Swans Commentary » swans.com July 4, 2005  



Who Needs The Humbug?
Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Frankfurt, Harry G.: On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN: 0-691-12294-6, 67 Pages (hardcover), $9.95


(Swans - July 4, 2005)   It is always intriguing when an intellectual highbrow, setting aside weightier matters, takes himself down a few pegs to consider more mundane topics: Aldous Huxley on "Canned Fish," Walter Benjamin on "Hashish in Marseilles," Roland Barthes on "Striptease."

Harry G. Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University; not quite in the league of Huxley, Benjamin or Barthes but a renowned moral philosopher and the author of books such as The Reasons of Love, Necessity, Volition and Love and The Importance of What We Care About. In his latest short work, he has been tempted into a much more earthbound subject; namely "Bullshit" -- a subject about which many of us have ardent, profound, often divided opinions. If fish, hashish and strippers can be philosophically analyzed, there is no reason in the world to deny finite consideration of a pastime which affects virtually every member of the human race, either as receiver or dispenser.

In the first part of his treatise, Frankfurt tries to formulate a definition we can all live with. He compares "bullshit" with "humbug" stating that "both lying and humbug are modes of misrepresentation" but qualifies the similarity by declaring that "humbug" falls "short of lying." But "humbug," in the Dickensian, Ebenezer Scrooge-sense of the word, is also a "mocking" of certain values the speaker either disdains or refutes. It can be used interchangeably with "bullshit" when used to denigrate ideas with which people violently disagree. But throughout, Frankfurt evaluates "humbug" only in terms of fraudulent language rather than attitude. A person denouncing an idea with which he disagrees is as much the result of character differences as it is semantics. Without considering specifically what is being called "humbug," it is virtually impossible to apply the word as a synonym for "bullshit." If a southern redneck believes the Gettysburg Address is "humbug," he will have a hard time proving to me it is "bullshit."

There is a long digression in the middle of the treatise which is triggered by an anecdote related by Fania Pascal who, shortly after having her tonsils removed, was visited by her friend Wittgenstein in a nursing home. Asked how she felt, Pascal croaked: "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." Wittgenstein, with some disdain, replied; "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like."

This is followed by a 12-page dissection of the semantic implications of Wittgenstein's words as triggered by Pascal's remark, the point being to determine whether Pascal was "lying" when she spoke those words or Wittgenstein was being too nit-picking in the way he responded to them. Frankfurt's conclusion is that Pascal's "statement is grounded 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 of the essence of bullshit." Which blithely ignores the simple reality of the situation, which is that Pascal was employing a colloquial simile in order to try to describe the pain and discomfort of her surgery and Wittgenstein, unable to accept the comment on that level and responding as a linguistic philosopher might well do, took the remark literally. A long and pointless digression follows which Frankfurt draws to a totally implausible conclusion; namely that the woman who was in anguish about having her tonsils out was in fact "bullshitting."

Early in the book, Frankfurt confesses that he has not consulted dictionaries in languages other than English, "because I do not know the words for bullshit or bull in any other language." He also admits he is "uncertain just how close in meaning the word 'humbug' is to the word 'bullshit'." but that he shall "assume that there is no other important difference between the two." Regarding "bullshit" per se, he states, "I have not taken a survey of the literature partly because I do not know how to go about it."

These are the kinds of confessions of derelict research which, were they offered by a freshman proffering a thesis, would immediately prompt the professor to give him a failing grade. Had Frankfurt, for instance, consulted the Dictionary of American Slang he would have found that "bullshit" is defined as: "Nonsense. Pretentious talk; bold and deceitful absurdities -- i.e., baloney" -- which cuts right across his own definition of "bullshit" as a form of self-deception in which "the bullshitter ignores both lies and the truth but pays no attention to either."

Had he researched the work of that most erudite connoisseur of American Bullshit, George Carlin, he would have stumbled across the socio-political roots of his subject. According to Carlin: "Every time you're exposed to advertising, you realize once again that America's leading industry, America's most profitable business is still the manufacture, packaging, distribution and marketing of bullshit. High-quality, Grade-A, prime-cut, pure American bullshit." Which is a concept of "bullshit" that begins to touch the cultural roots of a disease that billows out of our television sets, our newspapers, our political conventions and the most revered colleges and universities in the country. To probe the nature and origins of "bullshit" and yet ignore the institutions from which it is regularly pumped into the American bloodstream is to be so mesmerized by the patterns that trees make as to never experience the general contour of the forest.

