Spurred by a recent article in Aeon positing a "theory of jerks", I picked up an essay by Harry G. Frankfurt entitled "On Bullshit", which attempts to lay the groundwork for a theory of bullshit, or, in other words, a description of the ways in which bullshit is its own distinct entity and a phenomenon that differs from lying and other forms of misrepresentation.

Using an anecdote from Fania Pascal describing Ludwig Wittgenstein's purported reaction to her telling him she felt "like a dog that's been run over" after having had her tonsils removed, Frankfurt sketches out what Wittgenstein was implying when the famous philosopher replied, seemingly annoyed, "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like."1 What follows is a dissection of what Wittgenstein may have found objectionable about Pascal's statement, assuming he did not identify it as purely colloquial or idiomatic, nor as a lie:

What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct. There is every likelihood, of course, that she says what she does only in a somewhat clumsy effort to speak colorfully, or to appear vivacious or good-humored; and no doubt Wittgenstein's reaction—as she construes it—is absurdly intolerant. Be this as it may, it seems clear what that reaction is. He reacts as though he perceives her to be speaking about her feeling thoughtlessly, without conscientious attention to the relevant facts. Her statement is not "wrought with greatest care." She makes it without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy.

The point that troubles Wittgenstein is manifestly not that Pascal has made a mistake in her description of how she feels. Nor is it even that she has made a careless mistake. Her laxity, or her lack of care is not a matter of having permitted an error to slip into her speech on account of some inadvertent or momentarily negligent lapse in attention she was devoting to getting things right. The point is rather that, so far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.

This is important to Wittgenstein because, whether justifiably or not, he takes what she says seriously, as a statement purporting to give an informative description of the way she feels. He construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false. It is in this sense that Pascal's statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounding neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.

Here we see that bullshit does not simply entail lying, which seems, in retrospect, obvious to me. In fact, in Googling for links to this essay, I ran across a Slate piece from 2005 summarizing this very same anecdote, and which quite aptly described the sensation I had upon finishing "On Bullshit": "Eureka! Frankfurt's definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed."2

Of course bullshit isn't simply lying. The concept of bullshit artistry, a term Frankfurt also mentions in passing, seems evidence in favor of making a distinction between the two. Furthermore, bullshit doesn't necessarily have to be false—something that is implied in Frankfurt's interpretation of Wittgenstein's reaction but which is better summarized in the former's comparison of bullshit to bluffing:

It does seem that bullshitting involves a kind of bluff. It is closer to bluffing, surely, than to telling a lie. But what is implied concerning its nature by the fact that it is more like the former than the latter? Just what is the relevant difference here between a bluff and a lie?

Lying and bluffing are both modes of misrepresentation or deception. Now the concept most central to the distinctive nature of a lie is that of falsity: the liar is essentially someone who deliberately promulgates a falsehood. Bluffing, too, is typically devoted to conveying something false. Unlike plain lying, however, it is more especially a matter not of falsity but of fakery. This is what accounts for its nearness to bullshit. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.

To me, this gets us a bit closer, especially his observation that the quality of the bullshit could conceivably live up to or even exceed the quality of the original product, or the truth. It was simply crafted without a mind toward being genuine. (In the case of a Folex, for example, how could it have been?)

Karl Pilkington reveals his most desired superpower: the ability to detect and publicly ridicule bullshit. From An Idiot Abroad.

Karl Pilkington reveals his most desired superpower: the ability to detect and publicly ridicule bullshit. From An Idiot Abroad.

This is a fun little essay, although, by his own admission, Frankfurt's case is not definitive. I'm not sure I'll pursue thinking about the word in this context too much more, but it's a fun little exercise nonetheless, considering the preponderance of bullshit.

Indeed, we're practically drowning in it these days, and perhaps the fact that Frankfurt was writing back in 1986 accounts for one limitation that struck me as rather glaring.3 There was no widely accessible internet in 1986, and flow of information was, obviously, much slower than it is today. Furthermore, kooky beliefs, surely not anathema to any period of human history, likely did not receive such constant and wide exposure as they do now. Here I am thinking of bullshit like vaccine "skepticism", UFO spotting, and much of the nonsense generated by fanatical adherence to our civic religions (e.g., partisan punditry), or even by the plain, often blameless fact of ignorance.4 In many cases, people who sincerely believe false information will repackage and redistribute it, sure of its truth. Though not by Frankfurt's metric, it seems this sort of information would be commonly referred to as bullshit by most people, and the designation here does not at all rely on the criteria stipulating the bullshitter's lack of concern with the truth value of their statements. It may be so that we suspect some lack of due diligence in purveyors of bad information, but the condition is not necessary to label their output bullshit.

Perhaps I missed a nuance that accounts for this instance of bullshit, or quite possibly, Frankfurt would seek to limit his theory of bullshit such that these utterances would be excluded from it. I do think, however, the usage as described above is extremely common and shouldn't be ignored. That would be bullshit.