do better than the first one. We could say, for example, that Trump’s claim that he’s audited by the IRS because of his strong Christian faith is bullshit because whether or not that’s true (or false) simply had no impact on his utterance. Specifically, we want to say that if Trump held that proposition to be false (as any reasonable person would), then his utterance is bullshit because his recognition of its falsehood played no role in dissuading him from saying it.13 Likewise, we can say that the post-modern anti-realist engages in bullshit not because he has not beliefs whatsoever about what the world is like, but because he simply fails to recognize that he has reasons to say some things and to refrain from saying others. Explicitly, he has reasons to refrain from saying that there’s no way the world is since he does belief that there is a way the world is with respect to him, and believing that to be true gives him reason not to deny it.
So far so good, but the bump in the bullshit rug appears elsewhere. We can see it most clearly when we consider why someone might be motivated to bullshit. After all, it was with respect to motivation that the original distinction was made. If something like an accurate representation of the world doesn’t have any motivating force for the bullshitter than what does?
We can put aside those contexts in which the motivation is obvious but unproblematic (e.g. bullshitting to make others laugh). As I understand him, when Frankfurt labels bullshit as a “greater enemy of truth [than lying]” he is not warning us about the threat of unchecked comedy. Rather, I take it that Frankfurt is worried about the prevalence of bullshit in contexts in which it is (or would be) important for the speaker to be guided by the way things are (e.g. the context of holding the highest office in the land).
One natural suggestion for what the bullshitter is trying to do in bullshitting is to deceive his audience about something. This checks out with Frankfurt’s own diagnosis. Indeed, Frankfurt states that the bullshitter is trying to deceive us about his ‘enterprise’ and about the fact that “the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him.”14
This may be true, but it only pushes the question back: why would somebody be trying to deceive us about this fact? The obvious answer is that by bullshitting, the speaker can achieve some end that he desires—he can get something he wants. For example, in describing him, Frankfurt says that the bullshitter “does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”15 Similarly, in a discussion of a Fourth of July orator who engages in humbug (a phenomenon related to bullshit) Frankfurt says that “the orator intends these statements [about the Founding Fathers] to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.”16
So, it seems that the motivation for the bullshitter is some end he sets for himself the means of which are achieved by uttering things that are not guided by the truth. I’ll consider an alternative claim that the bullshitter bullshits for its own sake shortly, but for now we can focus on the following picture. The bullshitter is someone who makes an assertion in order to produce an effect in his audience that is to his advantage (a favorable impression of himself, for example) by pretending to be someone who speaks truthfully, or, at the very least, as someone who is sensitive to the truth.
Thus, the bullshitter is someone entirely (or almost entirely) motivated by means/ends reasoning. When he says something true, he doesn’t do it because it is true. Rather, he says what he says simply because it will suit his purposes. More importantly, when he says something false, he says it for the same reason. To bring this back to Earth, when Trump says that his strong Christian faith is the reason he’s being audited he says something false, but his motivation is saying it isn’t because he thinks it’s true (nor because he thinks it’s false) but because it will help him achieve whatever he’s up to (appearing more pious, appealing to his conservative base, riling up liberals, etc.).
This strikes me as the best way to interpret Frankfurt’s concept of bullshit. Indeed, I don’t know how else to interpret it! It appears to preserve the similarity between the liar and the bullshitter (the both intend to deceive, they both have some ends that they pursue, etc.) while maintaining the thesis that the crucial distinction between the two is to be made in the attitudes that each has with respect to the truth. Furthermore, it allows us to make this distinction without having to accept the absurd conclusion that follows from the first interpretation considered.
Nevertheless, although this interpretation appears to preserve the distinction between the liar and the bullshitter, it simply does not. Or, to put it more accurately, the distinction can only be preserved if we take on some very strange views about lying, or alternatively, if we accept that the bullshitter is incomprehensible. I turn to this problem next.
b. The Distinction Collapses
Let’s return for a moment to the view of lying that Frankfurt seems to be working with. We outlined this view by saying that a speaker A lies about P just in case i) A believes P to be false and ii) A asserts P with the intention of convincing his audience that P is true (i.e. A asserts P with the intention of deceiving). To distinguish lying from bullshitting, we must now add the implicit condition iii).
iii): that A believes P to be false serves as reason for him to assert it
Note that it was by appealing to iii) that we were able to make sense of Frankfurt’s distinction in section a)—the liar meets condition iii) while the bullshitter does not.
