SPidge Tales

Sunday, June 11, 2006

On Bullshit

The Industrial Revolution reminds me of a story called the little puppy who lost his way…the difference is that the puppy was a dog, but the industry, my friends, that was a revolution. Knibb High football rules! Billy Madison

In 2005, Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Princeton University, received a good amount of press, including an appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, for his treatise titled On Bullshit (Princeton University Press: Princeton, Nj; 2005). Just 67 succinct pages, his opening paragraph gets straight to the point:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. (pg. 1)

We know, Frankfurt says, that there is way too much bullshit out there, but we do not have a unified theory about what exactly bullshit is. Frankfurt proposes here to develop a “theoretical understanding of bullshit (pg. 2)”.

A word that comes close to bullshit in practical meaning is “humbug”, a “more polite, as well as less intense (pg. 5)” way of saying bullshit, in that sense that one could go back and forth between saying, ‘that is humbug’ or ‘that is bullshit’ in response to another’s exaggerated claim. But, even that does not work, for humbug is, according to Max Black (The Prevalence of Humbug. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), who Frankfurt cites, humbug is defined as “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes (pg. 6).” Yet, as Frankfurt goes on to claim, bullshit is different than a deceptive misrepresentation.

To explain bullshit, Frankfurt begins by citing an encounter between Fania Pascal and the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in the 1930’s. Fania remembers:

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.” (pg. 24)

It is possible, Frankfurt says, that Wittgenstein was just joking with her, showing faux repulsion, like when we say to someone with a broken leg, “it could be worse; if you were a horse, we’d have to shoot you.” However, Frankfurt does not think this so, because Pascal knew Wittgenstein well. He was entirely serious.

Was this because Pascal was lying? Hardly. Common sense would tell her that a dog that has been run over would be in a state of unpleasantness, a state not unlike her own after having her tonsils taken out. Wittgenstein is taken aback, however, not in that he thinks she lied. He knows better. It is that she could not possibly know what it feels like to be a dog run over. She is making a comparison that she does not have the facts to make. Wittgenstein’s reaction to Pascal’s cry of distress may be “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 (pg. 31).” Frankfurt continues. “[Pascal’s] fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying (pg. 32).”

Bullshitting is not, then, lying or trying to deceive. A bullshitter is someone who has no regard at all for the truth. A liar at least knows what the truth is, or thinks he knows what the truth is, and, knowing that, deliberately goes against it. A bullshitter may know the truth, or may not, but either way, does not care about it, does not, may I say it, give a shit about the truth. The bullshitter takes “no interest in whether what she says is true or false (pg. 33).” “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit (pgs. 33-34).”

We all make analogies of the sort that Frankfurt would classify as bullshit. Sometimes, it is not a big deal. When I say, for example, “I am sweating like a whore in church” or “I am out like a boner in sweatpants” or “I am off like a prom-dress,” I am not making a comparison with no regard for the truth. I know, and everyone knows, that the word ‘sweating’ in the first saying has two different meanings, the first being the sweating one does after physical exertion, the other a use of the word sweating as a synonym for nervousness or anxiety. ‘I am out’ and ‘I am off’ are ways of saying ‘goodbye,’ ‘I am leaving’, but they are contrasted with ‘out’ and ‘off’ in a different setting so as to set up an entendre to bring about humor. This is not bullshitting. This is using humor to show how silly bullshitting really is by using comparisons that really cannot be made. This is why Billy Madison’s speech in the final event of the academic decathlon to determine whether he or Eric get the company is funny. Billy knew nothing about the Industrial Revolution, so he felt the need to bullshit, and his comparison between the Industrial Revolution and the story of the little puppy who lost his way is so absurd that it could not possibly work as bullshit (though, the movie being an Adam Sandler comedy—the best kind—the entire audience buys it except for the Principal).

There are other areas of life where we have a tacit understanding that what is going on is bullshit, but we choose to go along anyways. When guys and girls meet, the flirting and tension are underlined by an understood bullshit where both know that this is the subtle way of getting to know a person on an initial level, before deciding whether to get to know the person later on a real level. A similar bullshit level exists in required societal events such as work cocktail parties or extended family get-togethers. And, this can be okay. Sometimes, and with some people, we do not want to truly open up to. But, the problem arises when we move onto serious issues.

Bullshitting is a more common way of saying, unless I have read Frankfurt’s book wrong, what we used to call sophistry. The Sophists were the opponents of Socrates and the real philosophers. Sophists had no concern with truth, and the way things really are. Their goal was to use rhetoric to get what they wanted. For them, the ends justified the means. Even though this way of thinking was discredited by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and later by Christianity, it still exists. Sadly, the Enlightenment’s call for truth is inherently illogical as it is predicated on the subjective and the return to the call of the Sophist Protagoras to have man be “the measure of all things” rather than God. If man is the measure of truth, and right and wrong, then truth and justice end up being not objective things that we are called to strive to know and follow, but just either that which each man decides for himself, leading to chaos, or that which the majority or the elite power molders decide upon, leading to tyranny. With the postmodernist turn, not only is bullshitting unconcerned with truth, but, along with Pontius Pilate, who asks, “what is truth?”, denies that objective truth even exists, leaving the “art” of bullshit as the only worthwhile endeavor. He who can convince others to “buy” his meaning in a meaningless world wins. Yeah, there really is a lot of bullshit out there.


Blogger Ann Lazarsfeld-Jensen said...

The analysis of the Pascal and Wittgenstein exchange is a grand example of bullshit born from lack of research

1:31 AM  

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