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March 26, 2006


This idea is by no means new, any more than the idea that bullshit is on the rise is new. I recently happened to come across a delightful short essay called "Clocks" by Jerome K. Jerome. I recommend taking a minute to read it in its entirety. It says, in part,

Long live our coward, falsehearted chief! --fit leader for such soldiers as we! Long live the Lord-of-Lies, anointed! Long live poor King Appearances, to whom all mankind bows the knee!

But we must hold him aloft very carefully, oh, my brother warriors! He needs much "keeping up." He has no bones and sinews of his own, the poor old flimsy fellow! If we take our hands from him, he will fall a heap of worn-out rags, and the angry wind will whirl him away, and leave us forlorn. Oh, let us spend our lives keeping him up, and serving him, and making him great--that is, evermore puffed out with air and nothingness--until he burst, and we along with him!

Burst one day he must, as it is in the nature of bubbles to burst, especially when they grow big. Meanwhile, he still reigns over us, and the world grows more and more a world of pretense and exaggeration and lies; and he who pretends and exaggerates and lies the most successfully, is the greatest of us all.

The world is a gingerbread fair, and we all stand outside our booths and point to the gorgeous-colored pictures, and beat the big drum and brag. Brag! brag! Life is one great game of brag!

"Buy my soap, oh ye people, and ye will never look old, and the hair will grow again on your bald places, and ye will never be poor or unhappy again,; and mine is the only true soap. Oh, beware of spurious imitations!"

"Buy my lotion, all ye that suffer from pains in the head, or the stomach, or the feet, or that have broken arms, or broken hearts, or objectionable mothers-in-law; and drink one bottle a day, and all your troubles will be ended."

"Come to my church, all ye that want to go to Heaven, and buy my penny weekly guide, and pay my pew-rates; and, pray ye, have nothing to do with my misguided brother over the road. This is the only safe way!"

"Oh, vote for me, my noble and intelligent electors, and send our party into power, and the world shall be a new place, and there shall be no sin or sorrow any more! And each free and independent voter shall have a brand new Utopia made on purpose for him, according to his own ideas, with a good-sized, extra-unpleasant purgatory attached, to which he can send everybody he does not like. Oh! do not miss this chance!"

Oh! listen to my philosophy, it is the best and deepest. Oh! hear my songs, they are the sweetest. Oh! buy my pictures, they alone are true art. Oh! read my books, they are the finest.

Oh! I am the greatest cheesemonger, I am the greatest soldier, I am the greatest statesman, I am the greatest poet, I am the greatest showman, I am the greatest mountebank, I am the greatest editor, and I am the greatest patriot. We are the greatest nation. We are the only good people. Ours is the only true religion. Bah! how we all yell!

That rant was written in 1891, and very little of it has lost its relevance (ok, maybe the cheesemonger thing). The word "bullshit" may be an American invention of World War I, but clearly the spread of bullshit (as I define it) is timeless.

I am so confused. After reading this, I am afraid anything I say could be construed as Bullshit.

We in the reality-based community have had nothing but scorn for the Bushevik who claimed that they made reality to suit their aims and the rest of us poor schlumps just had to try to keep up. Recently, we've all been feeling extreme schadenfreude as reality has begun to bite the reality-creators right hard in the butt. It seems to me that your definition of bullshit is another way to describe this reality-creation, and that a lot of the discussion on the leftward blogs for the past several years has circled around whether the Busheviks knew that their contrived reality was bullshit, or if they actually believed it. Is the belief in one's own bullshit a special kind of pathology that particularly affects the current crooks in charge, or are they simply master propagandists? If the former, is this why reality has had such a hard time getting a handhold even when the Bush-fabricated reality has been 100% disproved?I am thinking especially of the refusal of establishment Dems to recognize the astonishing lurch toward totalitarianism taken by the administration without much resistance at all.

I agree. Frankfurt’s “bullshit” philosophy is much too simplistic for human society. My high school English teacher had a somewhat more nuanced scatological philosophy (yes, high school – it was the 70s, after all). He divided dishonest discourse into three strata: bullshit, horseshit and elephant shit.

Approximately (it was the 70s, after all ;-), bullshit could be described, as you suggest, by deceptive advertising or an entertaining (yet untrue) yarn. Horseshit is more elevated in seriousness and harm, such as the lie designed to hurt the feelings of another.

Elephant shit (no I don’t know for sure that his theory specifically referenced the GOP) was the most egregious form of deception. Generally, public lies that do great harm. A monumental steaming pile such as the Swiftvet lies or (practically) everything Republicans say to get elected. Elephant shit indeed.

Obviously, he was trying to teach us about rhetoric and how to be discerning consumers of...well, you get the idea.

I am so confused. After reading this, I am afraid anything I say could be construed as Bullshit.

Alvord, don't worry -- I have never studied any philosophy, and just posted a critique of a book by one of its distinguished luminaries... a book I haven't even read. This entire post would therefore, I believe, be bullshit by Frankfurt's definition -- though not, conveniently, by my own!

