September 28, 2008

Bullshit as Metaphor: Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit

Hello friends. I'm going to start this thing with an old essay originally published in the online version of Bears On Text. Consider this the print equivalent of shouting "testing, testing" into a microphone.

The shit on Bullshit

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit has become a small phenomenon in America: a philosophical work that has captured the public imagination. On Bullshit has shown up on best-seller lists, been championed by John Stewart on The Daily Show, been the subject of a 60 Minutes segment, and been reviewed in a column in the Lifestyles section of USA Today. Unlike France, where philosophers such as Baudrillard, Foucault, and Delueze are treated like rock stars, America has little patience for philosophy. If for no other reason, On Bullshit merits comment simply because it broke through the barrier of the banal, the manufactured facade of American culture.

Indeed, it is the manufactured aspect of American culture that gives On Bullshit its resonance: every utterance is assumed to have its validity and intent. To the consumers of these utterances, the validity and intent of utterance has become part and parcel of the utterance itself. Americans live in a culture of spin, where every utterance has a source, every source has a purpose, and the search for truth becomes a two step process: judging the utterance, and recognizing its source.

Put another way, whenever we are told something, we have decide whether or not the statement is true. Part of judging the truth of a statement inevitably involves recognizing the source of the statement 1 . This requisite recognition of a statement’s source is the logical outgrowth of a culture where the function of a statement has attained equal status to the validity of the statement 2 . Yet we do not have, at any popular theoretical level, a way to understand how validity and intent interact. At the base level of our culture, we are functioning binarily: a statement is true or false. Given the troublesome nature of truth, Frankfurt proposes that statements can be true, false, or unconcerned with the truth that they claim to speak. This third type of statement Frankfurt calls bullshit, and his project is to begin to codify bullshit. More explicitly, Frankfurt proposes “to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit”, to “give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not”, to “articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept” (On Bullshit, pp. 1-2).

Frankfurt’s first hurdle is separating validity from intent. We tend to use the term “bullshit” interchangeably with “falsehood”: if you tell me something, and I reply “that’s bullshit”, we generally understand that to be the same as if I had replied “that’s a lie”. For Frankfurt, bullshit is not the same as a lie, and the difference is crucial. There are three types of statements: true, false, and bullshit. While the first two types of statements are directly concerned with validity, the third is concerned primarily with intent. Frankfurt’s formulation of the concept of bullshit is simple and elegant: bullshit
is grounded neither in the 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 the truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit.
(pp. 33-34)
Frankfurt’s already slim volume is essentially boiled down in this statement. Ultimately there need be nothing more added to his introduction to the analysis of bullshit. But continue he does, if only for a mere sixty-seven 4-inch by 6-inch pages: On Bullshit draws a circle around this statement, and all the remaining prose orbits around it like satellites around the sun.

The rigor of truth

In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with the greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the Gods were everywhere
(Longfellow by way of Wittgenstein, quoted by Frankfurt, p. 20)

Central to Frankfurt’s concept of truth is rigor: that is, those who purport to tell the truth must be completely devoted to the truth they speak. The framing anecdote of On Bullshit is a (possibly apocryphal) story told by a friend of Wittgenstein’s, Fanai Pascal. In it, Pascal relates a call that Wittgenstein made to her in the hospital, in which she reported that she felt “like a dog that has just been run over”. Wittgenstein replied with disgust: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like” (p. 24). Frankfurt freely admits that he is perhaps misinterpreting what might have been a bit of joking hyperbole 3 , but still lets it stand as the prime illustration of the rigor of truth.

Bullshit can be thought of as “shoddy goods” “invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner” (p. 21). While the idea of “shoddy goods” is not central to the concept of bullshit (we all know of carefully wrought bullshit), the idea of self-indulgence absolutely is central to bullshit. Rigor defies bullshit only when it serves the truth, not when it serves anything else, and craftsmanship not in the service of truth (the “Gods” of the Longfellow verse above) is nothing more than bullshit. Frankfurt further identifies as a marker of bullshit a
kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline. The pertinent mode of laxity cannot be equated, evidently, with simple carelessness or inattention to detail. (pp. 23-24)

Later, Frankfurt describes the laxity of the bullshitter as providing
a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. (p. 32)
The utterance of truth can have but one master: truth. Any utterance that does not serve the truth, any utterance that does not commit itself completely to the truth, is bullshit 4 .

