I was first introduced to the epistemology of bullshit in high school English. While bullshit is part and parcel of any 17 year old’s class and especially one taught by my surfer-poet-baseball-coach-teacher Mr. Cheeseman, in this class we happened to read William G. Perry’s essay “Examsmanship and the Liberal Arts: A Study in Educational Epistemology”. The essay, despite the snooty title, is a gut-busting retelling of the time a Harvard drama student took the final exam of a class in which he was not enrolled but nevertheless received on the exam’s essay section a grade of A-. In the margins of his test was written, “Excellent work. Could you have pinned these observations down a bit more closely?”
Perry’s essay, which was written as part of a blue-ribbon panel’s study of the examination process at Harvard, was the first systematic study of something my prep-school classmates and I had seemingly acquired along with our silver spoons, that is, bullshitting, and in college I learned that foundational writers like Plato and Aristophanes had worked on the same topic. But it is not until this year, with the publication of On Bullshit, the mid-length essay by Princeton moral philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, that we have a proper collection-and-division of what bullshit is and is not. (And nothing more, nothing less.)
Bullshit, first of all, is not lying. Far from it, for through lying we at least know the liar has concern for the truth. On the other hand, Frankfurt says gravely, bullshitters misrepresent not the truth but themselves, their minds, souls, and honor. About truthtellers and liars, and then about bullshitters, he writes:
[The truthteller or the liar] 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 these 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.
Correct academically, but perhaps to the disappointment of his non-academic readership, Frankfurt in On Bullshit refuses to train his eye on, to apply this condemnation to, specific examples in American culture. Ours is a country built by blow-hards and charlatans. The man who laid the first transatlantic cable had no idea how or if it would work (but managed to get support from governments and industries). Broadband became widely available through companies whose executives song-and-danced their way through financial problems they didn’t understand. And the U.S. government (all sides) takes the Bush administration’s advice that facts do not dictate how power should be used but that power should be used to recreate facts. The conservative Frankfurt does however deviate to launch a mortar at whom could be called democracy-fetishists:
[T]he 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. [. . .] Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.
This veilless criticism of popular democracy, well, I think were any indie music fan to apply their musical morality to politics would at least grudgingly concur. After all, even people who bought the record at #1 in the Billboard Top 100 would hesitate to say the #1 song is in fact the best song out there. It’s just the song the most people seem to agree on. The most provocative question On Bullshit poses, then–and it’s not terribly provocative or new to anyone familiar with English class or a freshman year seminar–why do we rank our political priorities the same way we rank our music? In the final pages, Frankfurt’s stable prose begins to shimmy just a bit as the implications of the democratic question unfurl. He’s obliged to argue that bullshit is the weapon of the relativist, of anyone who has given up on universal truth and turned instead to live by their own values, their own “sincerity,” and by popular democracy. As Frankfurt says at the end of On Bullshit, “Facts about ourselves are not particularly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. [. . .] And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.” It is in these last pages that Frankfurt’s tone violates his intent to simply define the phenomenon of bullshit, but his thoughts are welcome and point the reader back outward to his or her own life. All good essays should finish strong in the same way.
67 pages | $9.95 | Princeton | January, 2005