Friday, June 16, 2006
One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is
so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his
So says Harry Frankfurt in his marvelous essay On Bullshit, a fine piece of analytical philosophy and articulation of an important concept. Essentially, the point is that bullshit differs from lies in that whereas the liar has an idea of a truth that he wants to conceal with a falsehood, for the bullshitter these categories are simply irrelevant; the bullshitter does not seek to deceive, strictly speaking, because he or she is utterly indifferent to the truth or falsity of the matter to which their discourse pertains. Thus, "the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phoney."
Speaking personally, the lasting intellectual benefit I have drawn from this work is this: whereas I once believed that the advertising and PR "industries" were professional lying, I now realise I was entirely wrong. They are in fact professional bullshit.
I came across the essay via this review by, the still excellent, Scott McLemee who comments:
At the risk of pitching a little of it myself, it is tempting to say that On Bullshit comes very close to defining the essence of postindustrial society. “The realms of advertising and of public relations,” Frankfurt writes, “and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept.”
Such mass-produced bull has vast resources at its disposal: “There are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who — with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth — dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.” In other words, bullshit is not just an irritant. It is a form of professional expertise. If it vanished overnight, the economy might collapse. A sobering thought, perhaps beyond the limits of satire to handle.
McLemee's remark about the economy collapsing if it weren't for bullshit might have something to do with the points I made about capitalism in these posts. I think "beyond the limits of satire to handle" nicely captures the insanity of a sytem that would cease to function if people didn't buy shit - didn't some Senator in the US, after 9/11, describe shopping as "the new patriotism"? (Or maybe it was Bill Clinton).
Anyway, just from this little synopsis you can probably glimpse what fun it is reading a piece of serious analytical philosophy interspersed with the word "bullshit".