As it stands, however, iii) is ambiguous. A’s belief that P is false could serve as a reason for him to assert it in two different ways. On the one hand, it could serve as a reason for him to assert it regardless of what ends he has—here, A’s belief that P is false serves as some kind of categorical reason for A to assert P. On the other hand, it could serve as a reason for him to assert it just in case he has some set goal which would be satisfied by uttering what A believes to be false—here the belief that P is false serves as an instrumental reason to assert it.
Again, to make this distinction clearer, consider two ways in which we can understand Trump’s claim that he’s being audited by the IRS because of his strong Christian faith: either he says it because the very falsehood of that statement, as it were, compels Trump to say it (i.e., “I know what I say is false, but because it is false I must say it.”), or he says he it because he wants something else (i.e., “I know what I say is false, but if I say it, I’ll get x, y, or z.”). Which of these two readings are correct when it comes to bullshit?
It’s clear that Frankfurt can’t accept the first reading. He himself says as much in his discussion of Augustine’s “Lying.” Augustine sees a similar distinction between the different motivations and intentions that the liar might have as I’ve pointed out here, and makes an eight-fold classification of lying on that basis. Seven of the eight kinds of lying are done as a means to some end, and, for Augustine don’t count as real lies. Only the eighth type of lie—“the lie which is told solely for the pleasure of lying and deceiving”—counts as a real lie. That is, only those people who see the falsity of what they’re saying as an end in itself are real liars. But Frankfurt right points out that “what Augustine calls ‘liars’ and ‘real lies’ are both rare and extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively from a love of falsity or deception.”17 So, it seems that Frankfurt’s liars will overwhelmingly be people who lie as a means to some other end they have. In other words, the falsity of their beliefs, when they serve as reasons to assert those false beliefs, will nearly always be instrumental ones.
So, the proper way of understanding iii) for Frankfurt must be something like iii*):
iii*): that A believes P is false serves as an instrumental reason for him to assert it given that he has some end that he believes asserting P would help bring about.18
As established, the liar is supposed to differ from the bullshitter only with respect to iii*). That is, the bullshitter is supposed to see no real—neither an instrumental, nor any other kind of reason—for asserting P. He simply sees no reason one way or the other.
But how could this be? We’ve already established that the bullshitter isn’t just anarchically impulsive with his speech. He doesn’t just make disconnected utterances for not reason. Rather, he says the things that he does because he has some kind of goal he wants to achieve—he wants his audience to see him in a certain way, or to get them to do something, or whatever. However, if that’s the case, then he must also see himself as having an instrumental reason to make assertions he believes to be false. But if that’s the case, then he satisfies iii*), and hence, is simply a liar. Thus, the distinction between the liar and the bullshitter collapses—bullshitters become liars and liars become bullshitters
Perhaps someone might say that both the bullshitter and the liar have instrumental reasons to say something false, but that it’s only the latter that recognizes this falsehood as a reason to make his assertions—the bullshitter doesn’t. However, this move comes at much too high of a cost in terms of how we think of lying in order to be successful. If this is supposed to be the crucial distinction between lying and bullshitting, then all liars would just be identical to Augustine’s “real liar” in terms of motivation—their reasons for lying would be that they recognize the fact that what they say is false as a reason to say it. But this is certainly not why most people lie. When I lie to you and say that I didn’t come to your party because I was sick, I don’t see the fact that I wasn’t sick as a reason to say that I was. More than likely that thought never crossed my mind. Furthermore, if you were to catch me in my lie and ask me if I told you I was sick because I recognized that I wasn’t, I would (truthfully) deny it. The fact that what I was saying was false simply had nothing to do with my motivation for saying it—I just didn’t want to come! If recognition of falsehood as a reason to make an utterance is needed to buttress the distinction between the liar and the bullshitter, then it comes at the cost of making lying the practice of a few pathologically afflicted individuals. And that’s simply not accurate.
