Friday, August 19, 2005

On Bullshit

Amusing and lucid article on Bullshit.

(This is not spam. This is not a jibe. It really is quite a good look at epistemology.)


MH said...

“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 what he takes the facts 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.” – Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit’ (Princeton), pp. 53, 54.

Thanks Bill for bring this one up. I've been meaning to post something on Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’ since, I read it in, May.

‘On Bullshit’ is one of those philosophical works that has received a disproportionate number of reviews (I think that more words have been spent reviewing it than it actually contains). I’ve not really read through the review posted here, but can say that the book is well worth the read; though at fifteen dollars for sixty-seven pages, it is possibly a costly way to spend an hour (that said it does have a very nice cover, and it is an interesting and well structured elaboration of a considered position).

I’ve actually been re-reading the central premise – that ‘bullshit’ constitutes a specific form of discursive posturing, where individuals put forward positions simply to hear how they sound – in the past couple of days because I have come to think that the entire ethical discourse regarding human allaxis (or genetic manipulation) is actually bullshit at the present time and am thinking of arguing as much in the introduction of my thesis …

[I should point out that I had been looking for a copy for months when I bought mine, and I’ve seen no trace of another outside Sydney – if you want to read it you are going to have to order it in.]

Editor said...

Bill – apologies for the edit; somehow your post had changed the layout of 'Dialectic', and the only way to fix the problem was to edit your post. You’ll notice that all I did was move the hyperlink; am not sure why that caused a problem this time, when it hasn’t on others, and why that single change was enough to fix it … That’s Blogger for you!

Bill Pascoe said...

Bullshit vs. Bullshitting

I think the definition of bullshit as something devoid of meaning, is a better one than the view that bullshit involves 'lieing' or an intention to make someone beleive a falsehood. Think of what people apply the word bullshit to - management speak, politicians speak, postmodernism, ...

In each of these cases I think the word bullshit is applied because the words are devoid of meaning, or at least do not answer the question, or divert attention from the topic. They do not state the negative: politicians are gifted at 'lieing' without actually stating anything false, and avoiding the topic; management speak is criticised because it is difficult to relate to anything in the real world and is vague and non-commital ("we will consider that in due course", "The consultants have presented an overarching framework to underpin our strategy, going forward") and the criticism of post modernism is aimed at its use of obscure jargon devoid of meaningful content. I don't think bullshit can't be defined as being 'a-truthful', being totally lacking in consideration of the truth. The person responsible for it in many cases recognises a true answer, or what might be an outright lie, but wants to avoid telling the truth or a lie, so comes up with some bullshit to wriggle their way out of it.

Bullshitting is a different matter - or there is another kind of bullshit. Bullshitting seems to be a skill Australians take pride in, down at the pub or especially if the victim is American. A guy I work with was in the army and reckons they really had some yanks training in the bush, looking up in the trees for drop bears, ferocious little beasts they are. When I was passing through a very small town in mid-West USA, about 13 years old, I met a kid who asked if we'd be staying long. I said no. He said if I was he'd have taken me Snife hunting. A snife is a small yellow bird, no bigger than your palm, that doesn't exist. They take new people up in the bush snife hunting and abandon them overnight with the bears and all.

In these cases there is a deliberate attempt to play on the victim's gullibility, to make them believe in a falsehood. It is lieing - but to be bullshit this lieing must be harmless or good natured, or perhaps as an initiation rite. Bullshitting does degrade the victim, but not excessively, it's good for a laugh, and there are pats on the back afterwards, there is no attempt on the part of the bullshitter to profit or gain from the lie. Bullshitting is an art form, performed as an end in itself.