By simply equating "bullshit" with lying, Frankfurt has badly narrowed his focus. He fails to discriminate between related terms like "schlock" which implies rubbishy, low-grade, over-used goods or ideas; or "kitsch" which usually refers to trendy but essentially hollow or superficial objects, fashions or sentiments; or "baloney" which, like "bullshit," suggests misstatements, deliberately-contrived disinformation, or attempts to reverse generally accepted or widely held beliefs; or "chicken-shit," a related term usually applied to petty rules or restrictions, demeaning demands or unreasonable strictures imposed upon free behavior. He scants his definition of "bullshit artist" by describing the tendency as a form of "lying with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color and imaginative play" without alluding to the fabulist aspects often found among certain "bullshit artists"; persons wholly enveloped in self-dramatization who, at their most extreme, exhibit an almost psychotic lack of awareness about the implausibility of the tales they are spinning. Had he widened his orbit to include British idiomatic phrases, he would have been able to peg the subtle distinctions between "balderdash," which is outright nonsense devoid of any form of convincing validation, and "a load of cobblers," a pejorative working-class term which denotes a brazen attempt to put something over on gullible common folk.

It is just too reductive to equate "bullshit" with "lying" no matter how much you try to qualify the definition, for it sidesteps many lesser but related categories -- for instance, how do you define "little white lies" or "bending the truth"? How is "embellishing the truth" different from out-and-out lying? What would you call someone who "selects" certain truths but evades others? Then there is the contemporary malaise of "hype," a form of publicized aggrandizement that bears no relation to the poverty of the persons or objects being elevated. You can call an outrageous lie "a whopper" but it isn't in the same class as a premeditated, nationally-disseminated, politically-motivated, Goebbels-like Big Lie about the genetic inferiority of Jews.

"Bullshit" is too amorphous, too multi-faceted to be wedged into the cubbyhole of a dictionary definition or a 67-page treatise -- no matter how elaborately qualified. "Bullshit" is sometimes an exclamation; sometimes a verdict; it can be a sneer or a proclamation, a challenge or an epithet. Sometimes it is simply an indefinable scent that certain people emit while speaking -- which is why Hemingway urged us always to check our "bullshit detectors." Frankfurt's parameters are so narrow one feels the frisson of the book is simply the fact that a distinguished Princeton University professor is dealing with a subject that is mildly obscene -- itself a kind of hype.

Towards the end of a circuitous train of thought that never delves deeper than hair-splitting definitions, Frankfurt finally arrives at his terminus. "Bullshit," he writes soberly, "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. 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." Frankfurt goes on to deplore the fact that we have lost the sense of "objective inquiry" -- unable to determine what is false or true, and as a result "correctness" (by which he means verifiable conclusions) has given way to "an alternative ideal" -- viz "sincerity." But, he concludes, "Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial -- notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

One would think having spent most of his life in academia, Frankfurt would have a firm handle on bullshit. But like the pedagogue whose lectern has become an inextricable extension of his waist, he never looks beyond the semantic nuances of a subject which, to be properly understood, has to be related to a variety of non-academic phenomena such as advertising, sports, electronic media, politics, journalism, tele-evangelism, celebrity, corporate malfeasance -- every branch of life where the arts of mendacity are practiced and perfected. The ultimate effect of Frankfurt's treatise is like students trying to learn the meaning of baseball by tossing a bean-bag around the environs of a classroom.

Confronted with bogus spectacles, both in the public arena and in our private lives, forced to come to terms with broken promises and tantalizing offers that never materialize, assailed by language from which all true sentiment has been thoroughly drained, we are obliged to fashion a tongue out of American speech which will rationalize our disappointments, deflect our rage, and camouflage anti-social feelings which, if they were given release, would brand us as monsters or psychopaths. Subject to this constant pressure, we concoct a language -- one third of which is bogus, one third defensive, and one third elusive, and that is how bullshit is born. It is not a blight on the American tongue, it is the American tongue -- in commerce, in politics, in daily intercourse with transient strangers, familiar colleagues, and so-called loved ones. Like any other foreign language, it cries out for translation, but there is neither grammar, syntax, nor vocabulary adequate to convey what our psychic life is obliged to suppress. We all learn how to interpret this language the way we learn the secrets of any cipher, by trying to dope out its symbols and mannerisms, divining what partial bits of intelligence we can in order to try to extrapolate deeper meanings.

This, more so than semantic hair-splitting, is what bullshit is all about and no one to my knowledge has yet tackled the subject.


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Frankfurt, Harry G.: On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005, ISBN: 0-691-12294-6, 80 Pages (hardcover), $9.95

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Published July 4, 2005