The battle of intent; or, as Bob Dylan says, “You gotta serve somebody”

In mining the literature for a starting point to his conceptualization of bullshit, Frankfurt runs across Max Black’s essay “The Prevalence of Humbug”. Humbug, it turns out, is a precursor to bullshit; and while Frankfurt spends a fair amount of time differentiating the two, it is clear that he has found a valuable source. Frankfurt could be describing bullshit when he says that
humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression of what is going on in the mind of the speaker 5 . Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and intent. (p. 14)

This definition of humbug is tied to an illustration by Frankfurt:
Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about “our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind”. This is surely humbug. As Black’s account suggests, the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs that he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what the audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech. It is clear that what makes the Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false . . . He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. (pp. 16-18)
We live in an age of manufactured utterance. Statements of “reality” are designed to serve a purpose, and if they are true at all, then their validity serves their intent. Every utterance is controlled, every statement is spun . . . from the retail worker who is required to answer “thank you” with “my pleasure”, all the way up to police actions, death taxes, and pro-lifers versus pro-choicers. What language has come to communicate is less about “truth” than about the mind of the speaker. Here, intent is never specifically the urge to deceive. It is, rather, the urge to describe the world in a way that fits criteria that are placed above “truth”. Intent is impossible to escape, but validity too often takes a back seat. Furthermore, utterances are always portrayed to be concerned with truth (validity) first and foremost, when in reality they are often primarily concerned with intent. The question becomes this: what master does an utterance serve? For Frankfurt, at least, the answer is clear: any utterance that does not serve the truth is bullshit.

The elephant in the room; or, as Johnny Cash said, “what is truth?”

As mentioned before, Frankfurt’s conceptualization of bullshit is simple and elegant, and useful as well. It is not, however, without its problems. Indeed, there seems to be an elephant in the room that Frankfurt barely touches (one assumes, “for the purposes of this discussion”): just what is truth? Clearly it would be ridiculous to frontally engage the central question of all philosophy in this small volume, but Frankfurt seems to be making some assumptions about the nature of truth that are a bit too easy.

First and foremost, Frankfurt’s analysis is based on the traditional role between subject and object: “One who is concerned to report or conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable” (p. 61). Truth here is ultimately object, and the closer to the object an utterance approaches, the closer to truth it is. Conversely, the closer an utterance is to its subject, the more bullshit it is (remember, we have already pegged self-indulgence as an aspect of bullshit).

Frankfurt notes the philosophical angst created by the struggle against objectivity in the last century, and, with a flick of the wrist, brushes it aside:
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “antirealist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion
of objective inquiry. (pp. 64-65)
He then goes on to reframe the subject-object relationship in terms of “sincerity” and “correctness”: moving toward the subject is sincere, while moving toward the object is correct. “Antirealists” deny the possibility of actually knowing anything external, the possibility of being correct, so they focus inward, on their own internal nature, and strive to be sincere. Of course, Frankfurt is only baiting a trap here, since most of the “antirealists” he sites would reject the possibility of knowing anything, internal or external 6 . His assertion that one’s self is defined by the external world is accurate, as is the idea that it is perhaps even more difficult to know one’s self than the external world. Still, it misses the point, since the very idea of knowing implies an object to be known, be it the self or the external world.

For Frankfurt, truth resides in the object, and an utterance’s validity depends on its distance from intent. The object, or Frankfurt’s “truth”, is/are the “Gods” referred to in the Longfellow verse above, the truths that artifice (utterance) serves. Utterance embraces the object, or, to follow the objectivist logic to its extreme, utterance becomes the object . . . for it is only in the object which truth resides.

The problem is, of course, that there is always distance between truth and the utterance of truth. The artifacts of the builders are not the gods, only the representations of the gods. Here Frankfurt’s cavalier dismissal of “antirealist” doctrines defies the rigor of truth, and serves to question his entire discussion. Again, given the scope of Frankfurt’s project, it’s not necessary to run the whole history of “truth”, but such glaring assumptions threaten his project on its own terms.

