On bullshit

That debate on abortion was utterly depressing. Some people are disgusted that anyone could force a woman to incubate an unwanted foetus for nine months, with all the physical and emotional pain that involves. Pregnancy takes a toll on a woman’s body. Others say that cluster of cells is a potential human life, and are disgusted that human life could be expunged. Debates on whether anyone can be “pro-life” without being anti-gun, anti-capital punishment and anti-war, or whether legal prohibition or better family planning services are the best way to avoid abortion, draw dividing lines little different from the main one on pro-life v pro-choice. This does not stop us hurling ourselves against each other. “I find you disgusting- and so should everyone else!” We try to win. Possibly, we will not even co-operate on having a useful conversation- finding any excuse to blame or condemn the other- but we can define what a useful conversation would look like.

Petter A Naessan: Speakers and listeners assume that the others abide by certain, predominantly unstated, speech norms. The cooperative principle can be divided more specifically into the maxims of quantity, quality, relevance, and manner. For bullshitological purposes, the violation of the maxims would appear to be relevant. So if utterances convey not enough or too much information (quantity), are intentionally false or lack evidence (quality), are irrelevant to any current topic or issue (relevance), and are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly (manner), then they make our conversation valueless, apart from giving transitory feelings of triumph or despair giving way to ennui.

The bullshit of politicians is a threat to public order and the public good. The disaster of Brexit is being achieved by bullshit. Both the liar and the bullshitter try to get away with something. But ‘lying’ is perceived to be a conscious act of deception, whereas ‘bullshitting’ is unconnected to a concern for truth. Frankfurt regards this ‘indifference to how things really are’, as the essence of bullshit. Furthermore, a lie is necessarily false, but bullshit is not – bullshit may happen to be correct or incorrect. The crux of the matter is that bullshitters hide their lack of commitment to truth. Since bullshitters ignore truth instead of acknowledging and subverting it, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies.

Stephen Poole in The Guardian: Trump is merely the most energetic current exploiter of a fact that modern politicians have long known: the media is broken, and you can mercilessly exploit its flaws to your own benefit. (That, after all, is what “spin doctors” are for.) If you repeat a lie often enough, then that claim becomes the story, and it’s what most people remember. And a structural confusion between “impartiality” and “balance” undermines the mission to inform of institutions such as the BBC. To be impartial would be to point out untruths wherever they come from. But to be “balanced” is to have a three-way between a presenter and two economists on opposite sides of some question. Never mind that one economist represents the views of 95% of the profession and the other is an ideologically blinkered outlier: the structure of the interview itself implies to the audience that the arguments are evenly divided.

Petter Naessan reviewing On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt in Philosophy Now.
Stephen Poole: “How we let the phoneys take control and debase the language of politics,” in The Guardian.

Blake, Pestilence

11 thoughts on “On bullshit

    • It’s good, isn’t it: the real problem with the Brexit liars and Mr Trump. Without bothering whether what you say is true, win at any cost.

      I remember a witness in a tribunal unable to answer a simple question about the care he gave for his father, because he could not work out which answer would mean that his father was disabled enough to get the benefit. I remember the chairman’s contempt for him. But how can we get the dupes of Brexit to feel that contempt?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was Nazi Germany’s Joseph Goebbles who “worked and lived” by the rule “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” it seems our politicians today do not much better these days – sadly. The dupes of Brexit will only see the contempt when Brexit cuts into their personal lives in ways that hurt them in particular.


  1. Bullshitological is a new word to me. I don’t find the conversation depressing, it’s really quite interesting. I think I see both sides fairly clearly, maybe that’s why I don’t ‘hate’ all anti-abortion arguments. In fact, I’m probably anti-abortion in some way (I don’t want to see anyone go through it) but I think having choice is more important.


    • Surely no-one is pro-abortion. Pro-choice is not pro-abortion.

      There was Pink and Wotsisname, in their “You insulted me worse” stooshie, debating about who knew more about Catholicism. I think Wotsisname thought he had defeated me because he cited a Study, as if that were more use than my secondary source. Eventually I find my own rhetoric so boring I can’t be bothered typing it.


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