So when does bullshit transform itself into a lie?? I read your diary and bullshit seems to be both the truth and a lie..or simply words with no integrity. A little confused by your diary..it makes one think a lot.

americanforliberty, thanks for your comment -- I think your question points out something I may have skipped over too quickly. In my view, whether something is bullshit is not related to whether it is a lie. Some lies are bullshit (say, claiming you have a degree you do not have -- it is a lie because it is false, and it is bullshit because it is inflating your own value unrealistically). Some lies are not at all bullshit (say, any great work of fiction. It is a lie because it is not true, but it is not bullshit because it does not pretend to be something it is not).

Does that make it any clearer? I would be very interested to hear if readers' sense of what is bullshit jibes with Frankfurt's, my own, or is completely different.

"Bullshit makes the flowers grow. And that's beautiful."

I think I agree more with emptypocket's definition than with Frankfirt's, although I agree with both to a degree, and disagree with both to a degree. This statement is, itself, bullshit -- because it actually tells you nothing while insinuating that 1) I, like everyone, must have a one-way-or-the-other opinion and 2) that my opinion is of suffucient importance that you will derive value from hearing it.

As a programmer, I know the truth of the 80-20 rule (80% of your time will be spent on 20% of program, 80% of the work is done be 20% of the code, etc.) This can be generalized into the rule: 80% of everything is bullshit.

That's a statement I agree with.

I think of bullshit as the anti-parable. Throughout the ages, teachers have used the parable, a short fiction, to show us truth. To be effective, a parable has to have a hook to lead us from the known and comfortable to something new and challenging. The fiction allows the teacher to put a sharper focus on the point at hand. Above all, parables challenge the listener to think about a new way of looking at the world around them.

Now, let's compare that to bullshit. The whole point of bullshit is to keep people from thinking and questioning the speaker's point of view. The key difference is the lack of respect for the audience. The bullshitter is counting on the fact that the audience is passive. The bullshitter has to identify the audience's mental weaknesses and exploit them. The parabolist is counting on the audience to question their own assumptions. The parabolist depends the audience's ability to reason for themselves.

From your description (and from his appearance on The Daily Show, which I saw), I think Frankfurt misses a bit about the technique of bullshit. Yes, it is designed to sell us something. Yes, the truth of a statement is irrelevant to the bullshitter. But what really makes bullshit bullshit is the exploitation of the audience's willful ignorance, laziness, and preconceived notions.

Maybe bullshit is limited to the person speaking:

As a six-year-old daughter says, after opening her birthday card says: "I like money" it is cute.

However, when her mother says: "I like money" after cashing her husbands check..well that leads to...

First, it looks to me as though bullshit exclusively qualifies arguments cited in support of some claim or position. Secondly, I think there's a difference between bullshit as in "BS" and bullshit as in "You trying to bullshit me?" To call an argument BS is to call it, not a lie or even manipulative, but simply silly. BS can (but need not) be innocent. In contrast, bullshit as in the verb is always intentional. Bullshit in that sense is an attempt to evade and obfuscate. For example, the argument that we're in Iraq to fight the "terrists" there so we don't have to fight them here is classical bullshitting by those who know that there weren't any terrorists in Iraq before the war, whereas it's merely BS when parroted by a security mom who doesn't even know what continent Iraq is on. Third, bullshit isn't exactly in the eye of the beholder, so to speak, but isn't quite so easily judged objectively either. To call an argument BS implies at a minimum that the proponent wasn't exercising their reasoning faculties particularly well. To call an argument bullshit in the intentional sense is to imply that the proponent intends to evade and obfuscate. Either one is hard to prove.

You should read the book. It is great, and because it is more of an essay than a book, you fly through it. It won't take you very long.

And may I add, your post here is more evidence of the greatness of open source media - I thought the book "On Bullshit" was great, but you make very good points. You improved the overall conceit of the thing.

..while truthful and lying statements each recognize the existence of truth, either to express or subvert it, bullshit does not even acknowledge truth exists.

This is not quite right. I haven't read the essay in a while (it used to be free online). But I think Frankfort's definition is a little more subtle: the bullshitter may or may not know he's lying, may or may not acknowledge that truth exsists, but the bottom line is that, regardless, he doesn't care one way or another. Bullshit is dangerous because it is essentially arbitrary, disconnected, fatuous. Bullshit is a big Nothing. It is a blithe disregard not for the exsistence of truth, but for the importance thereof.

Thanks for the 'Clocks' passage!

I'd also make a distinction between the kind of bullshit Frankfort is talking about and what might be called 'pure' bullshit. 'Pure' (or 'absolute') bullshit, being pure, does have a value, and approaches the realm of art - bad art, maybe, but still; think of certain theoretical texts, or of some mathematically integral but ugly and pointless pieces of modern music you might have heard. Pure bullshit can actually reveal truth, albeit in a negative way - anyway, it has respect for truth and knows what it's trying to do. The kind of bullshit Frankfort is talking about, however, is never pure. It's always a promiscuous mixture of truth and lies, and doesn't care which is which. It's not so much anti-truth as anti-fastidious.

