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.