Critique of Pure Hokum
A philosopher’s timely book-length essay on the differences between lying and bullshitting.
By Jennifer Michael Hecht
Back in 1986, Yale University was running informal weekly seminars where people from different departments would come together to talk. Each week one member would deliver a short paper and they would all have lunch and discuss it. Harry Frankfurt, a professor in the philosophy department, decided to address this group on a lively topic: Bullshit.
Having thought of this great idea, Frankfurt then proceeded to bullshit about it. He’s a hell of a philosopher and is also willing to use curse words, so the talk was bound to delight. The essay began with a sort of casual parody of the bullshit of the modern philosophical style: an empty and therefore foolish survey of the history of the idea, starting with Aristotle and proceeding westward and up. At some point, though, Frankfurt gets interested in his idea again for the first time since the title, and he offers some generative observations. More about that in a moment. First let us finish the history of “On Bullshit,” the book.
People at the seminar liked the essay, asked for copies, and passed it around. After a while, the Raritan Review got wind of the fun and published the piece; and again, people loved it. It was much photocopied and circulated in university departmental mailboxes. When the Internet was invented, the article was passed around yet again, and email brought Frankfurt a few notes a year thanking him for “On Bullshit,” the essay.
So it must have seemed reasonable when Princeton University Press asked Frankfurt, now 76, if they could publish a book version of the essay he wrote for a seminar 20 years ago.
This story is such fun that it feels dull to mention all that is wrong with this book, so I’ll be brief about it. Most of the text rambles and mumbles around on semantics; Frankfurt spends a lot of time dissecting dictionary definitions of bullshit. When the book finally gets going it makes a lovely point: Bullshit is different from lying and much less offensive. It is not an attempt to pass off untrue information, rather it is an attempt to give a certain impression of the speaker, and really has no concern with whether its information is true. Because of the prevalence of bullshit in our culture, we don’t think in terms of whether someone is saying something true, but rather whether they are being sincere. Sincerity, not truth-telling, is our new gold standard.
It’s an interesting thesis, especially in our present world. Think of George Washington and George W. Bush. Consider the honest humility in the face of stupidity, with which the first George told the truth about the call of the ax to his arms, and the call of the cherry tree to his ax.
Frankfurt also offers a few random insights of note amid his semantic shuffle, though a lot of them are of note more because they are unusual than because they are useful. For instance, I found the following passage both insightful and, as it gets going, a little ridiculous.
"When we characterize talk as hot air, we mean that what comes out of the speaker’s mouth is only that. It is mere vapor. His speech is empty, without substance or content. His use of language, accordingly, does not contribute to the purpose it purports to serve. No more information is communicated than if the speaker had merely exhaled. There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive as been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance any more than hot air can serve those of communication."
All this is pretty good fun, but I’m afraid this is the best of it. As Frankfurt does finally get serious with some ideas and interpretations, more than a few seemed wrong. He cites Pound’s "Canto" when it mentions “bullshit,” vaguely misreads it, and then moves on without having made anything of it. I think he gets his Wittgenstein story wrong, too. These are both rather long tales to tell, but I’ll condense the latter and give you an idea. A colleague of Wittgenstein at Oxford told this story of the philosopher’s personality: She was in the hospital, having had her tonsils out. Wittgenstein comes by to visit and she tells him she feels bad, “Like a dog that has been run over.”
“Wittgenstein was disgusted,” she tells us. He told her she did not know what a dog that has been run over feels like. Frankfurt ruminates over whether this really happened and if so, is what she said truly “bullshit”? He concludes that it was bullshit because she wasn’t lying so much as she didn’t care about the truth of her statement. She is not interested in truth, Frankfurt and his Wittgenstein conclude.
That just seems willfully stupid. Sometimes when we are suffering physically we realize that but for the help of others we might not be able to do much more than crawl to the shoulder of the road. In the twentieth century, shorthand for that had to do with cars and trucks. I imagine that we used to say, “I feel like I’ve been thrown from a horse.” Talking is not only words, but phrases, and the scholar without the tonsils spoke quite clearly. I think what Wittgenstein was missing, almost wonderfully missing, was empathy. Or perhaps he had so much empathy for a run-over dog that he was defending his dog-pain as beyond her imagination. We all know how rough things were for Wittgenstein (three of his brothers committed suicide, he gave up an immense fortune and lived in a cold bare room, he was ashamed of his Jewish lineage—an exciting philosopher, but a mess), but jeez, she just had her tonsils out. So this strikes me as a very poor example of bullshit; indeed, it strikes me as a goofy way to bring Wittgenstein into the conversation.
You have to understand how tiny this book is. It’s pocket size, and only 67 pages—there are about six words to a line. Fewer than twenty lines a page. You get dizzy reading like this! The essay is much easier to read in its original form, a few dense pages. How odd to commemorate a text in a way that makes it unreadable. Hmmm. Maybe someone at Princeton actually read it and knew that readability wouldn’t be a big issue on this one. Because for such a short essay to spend so much time on earnest sounding nonsense would be bad enough, if the topic was not what it is. As things are, it feels like a joke gone sour.
Explaining the writing of his essay to the New York Times, in an article that appeared this past Valentines Day, Frankfurt let out a sad little truth:
"When I reread it recently," he said at home, "I was sort of disappointed. It wasn't as good as I'd thought it was. It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject."
"Why," he wondered, "do we respond to [bull] in such a different way than we respond to lies? When we find somebody lying, we get angry, we feel we've been betrayed or violated or insulted in some way, and the liar is regarded as deceptive, deficient, morally at fault."
(The brackets above are because the New York Times, your paper of record, didn’t want to print the word shit.)
Frankfurt is right. His new questions would be interesting to look into. But it seems that he did not re-read his essay on bullshit before republishing it. Which seems kind of like bullshit to me. It is too negligent to even be sincere. If only he had re-read his essay and then, realizing its flaws, thought to write an introduction explaining the essay’s history, and perhaps offering a few caveats. Better still if he had also written a companion essay fleshing out his earlier, lighthearted observations in a way that reflects the attention these have received.
“I had always been concerned about the importance of truth," he recalled, "the way in which truth is foundational to civilization and the various deformities of it that were current.”
“I'd been concerned about the prevalence" of [bull], he continued, "and the lack of concern for truth and respect for truth that it represented."
It seems fair to point out that if you think the book is going to address the issues above, it will likely be a disappointment. Still, the drama of how it circulated its way up—from seminar talk, to mimeograph, to Xerox, to the Web, to a handsome mini-book from Princeton—is all quite charming. “On Bullshit” is a good gift book for those scholars in your life who would enjoy having an academic-looking, tiny book on their shelf, called “On Bullshit.”
Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Doubt: A History and The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism, and Anthropology, which tells the fascinating story of the original Society of Mutual Autopsy. She's also a poet. Her first book, The Next Ancient World, won the Poetry Society of America's 2002 Norma Farber First Book Award, and her new manuscript, "Funny," has just won the 2005 Felix Pollak Prize in poetry, and will be published by the University of Wisconsin in October.
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