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.
This is the opening paragraph of an essay titled “On Bullshit” by Harry Frankfurt; Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, which was written back in 1985, and most recently (Jan 2005) published by Princeton Press as a book.
If you want to know more, check out Prof Frankfurt’s appearance on the daily show, where I -incidently- first heard about the book; or his Princeton Press interview. (A quick google search will link to other videos including lectures on love and ethics.)
The book is a quick and fascinating read, and rings appropriate and true. Mostly, it is about the distinguishing charactersitics of bullshit, and how it’s different from humbug and lying. It also touches upon the dangers of bullshit, before ending with an attempt to answer the question: “Why is there so much bullshit?” (– almost every word in it is worth quoting, but let me only quote this last part:)
The contemporary peoliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealistic” doctorines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. 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.
But it is proposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at alll without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgement that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not perculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the nature of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.
This digs deep, and potentially renders most of my words and deeds under the umbrella of bullshit — not that otherwise was ever implied. Now that that’s recognized, I have no desire to say anymore, so expect this silence to last for sometime, maybe ever — even this implication of concern for the truth might be labelled as bullshit.
Yes, Marcus, this confirms it; it’s all bullshit anyways.
Ok, so maybe that was more than a tad overly melodramatic. What can I say, it was late at night, and I had had a difficult day, which amplified the resonance of certain ideas from the book with certain feelings I’ve been toying with. Plus, you have to remember that (if we have learned anything from Cosmo Kramer is that) 94% of our communication is nonverbal; i.e. I’m only using 6% of my skills here. See.