Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Brief Review: “On Bullshit”.

I’d like to do something a little different with today’s post. On Bullshit (Amazon link below) is quite a short book, but it does that rare thing which the philosopher always aims for: to find something worth saying that has not already been said six different ways.

What is bullshit? The instinct tells us it just means lies. Frankfurt contends that bullshitting is in fact something far more insidious than mere lying. The liar lies in reaction to the truth; he wishes to conceal a particular fact, or otherwise influence the beliefs of others, and he does this expressly by perpetrating falsehoods. The bullshitter’s aims, conversely, are utterly unconcerned with truth. A campaigning politician, or an advertising agency, doesn’t care what the truth of the matter really is. Nor do they even care about making you believe the truth of the matter is one way or another. The only goal of the bullshitter is to influence your behaviour long enough to get what they want out of you.

This sort of concept has been implicitly known all along, of course. The characters in Yes, Minister, for example, are entirely concerned with political or administrative goals, and say exactly what they think most likely to bring about their aims; the truth doesn’t enter into consideration at all. This resonates with us because this behaviour is so familiar; we have had a word for it for a long time, and before that word we had others like humbug.

But none, it seems, had formally analysed what bullshit really is. The nature of truth and falsity, and their interplay both formally and conversationally, has always been of interest to philosophy. Frankfurt’s book breathes some much-needed fresh air into the field, in a form as accessible as it is eye-catching. His conclusions are not all final, and are on some levels somewhat cynical and pessimistic; nevertheless, the bullshit is out there, and if we are informed and able to more readily recognise it, avoid it, and counter it, so much the better. In these respects, especially the last, On Bullshit is quite a useful little guide.

1 comment:

  1. Bullshit in Romanian is naşpa. Apparently it comes from a Rromani word. Or at least, it was in 2005. You know how words like that can change.

    This stupidly informative comment was brought to you by needing to sleep.