What is ‘bullshitting’ in the Harry Frankfurt sense?

David Rubie thinks I breached by own comments policy in saying:

Most critics of ‘neoliberalism’ are bullshitters in the Harry Frankfurt sense; ie not so much liars as people who just don’t care whether what they say is correct or not.

This was a reference to Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay ‘On Bullshit’, which became a surprise bestseller a couple of years ago when Princeton University Press put it between hardcovers.

The term ‘bullshit’ is, in most contexts, mildly vulgar, but I think Frankfurt was right to use it because it picks up a shade of meaning lacking in some of the similar words we could use to describe the statements of people saying or writing untrue things. The Wikipedia entry gives its origins as:

“Bull”, meaning nonsense, dates from the 17th century (Concise Oxford Dictionary), whereas the term “bullshit” is popularly considered to have been first used in 1915, in American slang, and to have come into popular usage only during World War II. The word “bull” itself may have derived from the Old French boul meaning “fraud, deceit” (Oxford English Dictionary). The term “bullshit” is a near synonym.

The ‘bull’ is more important than the ‘shit’, because ‘nonsense’ is the idea being picked up in using the word ‘bull’ and carried across to ‘bullshit’. When we say someone is ‘bullshitting’ we might mean that they are telling lies, but it is more likely that we are saying that they are talking nonsense, which doesn’t require them to be consciously telling untruths.

I said what I did in the comment David Rubie picked up on because after twenty years or so of reading critiques of ‘economic rationalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’ – as well as meeting and talking with some of the people I was critiquing – I concluded that while much of what I read was error-ridden, few of the authors seemed like dishonest people. It was more a case of their cause being so self-evidently (to them) right that ‘facts’ must flow from it, rather than existing independently. The result is ‘bullshitting’.

While I was partly exempting Pearse from this – he has gone to the trouble of finding citations, which few critics do – in a sense he has fallen into the same underlying problem. Because there is a strong narrative about the (malign) influence of think-tanks, he seems to have concluded that the facts must support the existing narrative. Unable to find much from the CIS, but also unable to accept that the narrative was wrong, he offers us quotations from people connected to the CIS instead. Like a Frankfurtian bullshitter, he is going through the motions (Homer – beat you to it) of offering evidence, without caring whether it truly supports his argument or not.

9 thoughts on “What is ‘bullshitting’ in the Harry Frankfurt sense?

  1. I think the term also rose from dealing with Chinese people in 19th-century goldfields in Australia and the US. Chinese provoked to deny an accusation would use the Mandarin phrase “bu shi” (not true) insistently, which can sound like “bullshit”

    Examples of bullshit in public discourse today:
    * When and if John Howard will stand down, in favour of Peter Costello or whomever else
    * When the election will be called
    * Whether the AFP have a reasonable case that Dr Haneef was guilty of any crime
    * What will happen in Iraq
    * Who will win the Presidential election in the US next year
    * What Kevin Rudd would do as Prime Minister, regardless of what he might say (or not say) today

    It’s not that people don’t care whether or not about the truth in these concepts. It’s trying to combine an acceptance that things like these will have real effects on people’s everyday lives (and that allowances and adjustments must be made for these eventualities) with the notion that these decisions are taken in secret and will not be made by the sort of person who talks to/writes for the likes of you and me. The process of treating hypothetical scenarios as real, of not only being castles in the air but charging rent for them, is “bullshit”.

    Pearse is observing certain outcomes from thinktanks (not only position papers but attendances at functions, contributions where this information is available) and drawing conclusions from there. I think he cares about the truth but can’t get access to it, and is working with what (little) he’s got; I haven’t read the book but I doubt he’s on some wild Pilgeresque jag. From the inside it must be a bit like that parable about the blind men describing the elephant I suppose.


  2. Andrew – I think that is a good refinement, between situations in which the facts could be known but the author doesn’t see the need to check them, and situations such as those in which important facts are unknown to the author and therefore ‘bullshitting’ is a near inevitable result of saying anything. I think Frankfurt makes the point that bulshitting often occurs when people feel the need to talk on subjects they know little about. Political journalists have more space to fill in the media than there is genuine news, so they fill it with ‘bullshit’ about Costello challenges etc.


  3. From Kevin Andrews lecture to the CIS:

    By liberalism, I mean classical liberalism not libertarianism which poses as liberalism. By conservatism, I do not mean a reactionary politics that
    seeks to impose social order at the expense of basic rights.

    He can’t even follow his own philosophy when the rubber meets the road. Classical bullshit. I suppose the CIS disavows any kind of connection with this mendacious twerp?


  4. “Pearse is observing certain outcomes from thinktanks (not only position papers but attendances at functions, contributions where this information is available) and drawing conclusions from there. I think he cares about the truth but can’t get access to it, and is working with what (little) he’s got”

    Andrew E., I think you are being overly generous to Pearse. Jumping to conclusions which aren’t warranted by the available evidence speaks against a care for the truth.


  5. Many people have jobs which require them to say things that they may not believe, and politicians have to deal with this more than most (‘the party line’). The very act of joining a broad church political party is making a pact with other people to support things you don’t agree with in order to secure their support for things you agree with and they don’t.


  6. It is a pity that the sociology of knowledge is overwhelmingly a leftwing venture There is a need to study how so many critics of economic rationalism and neoliberalism manage to get by on a diet of other criticisms instead of ingesting some of the primary material. I mean really coming to grips with it and not just cherrypicking pieces out of context.

    There are a couple of other terms in addition to bs to describe the misleading rumours that circulate from that process. Try hokum, favoured by Barzun
    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/hokum or canards. http://www.webster.com/cgi-bin/dictionary?sourceid=Mozilla-search&va=canard

    I don’t want to prmaturely accuse people of dishonesty, but how many more years can essentially decent and intelligent people go on believing so much hokum?


  7. Andrew I had a bit of a go at this subject a long while back.

    I think dodgy use of argument is not bullshit in Frankfurt’s sense. Bullshit is not really argument at all – just assertion, slaps on the back of various kinds. Argument entirely by body language if you get what I mean. Very poor argument still pays the complement of the form of argument. As I said in the post John Clarke is a comedian of bullshit. His comedy shows the radical disjunction between what people are saying, what their gestures are, and the words they use. In the middle of an interview John Howard (or Kevin Rudd) will answer his mobile or say ‘goodness me is that the time’ or whatever nonsense comes into his head. The joke is that the protagonist could be saying absolutely anything – he’s just got to keep talking, keep the body language going.

    That’s bullshit. And there’s also a version of it in pubs. But it’s not (IMHO) shoddy argument.


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