Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit (Frankfurt, 1988) is a very interesting piece of philosophy in which he distinguishes bullshit from lies and truth. His distinction is elegant: Both the truth-teller and the liar cares about the truth, as even the liar must know the truth in order to oppose it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, cares not. He has a total disregard for truth altogether. This distinguishes bullshit: It does not care about truth at all.
In this essay, I will use three heavy philosophical terms: bullshit, truth, and activity. They are to be understood as follows:
- Bullshit is a total disregard for truth.
- Truth is that which seems to be the matter of fact, be that empirically or theoretically.
- Activity is here not just physical activity, but the process of being active in general. The antonym would be passivity.
There are three roles already mentioned here, with three separate goals. First is the truth-teller, whose goal is to tell the truth. Second is the liar, whose goal is to lie, i.e., to tell that which is not the truth. And third is the bullshitter, whose goal is to tell bullshit. However, what does that mean in practice?
One way of understanding the practice of the bullshitter is as spreading noise. Noise is information in that it has content, but it may be presented in such a way that it is detrimental to truth in the way that the bullshitter would like it to be. For example: How do the three roles answer the question "where is Greece?"
The truth teller's answer is easy: "Greece is in South-East Europe, in the Mediterranean." The precision of this answer could be increased, however the answer is truthful.
The liar's answer is also easy, he just has to not say the truth. For example: "Greece is located south in South-America." As this answer is incorrect, i.e., it does not seem to be the matter of fact, it suffices as a lie.
The bullshitter's answer, however, does not follow this simple rule of truth or not truth. He must tell bullshit. That could look like this: "Greece is a peninsula with a dismal history and gentle people and is located just west of the regular road to Damascus."
In this example I have tried to illustrate how bullshit can be understood as noise. There is information here, and some of it may even be described as true. However, it is just bullshit because of how meaningless the answer is for at least two reasons. Firstly, the information provided does not pertain to the question: it is not accurate. Secondly, some of the information provided is not meaningful. "The regular road to Damascus" illustrates both: it has no significance with regards to the location of Greece, and it is also meaningless.
Now comes the point: Can we categorise these three roles as active and passive? Surely, we can!
The active truth teller is someone who would reply to the question above as stated, with the truth. However, a passive truth-teller could answer as follows: "I cannot tell you, as I do not know." This is not a particularly satisfying reply, but it does at least not tell a lie. And therein lies the passive truth-teller’s essence: he avoids telling lies.
In a similar fashion, the passive liar avoids telling truths. If the liar does not know where Greece is, he could accidentally tell the truth about its location. Thus, in order to avoid truth, he also says: "I cannot tell you where it is as I do not know." In this way, the liar does at least avoid accidentally telling the truth. (However, let it be clear that this game is a lot easier for the liar than for his counterpart. The liar's odds of achieving his goal at random are significantly higher than those of the truth-teller.)
However, can we do the same for the bullshitter? Can he spread noise passively?
The passive bullshitter seems to be a paradox. The notion of bullshit depends on someone actively bullshitting it into existence. Without the activity, there is no bullshit. Thus, bullshit necessitates activity. Without an active proponent of it there is no bullshit. Noise needs a medium in which to exist, and that medium must actively propel it into existence. The passive bullshitter is impossible.
Now, what does this tell us about our attitudes towards truth? Well, it seems to me that more activity is not always to the benefit of truth. If we want to combat bullshit, then we do in fact ought to avoid the ever-increasing activity of information.
This problem is excellently illustrated in today's modern world where information flows like never before, and misinformation flows along with it. Truth, lies, and bullshit are all mixed together on the highways of information. The higher the activity, the more it favours bullshit. This is why we should heed the following warning:
If you want to hide the truth from people, there are two ways to do it. You could either simply prevent truth from coming out, or you can bury it in misinformation.
Frankfurt, H. G. (1988). The importance of what we care about: Philosophical essays. Cambridge University Press.
Sign in or become a Philosophy Cubed member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.