Mark, Wes, Dylan, and Seth discuss the celebrated 1986 essay “On Bullshit.” (In part two, we’ll cover by contrast his 1982 essay “The Importance of What We Care About.”)
What is bullshit, or “humbug” as a previous essay by Max Black calls it? Frankfurt starts with Black’s definition (“deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes”) in order to define his own idea. While bullshit often involves lying, the point is not to lie, and much bullshit (e.g. a generic political speech) need not involve lies at all. Bullshit’s distinguishing characteristic, according to Frankfurt, is its indifference to the truth. We speak with some other purpose, such as impressing people, covering up the fact that you really have nothing to say, or paying “lip service” to some ideal to meet an audience expectation. Whether or not the particular sentences uttered for this purpose are true or not is beside the point.
There is deception involved in bullshit, but it’s deception about the speaker’s purpose: Hearers are supposed to think that the person is speaking honestly an authentically, but they’re really being manipulated. This wrinkle introduces an exception for contexts in which the audience knows that they’re being (for example) entertained or included in a ceremony or otherwise being spoken to in a context where honesty is not the point. Frankfurt gives the example of “bull sessions” where people speak casually to each other to explore ideas without committing themselves to actually believing or asserting them. In any instance of pretend or storytelling, hearers presumably know that they’re not going to be told the literal truth.
We discuss how some public figures abuse this “play exception” to claim that they’re not intending to make truth claims, as their point is instead to express solidarity with the audience, or to merely entertain. For instance, Alex Jones’ lawyers argued that in defaming Sandy Hook victims, he was in effect playing a character, speaking in a forum where reasonable listeners would not take him to be speaking seriously. A similar claim was made by Fox News in defending itself against defamation, claiming that the statements in question were entertainment, not news. And of course Trump’s defenders sometimes claim that he is using humor instead of lying. While Trump himself typically denies this, this was certainly his defense of “locker room talk” and is currently on display in his defense of his real estate valuations: These are about “brand development.”
But of course, the hyperbole of marketing is exactly the kind of thing that Frankfurt had in mind when arguing against bullshit: The fact that we all know that advertisements, political speeches, organizational vision statements, bureaucratic ass-covering, and similar nonsense is less about truth than in achieving some practical purpose doesn’t mean that such a disclaimer makes them morally unobjectionable. Much of our discourse, including this podcast, is in a grey area: Not prepared statements intended to to reliably impart truth, but some sort of language game designed to benefit the speakers (and hopefully hearers) in some way via a mix of truth, yes, but also opinions, hypotheses, musings, jokes, and other speech acts that surely partake to some extent in bullshit.
Buy the book or read the essay online. An interesting response that focuses more on the product bullshit instead of the speaker’s purposes is G.A. Cohen’s “Deeper Into Bullshit.” Read Frankfurt’s “The Importance of What We Care About.” You can watch Frankfurt himself discuss bullshit here and here.
Listen to Mark’s recent treatment of this same concept (with more exploration of its relation to play and irony) with Jenny Hansen and others on the Philosophy vs. Improv podcast. A relevant previous PEL episode is #61 on Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Lie.”