Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”: A Primer for the 2016 Political Season

It’s in the air. You can catch a whiff from the U.S. presidential race as it gears up for the 2016 election. But it’s not just a political fragrance. No, it’s a pungently familiar smell that permeates all aspects of our lives. You produced some yourself in your last job interview. And, yes, that advertisement for penis enlargement supplements is an exemplar. “What’s that scent?” you ask. It’s bullshit.

As philosopher Harry Frankfurt tells us, we know what bullshit is — we can detect it just as easily as we can manufacture it. The only problem is that we don’t really know what it means. Thankfully, Frankfurt has provided us with a proper theory.

As it turns out, bullshit is a rather complicated concept. There is the bullshit itself — the stuff that’s dumped — and the bullshitter, who has in many cases artfully produced it But that doesn’t make it pretty — or good. According to Frankfurt, the essential feature of bullshit is the bullshitter’s lack of concern with the truth — that is, the bullshitter is phony.

Now, it might be difficult to tell the lies from the bullshit, since distinguishing the two in practice would require knowing someone’s intentions, but let’s suppose we have access to the bullshitter’s mind. Let’s suppose we can know that a presidential candidate tells a lie about her role in a failed diplomatic mission. Let’s suppose she says she was not involved in developing the foreign policy that drove the mission, when in fact she was a principal architect. Let’s also suppose that she goes on to bullshit about the significance of that policy — something like, ‘Well, it really didn’t have much impact on the mission’s failure, but was actually quite tangential to it.’ She’s bullshitting because whatever she says about the significance of the policy, she doesn’t even care if she’s right or wrong — that’s not her goal. She doesn’t care about whether or not what he says is true, but instead says what she thinks sounds good to her audience, and perhaps also to divert attention away from scrutiny over her lie.

Bullshit also reveals a moral failure on the part of the bullshitter —one that is importantly distinct from that of the liar. In Frankfurt’s analysis, the liar and the bullshitter are distinguished in terms of a concern for the truth. In order to promulgate a lie, the liar has to care about the truth, has to respect it. After all, a lie is a purposeful misrepresentation of the truth in order to deceive. Indeed, the liar has to be deeply concerned with the truth, or at least with whatever he believes it to be.

Frankfurt explains the idea this way: “Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in 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 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.”

The bullshitter does not presume, as Frankfurt says, to know the truth. Indeed, the bullshitter doesn’t need to know the truth at all. Maybe what the bullshitter says is actually true. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the bullshitter doesn’t care about the way the world is. And this lack of care tells us something rather frightening about the bullshitter’s moral disposition.

The bullshitter is utterly unlike the liar and the truth-teller, both of whom believe there is a world of facts to be known. Sometimes, Frankfurt points out, a person is effectively pushed into bullshitting, as when she is pressed to speak on topics that outstrip her knowledge. Instead of abstaining, however, he plunges ahead, wading deep into bullshit. Arguably worse, however, on the moral spectrum, is the person who bullshits because he is a skeptic about the possibility of knowledge, that there is no objective reality to which his statements connect.

Author: girlzillawrites

I am a philosophy professor and writer with a diverse set of research interests. My favorite courses to conduct are all introductory: critical thinking, symbolic logic, ancient philosophy, early modern philosophy, social and political philosophy, and ethics. My philosophical loves are Kant and Kierkegaard, but I happen to be smitten pretty much with whoever I'm reading at the moment.

4 thoughts on “Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”: A Primer for the 2016 Political Season”

  1. When you say: “What matters is that the bullshitter doesn’t care about the way the world is. And this lack of care tells us something rather frightening about the bullshitter’s moral disposition” — what does “moral” mean? And what does “moral disposition” mean?

    1. It’s wonderful to hear from you! I hope all is well.

      Frankfurt’s distinction between the bullshitter and the liar involves their relationship to the truth, which he situates in an objective world of facts. I take Frankfurt to hold that morality—those principles of conduct that guide the way we live—is also objective. After all, if the liar has to be ‘directed by the truth’ in a way that the bullshitter is not, that means the liar is guided by an assumption that there is an objective world of facts to which his beliefs do or do not correspond. To the extent that lying involves a specific sort of misrepresentation, namely about the truth, and we take lying to be morally problematic, it should be the case that morality (on this view) assumes an objective reality.

      Sorry for the rushed response. I’m getting ready to return to L.A. and Pierce College—lots to do!

      1. I was thinking some more about this… and I think that the bullshitter is a greater enemy of the liar, than the truth-teller. And I think that maybe this statement is itself a kind of a lie: “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.”

        If the bullshitter hits upon a true-belief by accident or luck — probably because she doesn’t care either way — then the truth has a fair chance of being discovered. But if it’s up to the liar, then the liar will purposely avoid the truth. And so, the chance of a true-belief being discovered is as low as the liar’s skill is great.

        Isn’t the truth better off with the bullshitter, than the liar — even though, neither are good?

        I suppose I’d have to conclude then, that I disagree with Frankfurt. And I’d say, don’t worry about the so-called “moral condition” of the bullshitter because it’s probably nonexistent (like the way that people might assume that horses don’t have so-called “moral conditions” and so they aren’t “morally culpable” in the way the persons are). But you should worry about the “moral condition” of liars, because it’s been corrupted (like revenge-seeking hoi-polloi).

        However, deliberate “liars” only exist in Frankfurt’s world. In my world, there are no deliberate “liars.” There are only confused and ignorant people (like the revenge-seeking hoi-polloi).

  2. I might presume some gist of what you’re saying, but I don’t really know what you’re saying.

    Well, when you say that “truth [is situated] in an objective world of facts,” are you saying that the content of truth is objective, or that it’s an objective fact that there’s such a thing as truth?

    And then, if “morality…is also objective,” does this statement mean that the content of morality is objective? Or, that it’s an objective fact that there’s such a thing as “morality”? (And then, there’s the question again about what you mean by “morality,” or “moral” and what you mean by “moral disposition”? I have some ideas about what these things are, but I suppose I wanted to know what you thought that these things were.)

    If the liar is lying, is she lying about what the content of truth is, or is she lying about whether there is such a thing as truth? I could be presuming wrongly, but presumably, you mean the former thing, since you say: “to the extent that lying involves a specific sort of misrepresentation, namely about the truth…” And so, this would — I take it — be the “specific sort of misrepresentation”? And why we take lying to be “problematic”?

    And so, are you are saying that the bullshitter is someone who doesn’t care whether the content of the truth is accurate or not? Or, do you mean that the bullshitter is someone who doesn’t care whether the content of the truth is “objective” or not? Or, do you mean to say that the bullshitter is someone who doesn’t care whether there is or is not an objective fact that there’s such a thing as truth? Or, do you mean that the bullshitter is someone who doesn’t believe that it’s an objective fact that there’s such a thing as truth? For instance, is a poet a bullshitter, or a liar, or neither?

    In which case, I have to go back to the first question [of this post]: what do you mean by “truth”? You say that the liar “situates” truth in an objective world of facts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that truth is itself an objective fact, since you only say that it’s ‘situated’. So when you say “truth,” do you mean to say that the content of truth is itself an objective fact? Or that it’s an objective fact that truth exists?

    And also, is “objective” used in contrast to “subjective”? So, for instance, do you mean to say that if either the content or the proposition of the existence of something is “subjective,” then it is false? Or, is this taking things in a non-relevant direction? What does “objective” mean?

    It’s almost like I don’t speak English anymore, and I can’t understand anything that people say these days. I’m sorry I’m such a mess. Thank you for the explanations.

What do you think?