The one-sentence summary
Bullshit is harder to spot than you think because it is neither on the side of the truth nor the false.
- The author is a Professor at Princeton University and a renowned moral philosopher. This is a thoughtful debate on an unusual subject for academia.
- Bullshit is now ubiquitous but strangely has not attracted much sustained inquiry because we think we know how to spot it and deal with it.
- Nor is it easy to define because the term is often used loosely and as a generic term of abuse – it covers a multitude of sins.
- Synonyms for humbug suggested by Max Black (1985) include balderdash, buncombe, claptrap, drivel, hokum, imposture and quackery.
- Constituent elements of it are deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, and misrepresentation of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings or attitudes.
- Frankfurt deconstructs these elements and compares bullshit to shoddy goods – produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, and never finely crafted.
- The essence of bullshit is a lack of concern with the truth and an indifference to how things really are. It involves a kind of bluff.
- Does the bullshitter lie? Not necessarily. They are phony rather than false. The bullshitter is faking things, but this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong. As such, he has much more freedom than someone who tells the truth or lies, because they require an anchor point on one side or the other.
- The production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”
- “The truth-values of (the bullshitter’s) statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”
- “He is neither on the side of the truth nor on the side of the false.”
- “He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”
- “He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”
WHAT YOU HAVE TO WATCH
- This is an academic essay, not a ‘pop’ book, so you need to concentrate on the line of argument carefully, but you can read it in an hour, which helps.