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A Quick Inquiry Into The Nature Of Bullshit

August 8, 2007

I hear so much bullshit it’s amazing.  The television seems full of it.  I rarely watch television, besides Late Night with Conan O’Brien (which I watch near every night), but when I do I seem to find endless streams of bullshit.

I see Fox News, and the bullshit gushes from the screen.  Shoddy introductions to literature and philosophy books are nothing but bullshit.  “New Age” artists seem to bullshit consistently.

But I don’t wish to use bullshit in the vulgar term meaning, “I disapprove of what you’re saying.”  Bullshit is more exact than that, and has a very exact meaning.  If I was to tell someone, “Stop bullshitting me!”, I don’t mean, “I disapprove of what you’re saying.”

Let’s try to get a handle on what bullshit is.

II.  Bullshit – The Definition

Let’s begin by breakding down bullshit into its component words, bull, and shit.  First we’ll speak of ‘bull.’

We’ve all heard the word ‘bull’ used before.  “That’s a bunch of bull.”  Frankfurt, in his book ‘On Bullshit’, talks about it on pg 41 (all subsequent quotations will be from this same book):

“The term bull is also employed, in a rather more widespread and familiar usage, as a somewhat less coarse equivalent of bullshit.  In an entry for bull as so used, the OED suggests the following definitive: “trivial, insincere, or untruthful talk or writing; nonsense.”  Now it does not seem distincitive of bull either that it must be deficient in meaning or that it is necessarily unimportant; so ‘nonsense’ and ‘trivial,’ even apart from their vagueness, seem to be on the wrong track.  The focus on ‘insincere, or untruthful’ is better, but it needs to be sharpened.”

Now to speak of the other root word, ‘shit.’  We’ve all heard the terms ‘bull’, ‘bullshit’, and ‘hot air’ used synonymously.

“There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit.  Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative content, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed.  Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted.”

Shit is dumped out, as is.  No thought went into its production, it’s simply the waste.  So what are we to think of a person who spews out shit?

“Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob?  Is his product neccessarily unrefined?  The word ‘shit’ does, to be sure, suggest this.  Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped.”

So first off we get a pretty good idea of bullshit when we think of it as ‘insincere, untruthful, and devoid of informative content.’  But this is not all there is to know about bullshit.  In fact, one of the key factors of bullshit is a lack of reverence for truth.

It may be true, or it may be false.  A component of bullshit is that the person bullshitting does not care.  His motive for bullshitting is always something other than communicating truth (though what he says may end up being true, if he guesses correctly).

“In Eric Ambler’s novel Dirty Story, a character named Arthur Abdel Simpson recalls advice that he received as a child from his father:

‘Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say….One of the first things he taught me was, ‘Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way though.’

“This presumes not only that there is an important difference between lying and bullshitting, but that the latter is preferable to the former.  Now the elder Simpson surely did not considering bullshitting morally superior to lying.  Nor is it likely that he regarded lies as invaribly less effective than bullshit in accomplishing the purpose for which either of them might be employed.  After all, an intelligently crafted lie may do its work with unqualified success.  It may be that Simpson thought it easier to get away with bullshitting than with lying.  Or perhaps he meant that, although the risk of being caught is about the same in each case, the consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar.  In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront.”

“This pertient comparison [bullshit vs lying] is not, however, between telling a lie and producing some particular instance of bullshit.  The elder Simpson identifies the alternative to telling a lie as ‘bullshitting one’s way through.’  This involved not merely producing one instance of bullshit; it involved a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent circumstances require.”

A liar has to know the truth, and then consciously deceive.  To tell lies, you have to craft the lie, in an attempt to lead astray the person you are lying to.  When bullshitting, this is not required.

“On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom.  His focus in panoramic rather than particular.  He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point and intersecting it.  He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well.  This freedom from constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar.  But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying.  It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play.  This is less a matter of craft than of art.  Hence the familiar notion of the ‘bullshit artist.’”

“This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar.  Both he [the bullshitter] and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth.  The success of each depends 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 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 this intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.  This does not mean that his speach is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.”

“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth.  Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”

We’ll end the definition of bullshit with some final notes.

“Bullshit 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 exceed 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.”

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