Harry Frankfurt’s influential essay “On Bullshit” is comically titled. As the essay progresses, however, the comedy gives way to serious social commentary. Frankfurt writes, “One of the most salient features of our culture is the proliferation of bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.” Just as the fish does not stop swimming to notice water, so we, living in our time and place, scarcely stop to wonder, why all the bullshit?
What is bullshit? According to Frankfurt, bullshit is when people represent themselves as being accurate when they have no concern for whether what they are saying is actually true or not. The result could be true or not, but the communicator does not care much either way. Bullshit might bring to mind a high school student’s college entrance essay sincerely describing beliefs that he does not in fact hold. Or it may call to mind the typical argument between lovers where the man argues that he couldn’t get around to washing the dishes sitting in the sink even though he had three hours.
Another aspect of bullshit is when the speaker says something without much concern for the actual words she is using. J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit starts off with an apt example. Gandalf strolls up to the unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins, who quickly says, “Good morning!” The wizard responds, saying, “What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on.” Bilbo responds, “all of them at once.” Phrases like good morning do betray a lack of accuracy that we seldom examine. Which meaning do we mean when we say it? We tend to mean that we hope the person has a good morning, I suspect. Later, when Bilbo tries to get rid of Gandalf, he says “good morning” in another sense, that of goodbye. The ever wry and perceptive Gandalf points this out to the unadventurous Hobbit. Bullshit often has this sense of inaccuracy of wording or thought. So many of our expressions have the same quality. How many of us have actually been in a butt kicking contest with a one legged man, for example? I’d say none of us. The point is that we ought to think about what we mean before we say it, just like Mom used to tell us.
Our inaccuracy often betrays our lack of concern for the truth. This is the crux of the matter. Many people in Western society today take the skeptical route, either rejecting the existence of truth or of ever knowing truth. If you cannot really know the truth, then why bother with accuracy of reasoning from evidence? The result is an epidemic of unvirtuous intellects. All the while, we often try our best to be sincere and authentic. If we cannot know the truth, perhaps we can still be true to ourselves. Yet the problem, as Frankfurt points out, is that if we cannot know truth, how can we know truth about ourselves? Our own natures are just as illusive, if not more so, than any other object in the universe. Being “authentic” without pursuing truth, is, in fact, bullshit.
What’s the anti-bullshit route? It involves actually thinking about ideas, facts, and truth. Yes, you may end up holding some false positions, but you can always improve as you learn more. This is the anti-meme, anti-sentimentality, anti-mainstream media, anti-anti-intellectual route. And, yes, this actually means we have to read good books. These must be real books, not just short articles on the net. From the looks of it, very few are taking this route today. But just because that is the case does not mean that it has to be the case for any one of us. The rebellion has begun…against bullshit.