The brothers Upwright
probably didn't believe in angels. But they believed in bullshit, and
were the type to admire it when it was delivered with panache. There's
a kind of big outdoor sort of man who's got no patience at all with
prevaricators and fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an
outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye.
enterprise involves talking about language without thinking about how
it's used. If that seems a little bizarre, it is. But whole departments
of highly-paid academic philosophers trained in the British
common-sense tradition maintain this strange tradition because their
lives, incomes and emotional well-being depend on it.
willed ignorance extends to every possible field of knowledge. One of
its most comical aspects is its implicit psychological theory, which is
the most puerile, unimaginative idea of human psychology. According to
Frankfurt, we are all sensible tweedy Anglos who would never lie just
for the sake of lying: "'[L]iars' and 'real lies' are both rare and
extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to time, but there are very few
people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively
from a love of falsity or of deception."
really thinks people don't lie out of love of the game itself? Jesus,
where do these people spend their lives? The world is full of people
who lie for the fun of it. Every folk-tale tradition celebrates a great
liar; that's the trait for which Odysseus was most admired by the
Greeks, for God's sake! But here again, I'm breaking the rules by
mentioning actual times and places. Open the door like that and the
whole house of cards might blow down.
Now that's the sort of bullshit I like, like the old line "I caught a
fish THIS BIG" [spread hands wide]. Creative lying can be fun. For
example, there was a game my sister and I liked to play when
mum was in earshot. Completely deadpan, we would discuss what we'd been
doing, and then conclude with some variant of the line "By the
way, did you get any heroin?" It would shock our dear mother. She
couldn't help herself - she'd let out an aghast "oaah", even though she
knew we had never touched that stuff. Then me and my sister would start
laughing. And it worked over and over again through our early twenties.
But there's another meaning of "bullshit", and it's not as nice: the
bureaucratic jargon, the corporate speak, the buzzwords, the phrases
like "core values", "mission statements", and that nasty little verb "prioritize".
(Well, I don't like it.) For more, you can knock yourself out with a non-resume
via Steve Gilliard, which contains little phrases like "Strategic
Partner Alliances Creator". This sort of bullshit is insidious, and
(can I just say) evil. As Gracchus says about the non-resume author on
tell you why, mets: it's because the wounds are still bloody raw.
Maybe you didn't see legitimate companies started by hard-working
founders and employees ruined by snake oil salesmen
or maybe 5 years is enough for you to forgive and forget. But it's not
for me, nor for a lot of us.
new-age con artists
like this caused people to lose money, time, marriages, homes, whole
lives. Yeah, there were a lot of bogus companies, shoddy business
models and unrealistic expectations. But if you want a model of the
hippy-dippy "irrational exhuberance" that undergirded the whole
structure, re-read this CV.
I just got thinking about the whole subject,
after reading on Crooked
featuring on 60 minutes last night, On
from #21 (when I checked at the start of the segment) in the Amazon
charts to #3 (when I checked 5 minutes ago). I have no idea what this
means in terms of numbers, but the commissioning editor must be feeling
pretty smug. As must [author] Harry Frankfurt, I’d guess.
But I don't know if I will like the book. No, I think I can guess.
There's a version of the essay available at the Wayback
Machine. I read
it. It's not good. It's quite shocking, from a brief skim I
did. I can't think of it as really academic (there are no footnotes
whatsoever, and external references are minimal), not does it seem to
be engaged with reality. There is no mention of campfire whoppers (fun
bullshit!), nor the MBA-speak (not-so-fun bullshit). It doesn't even
refer to earlier works such as On the Psychology of
which also bears a chapter "On Bullshit". (And that was about the over
excessive spit and polish of the British Army in WWI, and how the petty
authoritarianism behind it cost a couple of hundreds of thousands of
lives then and there. That would be worth mentioning, at least)
Instead, the author engaged in a long,
meandering, monotonous, dreary conversation with himself, and ends up
with this grumpy conclusion. A spoiler warning: these are the last
is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without
knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is
stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities
to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the
facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in
public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether
by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to
speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree
ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread
conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to
have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to
the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any
significant connection between a person’s opinions and his
apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for
someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral
agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in
various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable
access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the
possibility of knowing how things truly are. These
“anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in
the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what
is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective
inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat
from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different
sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal
of sincerity. Rather than seeking
primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the
individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of
himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might
hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being
true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes
no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead
to be true to himself.
it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and
hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while
supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been
exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to
other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.
Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in
experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth
about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about
ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical
dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial
— notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures
of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is
So who are the real kings of bullshit? If I can understand correctly,
they are... whut? God knows. You would think that there would be so
many worthy targets for an essay entitled "On Bullshit" - politicians,
corporations, dodgy journos, REMFs (for those in the military). And the
author instead gives us some vague entity: part democracy
feel-good hippie, part postmodern philosopher, part self-help book
reader, part blogger, ready to be placed into the "Moral Relativism"
basket. Sounds like anyone we
Not really. (Maybe this caricature is based on a competitor for tenure
at Frankfurt's university.) I know it's not meant to be a polemic, but
academic prose - but I state it isn't academic either. No footnotes,
remember? It's a missed opportunity.
I should finish with a pun
about bullshit, but I won't. Read the essay
if you want, but read John Dolan's review anyway. It's more sincere,
more correct, and more fun as well.