And it's generally in the service of some short-term goal. Just as a corporation might serve the goal of pumping up quarterly earnings reports to the detriment of the firm's long term health, the bullshiter will say anything to win the next election, the next vote, the next news cycle etc. The Bullshitter doesn't even consider whether or not the candle is worth the game.

With all due, respect, read the essay. Based on his appearance on the Daily Show, I think Frankfurt is considerably more muddled as a speaker than as a writer, and doesn't think on his feet very well. I found it very illuminating in understanding why Bushies so often tell obvious lies even when there is no reason to. (At the time I read it, there was one particular instance where Bush had actually cut his vacation short to deal with some political storm brewing in DC, and Scott McClellan adamantly insisted that he had always intended to come back then, even though it was a matter of public record that he hadn't.)

It's also a useful concept to avoid getting bogged down in useless debates with GOP cultists -- if their allegations are bullshit, you'll never win by tracking them down and refuting them, because that's a lot of work, but since it takes no effort at all for them to spin a new line of BS, they can keep you at it forever.

I'd be interested to know what activities of lawyers you're concerned about. It seems to me that actions to establish the important legal truth (guilt or innocence) even by obscuring lesser individual facts that may undermine the client's case are by definition not bullshit.

It seems to me that actions to establish the important legal truth (guilt or innocence) even by obscuring lesser individual facts that may undermine the client's case are by definition not bullshit.

I am not confident, just concerned, that legal responsibilities might include bullshit. In response to your point, I'd say that "actions to establish the important legal truth" are not what I think of lawyers as doing. I think of lawyers as, first, committing to proving guilt or innocence regardless of truth; and second, arguing their case which sometimes involves "obscuring lesser individual facts." My understanding of a lawyer's job is, in fact, to cherry-pick information to persuade his audience -- which hews close to Frankfurt's sense of "bullshit," although a lawyer is obligated to be truthful, which may be his saving grace. (How one fulfills that obligation is another matter!)

I read the entire essay online before it was published and I didn't get the same impression of Bullshit as a school of thought or social phenomenon as much as a simple definition. Bullshit is saying something with no regard to it being true or false, only that it serves some self interest.

For example, just days before the Iraq War President Bush said, "This weekend marks a bitter anniversary for the people of Iraq. Fifteen years ago, Saddam Hussein's regime ordered a chemical weapons attack on a village in Iraq called Halabja. With that single order, the regime killed thousands of Iraq's Kurdish citizens."

This is both true and bullshit at the same time. This is factually correct but Bush has no regard for that detail, he says it for the same reasons he repeated false stories about Iraqi UAVs attacking the US or Iraq purchasing uranium from Niger - because it served his interests. Certainly George W. Bush has not been consumed with the events of Halabja in the intervening 15 years, or countless other atrocities of this scale that have occured. Restating the incident at Halabja serves his purpose, not the truth. Bush wants war and ginning up support (or suppressing dissent) is his game. If Halabja didn't exist they may have made that up - just as they made up Iraqi throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwait during the first Gulf War. That is the definition of bullshit - a statement with no regard for truth or falsehood, only a concern for the self-interests of the speaker.

One of the examples Frankfurt gives in the essay is John Kerry's focus on his own military service during the '04 campaign. Kerry is a smart man who could cite several excellent Presidents with no military service, had defended Bill Clinton against charges he was unfit because he had NOT served, and here he was showing how his own military service made him more fit to serve than George W. Bush. That, said Frankfurt, was bullshit. Kerry's service was placed front and center for political reasons, not because it had any bearing on his qualifications for President. Frankfurt was not talking about Bush's record or their relative merits, only Kerry's presentation and the record of his own beliefs.

The essay used to be available free online prior to publishing so I'm not sure what the copyright status of reading it online may be but the entire essay is available at the link below.


joejoejoe, thanksthanksthanks. that is also how I understood Frankfurt's definition. Does it jibe with your personal sense of what bullshit is? I think of Kerry's statements for example as just "advertising," and I reserve the term "bullshit" for something else that I tried to articulate here.

Your wording of Frankfurt's sense of bullshit fits exactly with my understanding of his definition, but not with my own use of the word. (Also, it seems redundant with vocabulary we already have.)

I think Kerry highlighting his service as biography isn't bullshit but using it as a political bludgeon IS bullshit. I doubt Kerry truly believes his service record uniquely qualifies him for the Presidency anymore than Duke Cunningham's record makes him ethical or John McCain's service makes him particularly prescient in foreign policy.

I'm not agreeing or disagreeing with Kerry's decision to highlight his service. Bullshit is part of politics and all other things being equal Kerry's 'Reporting for Duty' is a lot more palatable than Bush's Straight Shooter schtick. Both presentations had little to do with speaking the truth and everything to do with self interest - winning the Presidency. So while it's true that Kerry was brave in Vietnam, it's bullshit that that fact qualified him to be President.

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