World's Fair

A physicist friend of mine recently lent me a copy of Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit“, which purports to be the only ever philosophical analysis of “bullshit”. This former essay turned teeny tiny hardback book reaches such profound conclusions as: 1) bullshit is sort of like humbug, only more excremental; 2) bullshit is worse than lying, because liars know the truth, while bullshitters just yak away without regard for the truth or non-truth of what they are saying; and 3) that since a person cannot ever really know him/her self, any sincere expression of one’s feelings is bullshit.

This is quite a funny little teeny tiny book, but I’ve seen and heard more than one person express the opinion that it actually is a treatise on bullshit, when it quite clearly seems to be a complete piece of bullshit itself.

Clues are everywhere throughout – Frankfurt spends the first several pages noting that he didn’t check the literature, that he didn’t really look much of anything up (except he does say he looked up “bullshit” in the dictionary), but that he didn’t even look up the words for “bull” or “shit” in any other language, even though he says they might provide important clues. Any scientist reading this would immediately exclaim: “this is bullshit”. He thus seems to spend the first few pages clearly defining the whole essay as bullshit – a clean and clear example of his own definition of bullshit: postulating on a topic without concern for the truth. But, perhaps they do things differently in philosophy.

He then pulls a very nice “Wallace Shawn”: he incrementally, with the voice of authority, argues that bullshit is worse than lying and that any attempt at sincerity is bullshit – both, of course, insidiously destructive memes. It really is a beautifully constructed essay, what’s most interesting (and quite frankly disturbing) is that so many people apparently take it seriously. Wallace Shawn, in his play “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” and in more detail in his postscript to the play, talks a lot about the power of this particular type of rhetoric, and he explores situations where one listens to what seems to be a coherent, well reasoned, and linear argument that leads one to embrace a conclusion that one actually finds incorrect (or even evil).

So, two of the key memes that Frankfurt’s essay has apparently “incepted” into the minds of some of his readers are: 1) “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies” and 2) “sincerity itself is bullshit” and frankly, this seems, quite hilariously, pure bullshit to me – so why do so many people apparently take it at face value? Now, that is an interesting question about our society’s ability to deal with the difference between rhetoric and actual sincerity. If only it were so easy to get people to believe in actual scientific results, like evolution or global warming.


  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    January 22, 2011

    Any item which uses the term “meme” has a 90%+ probability of being bullshit itself …

  2. #2 Alpha Meme
    January 22, 2011

    Surely David Stove’s work is, if there is any, the the first philosophical treatise on bullshit:
    @Scott: Alpha Meme belongs to the 10%- of course.

  3. #3 gc
    January 22, 2011

    I once picked up this book and, thankfully, in a minute realized that it was mostly bullshit in the guise of some sort of intellectual analysis.

    On the other hand, ‘Crimes against Logic’ was a delight to read.

  4. #4 Marcus
    February 28, 2014

    I agree, but I disagree. If you mean Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit when you call his piece -no pun intended – bullshit, then you’re mistaken. He seems to care about the truth, and being that he’s a philosopher, that’s a fair assumption. I doubt the rest of his works are so . . . meaningless.

    But, he certainly did seem to get nowhere with the piece. So, assuming you aren’t using his definition of bullshit, I agree with you. I am about to write a paper on “On Bullshit,” and I thought I would take to the internet to see what other people thought of it. With that said, I definitely agree that his defense for “bullshit is worse than a lie” is, well, bullshit. The funniest thing about this piece of literature is that he says, “The phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.” It turns out that he ended up making arbitrary decisions and so on – exactly what he didn’t want to do. And lastly, I sincerely doubt he’s said “something helpful.” (Both quotes come from page 117 of the PDF I have.)

  5. #5 Marcus
    March 1, 2014

    Also, when he talks about sincerity being bullshit, I believe he is referring to postmodernism, which is definitely bullshit. He talks about anti-realist doctrines, which are held by postmodernists. All he’s saying there is that they are bullshit.
    They talk about relativism and such, right? That means, to them, the only truth is being authentic to oneself. “And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” I think that’s a good reading of what Frankfurt meant. 🙂

  6. #6 Nicholas Gruen
    February 16, 2017

    Seems like a pretty lame article. The essay you’re writing about is no great shakes, but it would be good to try to get something out of it.

    I found it set out some important ideas and elaborated on them here