Bullshit as metaphor

Language is our interface with the object, with “reality”. It is with language that we build our temples to the gods of truth. But, to repeat, our temples are not gods, they are representations of the gods. Truth is something that is ultimately not attainable in its objective form: we always move toward speaking truth, for we cannot ever actually speak it. The object is never contained in our speech, it is only described: our statements stand as metaphors for truth, not truth itself. Bullshit, too, is metaphor, so it seems that our project, by way of Frankfurt, is to determine how bullshit functions as metaphor.

First of all, when creating statements of truth, intent can never be fully escaped. Since utterance can only approach truth (not be truth), the metaphors that we create have their source, and that source is tempered by our worldview. Even as we approach the object, the subject cannot be escaped. So, any statement is by necessity a negotiation between the subject and the object 7 .

The subject provides intent, both in an unconscious and conscious manner . . . unconscious to the degree that the cultural scrap heap on which we live defines our view of reality, conscious to the degree that we want our statements to function in a certain way. Frankfurt takes our cultural scrap heap as a given: it’s the conscious functionality that he isolates as a marker of bullshit. If we understand statements to be negotiations between subject and object, and we understand these negotiations to take the form of metaphor, then we can move back toward Frankfurt’s original project: what kind of metaphor qualifies as bullshit?

Just as all utterance has an element of the subject, all utterance has an element of bullshit. We have seen that self-indulgence (subjectivity) is a marker of bullshit (p. 21, cited above): so, with Frankfurt as our guide, how can we differentiate utterance that has elements of bullshit from outright bullshit?

It becomes clear at this point that bullshit is a matter of degree 8 . Each utterance is a negotiation between subjective and objective forces, so the question (once again) becomes this: what master does an utterance serve? What is it that dominates (wills) in an utterance, and what is it that submits?

The rigor of truth revisited

In spite of the objectivity problems in Frankfurt’s discussion, we now find ourselves squarely back in line with his analysis. Bullshit is simply utterance concerned with something other than that which it claims to describe.

We can, in any statement, isolate the subjective texts and subtexts that inform that statement. We are also aware of the object, or that which the statement claims as truth. Every statement has its (subjective) intent to guide it, as well as its (objective) validity to reveal it. While bullshit may be a matter of degree, we can go back to Frankfurt’s “rigor of truth” to begin to place a statement into the bullshit continuum: we can judge a statement by how thoroughly it is committed to that which it claims 9 . The subjective forces that drive utterance are always going to be problematic. There will always be a certain amount of indeterminacy in any statement of truth. If we can never finally wind up at any objective judgement of truth, even if we cannot definitively say what is bullshit and what is not, we can still move toward a more accurate understanding of a given utterance if only we are willing to subject it to Frankfurt’s rigor of truth. As long as we are willing to analyze all the forces that drive utterance, we will come closer to understanding what a statement means, whether or not the statement claims that meaning. Ultimately, the most interesting analysis of utterance (bullshit or not) begins here, with the analysis of facts and motives that define utterance.

. . . and finally, friends, bullshit itself is bullshit

Fanai Pascal was being sincere when she described herself as feeling “like a dog that has just been run over” (p. 24, cited above). What was lacking in her description was a commitment to that which she described. Overwrought though this example may be, one point to be taken away from On Bullshit is that “truth” requires a commitment to the reality an utterance describes.

The other, perhaps most important, point is one that Frankfurt doesn’t really make himself: utterance is a complex thing. It is never only what it says it is. It is rather a conglomeration of different aspects, different forces . . . and, if one is to understand an utterance, one must take all the different forces into account.

One of the reasons this little book was so popular is that it bandied the term “bullshit” around so freely. Using the term “bullshit” gives the air of simple talk, of cutting through clouds of rhetoric 10 . However, the term itself becomes problematic because of its pejorative nature: after all, talk of religion and spirituality almost always satisfies many of the requirements of bullshit, and I don’t get the feeling that Frankfurt would necessarily paint spiritual talk with a negative brush. Nietzsche too ranks high on the bullshit scale, yet he is one of the true giants of modern thought 11 . Bullshit is so tightly connected to the creation of metaphor, to the very basis of describing our world, that to think of it only in a pejorative sense is not completely accurate, or perhaps not completely rigorous.