Alternatively, someone might push back and say that I’ve made a mistake in ever allowing our bullshitter to have any reason—instrumental or otherwise—to say what he says. This opponent simply digs their heels in and insists that the bullshitter truly sees no reason whatsoever to say one thing rather than another. This suggestion would keep the distinction from collapsing, but it immediately runs into the problem that, as we’ve repeatedly stated, the bullshitter’s utterances are not anarchic. If his assertions aren’t guided even by the ends that he sets for himself, then he must be someone who merely speaks without any thought whatsoever. This may very well be the case, but it seems to me that, aside from having to walk back Frankfurt’s remarks, this would make the bullshitter as exceedingly rare as Augustine’s liar. And that is also just not accurate—bullshitters are common!
The main point here is that in trying to understand Frankfurt’s distinction between the liar and the bullshitter we are lead to three implausible positions: 1) either lying is exceedingly rare (i.e. all liars are Augustinian liars), or 2) bullshit is exceedingly rare (i.e. all bullshitters are anarchic speakers), 3) or there is no real distinction between the two. None of these are compatible with Frankfurt’s claims.
My suspicion is that something has gone wrong with Frankfurt’s original distinction and we would be better off giving it up. What separates the liar and the bullshitter is not the presence or lack of concern for the truth but something else entirely. I turn to what I think this might be next.
Part II continues here…
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.
A similar distinction can be highlighted by thinking of the difference between lying and saying something false. An utterance of a false statement constitutes a lie just in case (among other things) the speaker who utters it has the intention to deceive their audience. By contrast, no false statement has the property of being a lie absent such an intention.
I use the masculine pronoun ‘he’ throughout the paper to match Frankfurt’s stylistic choice in doing the same. Earlier drafts used ‘she’ and ‘they’ but this use made embedding quotes confusing and distracting. In any case, I don’t intend anything substantial to hang on my use of pronouns.
For textual support that Frankfurt holds something like this view see his remarks on pg. 7 “the property of being humbug is similar to that of being a lie…which requires that the liar make his statement in a certain state of mind—namely, with an intention to deceive; pg. 46 “the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates falsity.”; and pg. 54 “Both [the bullshitter] and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false.”
By themselves, these two conditions wouldn’t constitute a very good account of lying. They can’t handle cases of bald-faced lies, fail to capture the distinction between lying and misleading, and generally ignore the context in which an utterance is made. However, since Frankfurt doesn’t take himself to be providing us an account of lying, but to only be giving us a preliminary analysis of a related phenomenon, I won’t address these issues. It’s enough for our purposes that this description captures why Frankfurt holds that the liar is concerned with the truth and why a sensitivity to the truth is necessary for telling a lie.
Ibid., 61; See also Frankfurt’s remark that “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.” Pg. 33-34
The obvious target of Frankfurt’s vitriol seems to be Rorty, but he also seems to be casting a wider net.
My use of ‘reason’ here shouldn’t be taken to have any heavy meta-ethical connotations. The same point can be made by substituting ‘reason’ for ‘source of motivation’. The choice of the former is simply stylistic and in keeping with Frankfurt’s own use of the term.
There’s an interesting question about what we should say if we imagine that he really believes it to be true. Perhaps we ought to take pity on him in that case or take Strawson’s objective attitude towards him, but if he truly believed that the IRS audited him because of his faith, then whatever else we say, I believe we would have to give up the claim that he’s bullshitting.
Ibid., 55; Keep in mind the sense in which the statements are of no interest to him.
Ibid., 56; emphasis mine.
Ibid., 18; I admit it, I’m still unclear about what the connection between humbug and bullshit is supposed to be and whether instances of humbug should be counted as instance of bullshit. I’m treating that as being the case here, but even if I’m wrong, it seems reasonable to suppose that someone who engages in bullshit might have it as his end goal that his audience think of him a certain way.
We can also throw in a rider that that says something like “unless A is a pathological liar who simply asserts things because they’re false” to cover all our bases.