Mon. Jun 24th, 2024

How to Spot Bullshit: A Manual by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (RIP)


Note: Over the weekend, the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt passed away at the age of 94. After a long career, he became the author of the surprise bestselling book, On Bullshit, which we featured in 2016. Please revisit our original post below.

We live in an age of truthiness. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s tendency to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the American Dialect Society named it Word of the Year, former president Bush’s calendar is packed with such leisure activities as golf and painting portraits of world leaders, but “truthiness” remains on active duty.

It’s particularly germane in this election year, though politicians are far from its only practitioners.

Take global warming. NASA makes a pretty rock solid case for both its existence and our role in it:

97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities. In addition, most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.

In view of such numbers, it’s understandable that a suburban Joe with a freezer full of factory-farmed beef and multiple SUVs in his garage would cling to the position that global warming is a lie. It’s his last resort, really.

But such self-rationalizations are not truth. They are truthiness.

Or to use the old-fashioned word favored by philosopher Harry Frankfurt, above: bullshit!

Frankfurt–a philosopher at Princeton and the author of On Bullshitallows that bullshit artists are often charming, or at their very least, colorful. They have to be. Achieving their ends involves engaging others long enough to persuade them that they know what they’re talking about, when in fact, that’s the opposite of the truth.

Speaking of opposites, Frankfurt maintains that bullshit is a different beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a specific attempt to conceal the truth by swapping it out for a lie.

The bullshit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about creating a general impression.

There are times when I admit to welcoming this sort of manure. As a maker of low budget theater, your honest opinion of any show I have Little Red Hen’ed into existence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerging from the cramped dressing room, unless you truly loved it.

I’d also encourage you to choose your words carefully when dashing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to matters of public policy, and the public good, yes, transparency is best.

It’s interesting to me that filmmakers James Nee and Christian Britten transformed a portion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover narration for a lightning fast stock footage montage. It’s diverting and funny, featuring such ominous characters as Nosferatu, Bill Clinton, Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and Donald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of misdirection sleight of hand at which true bullshitters excel?

Frankfurt expands upon his thoughts on bullshit in his aptly titled bestselling book, On Bullshit and its followup On Truth.

Related Content:

Noam Chomsky Schools 9/11 Truther; Explains the Science of Making Credible Claims

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Triumph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the English Language a New Expletive (1910)

“Calling Bullshit”: See the Syllabus for a College Course Designed to Identify & Combat Bullshit

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday





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