Frankfurt does cover some ground that has not been brought up in this essay, but frankly, it all seems a bit nebulous and beside the point 12 . Ultimately, On Bullshit asks to be judged simply: it is a small, incisive critical analysis of the popular conception of truth. Its contribution in this sense is important, and it deserves to be widely read. Though it is undercut by overly bold assumptions about key philosophical concepts, it nonetheless frames its central concept nicely and projects itself into a culture that is decidedly more prosaic than that which spawned the work 13 . Judging by the overwhelmingly positive reception this book has received, that is enough. For the rest of us, we can console ourselves with the idea that the path to enlightenment is taken in small steps.

1. Or vetting its authority, which is the same as locating an author . . . how often are we confronted with a dubious fact (say, a bit of gossip), and we undermine it with a statement such as “well, consider the source”.
2. Karl Rove to NPR’s Juan Williams, not long after George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004: “George W. Bush is the most popular president in the history of the United States.” He then supported his assertion by noting that more people had voted for Bush than for any president in history, which is a documented fact. Rove conveniently skipped over the fact that more people voted against Bush than any other president as well. Rove’s statement is prime bullshit: it is unconcerned with truth. The purpose of the statement (positioning Bush in a positive light) is primary; its relation to truth is secondary.
3. Ironically, treating what was perhaps just a joke as a serious example of Wittgenstein’s “rigor of truth” moves this anecdote dangerously close to the realm of bullshit. Frankfurt says that “for the purposes of this discussion, I shall accept Pascal’s report at face value, supposing that when it came to the use of allusive or figurative language, Wittgenstein was indeed as preposterous as she makes him out to be” (p. 27), while spending the previous two pages musing upon the possible meaning of Pascal’s story. It is clear that Frankfurt has prioritized intent over validity in this case (“For the purposes of this discussion . . .”). Certainly this is not egregious bullshit, but it’s a little light on the “rigor of truth” scale. Then again, I’m sure that Frankfurt has much more access to parlor talk about philosophers than I do.
4. Keep in mind here that lies do serve the truth, if only adversely. Once again, the idea that a lie is connected to the truth, while bullshit is not, is a salient point.
5. Bullshit does not require that the impression created be a false impression. Since I am not familiar with the source material, I don’t know if Black imposed this requirement on humbug. Bullshit only requires that the purpose of the utterance be a portrayal of a state of mind rather than a portrayal of truth.
6. You would have to think that Frankfurt is being a bit disingenuous . . . or, to couch it in terms of our discussion, intent has again trumped validity, and this concept is bullshit. This discussion does, however, set him up to end his book with the sentence “And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”
7. We’re venturing here into the realm of perhaps the greatest bullshitter of all time, Friedrich Nietzsche. Didn’t see that coming, did you? Well, maybe you did. There is a master being served here.
8. I feel certain that the good Dr. Frankfurt would object to this statement, perhaps even strenuously.
9. With all the “subjects” and “objects” being thrown around, a small bit of clarification is in order. Any statement is about something, and that something is its object, even if that object happens to be the subject speaking. So, if we revisit Frankfurt’s Fourth of July orator, and have him preface his comments with “I believe” (“I believe in a great and blessed country, I believe that our founding fathers, through divine guidance, created a new beginning for mankind, etc.”), then his statement doesn’t ring the bullshit bell as hard as it did before. The final judgement, of course, would rest on his philosophical commitment to the truths he speaks, and why he is speaking these truths at this given moment.
10. Which, frankly, is bullshit rhetorical trick.
11. He is one of the guiding lights of this discussion as well. If there is positive bullshit, I think Nietzsche is a prime example. As scattershot as he was (he said he philosophizes with a hammer, I prefer to think of him as philosophizing with a shotgun), there was never any question about the rigor of his thought . . . plenty of questions about his sanity, but none about his rigor.
12. If I really want to know what bullshit is, the Oxford English Dictionary and Ezra Pound are both a bit low on the search list.
13. Judged as a popular book instead of an academic book, the assumptions that Frankfurt makes are to its benefit rather than its detriment.