31 December 2007

Not Even a Liar, Worse

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there
is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes
his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most
people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit
and to avoid being taken in by it." - Harry Frankfurt


I have resisted writing some version of this post for quite a while. It seems time, though, to go ahead and clarify some terminology. I regularly use the word bullshit here. I typically do so with a particular meaning of the term in mind and I have, in the past, sometimes referred readers to this interview for clarification. That seems insufficient in light of my last post which addresses a notorious peddler of bullshit.

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt who has for many years taught philosophy at Yale, wrote an essay entitled “On Bullshit" and published it in the relatively obscure journal called Raritan. He republished it a couple of years later in a collection of essays entitled The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge UP, 1988). And, even more recently, Princeton UP re-issued the essay as a very small book (pictured here). You may have seen it on display at Border’s or Barnes and Noble. I recommend it to you.*

Frankfurt is concerned with both the nature of bullshit and the consequences of bullshitting. These topics seem germane to how we assess Bill Kristol and other right-wing ideologues. So I thought it might be useful to share with you some of Frankfurt’s insights. I think we need to be concerned with the consequences of putting up with - to say nothing of praising - bullshitters like Kristol and his chums.

Frankfurt proceeds by differentiating between bullshit and several closely related classes of speech act - hot air, humbug, bluffing and, most importantly, lies. It therefore is a bit difficult to summarize his perceptive and entertaining argument. Regarding the nature of bullshit, however, he is quite succinct:

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with the truth - this indifference to how things really are - that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”

He expands on this statement in the following way:

“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes them to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends on upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something that he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his 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. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

Having in this way identified this central feature of bullshit, Frankfurt turns his attention to the consequences of purveying it, that is to the consequences of bullshitting or being a bullshitter. Again, the crucial contrast is with lying.

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter all these bets are off; he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and the liar are, except as they are pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. 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.”

Frankfurt interjects here a discussion of Saint Augustine before proceeding as follows:

“For most people, the fact that a statement is false constitutes in itself a reason, however weak and easily overridden, not to make the statement. . . . For the bullshitter it is itself neither a reason in favor nor a reason against. Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth the way bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a normal person’s normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing opposite sides, so to speak, of the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores those demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”

Frankfurt clearly believes that those who peddle bullshit run a serious risk. He is concerned that due to “excessive indulgence” their own ability to face reality might atrophy over time. This seems to be the case with Kristol and other neocons. I am less concerned with them - Kristol and his ilk are beyond rehabilitation - than with impact of their behavior on those who are exposed to their bullshit. It hardly seems unreasonable to extend Frankfurt's concern for the fate of bullshitters to concern, not only for those who are subjected to bullshit without knowing it, but for those who, for one or another reason, and however begrudgingly, recognize the bullshitters in their midst but tolerate their bullshit.

Shouldn’t we worry about those who, though perhaps not bullshitters themselves, nevertheless indulge purveyors of bullshit? Do the acquiescent not run a risk, even if unsolicited, that is similar to the one that besets bullshitters themselves? Shouldn't we worry that even those confident in their own ability to spot bullshitting when they see might, over time, actually diminish their own ability simply by virtue of having put up with so much bullshit? That, I am afraid, is what has happened to the folks who make hiring decision at The Times editorial pages.

Frankfurt suggests that we typically respond to bullshit in more “benign” ways than we do to lies. “We may seek to distance ourselves from bullshit, but we are more likely to turn away from it with an impatient or irritated shrug than with the sense of violation or outrage that lies often inspire.” Like Frankfurt, I am not terribly concerned here with why this is so. I am more concerned with the consequences for individuals and groups over time of shrugging off bullshit, of meeting its indifference to truth with indifference toward those who purvey it. This prospect is especially troubling because, while bullshitters assume their own risk, those around them do not voluntarily incur the corresponding risk. They have it thrust upon them. The results, as is the case with much of the bullshit Krisol and other neocons peddle, can be disastrous. (Think of the costs in human and monetary and other terms of invading Iraq.)

Kristol has proven himself a inveterate bullshitter ~ indifferent as to whether what he says is true or false. The problem with the decision by The New York Times to hire Kristol is that they are providing him with a forum for spewing it wider and deeper. Insofar as the newspaper relies upon some respect for truth (and, therefore, some ability to distinguish it from falsity) it is, by providing Kristol a forum, undermining the terrain it purports to occupy. In the process the folks at The Times are endangering political discourse in the U.S. and beyond.
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* I also recommend G.A. Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit" (with a reply by Frankfurt), in Sarah Buss & Lee Overton, eds. Contours of Agency (MIT Press, 2002).

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