By Harry G. Frankfurt
Princeton University Press, 2005
There’s a lot of bullshit in the world. I sense there’s more bullshit today than before, perhaps because it fuels much of social media. I’m no saint in this regard: I’ve spouted as much bullshit — both on- and offline — as anybody else. But I don’t like bullshit and would like to avoid producing and consuming it. I’d also like to help reduce the quantity of bullshit in the world. Enter this book.
On Bullshit is a short pamphlet that ponders the nature of bullshit. Specifically, it clarifies the critical distinction between bullshitting and lying. The key difference is intent: The bullshitter is only concerned with achieving his goals or having a particular effect on his listeners. He doesn’t care about the truth, only that things go his way.
When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
IOW, the bullshitter has a different relationship with the truth than the liar. The liar rejects “the authority of truth” — i.e., he knowingly promotes untruths. The bullshitter doesn’t care one way or the other — “He pays no attention to [the truth] at all.” The bullshitter doesn’t have a negative relationship to the truth: he has no relationship with the truth; all that matters is influence.
Politicians live from bullshitting. In the last few years, we’ve had spectacular, over-the-top examples from both the left and the right. But most of us have also bullshitted at some point, even if just a bit. When I started my career, I was advised to “fake it til you make it.” I didn’t know what I was doing but somehow had to convince others that it’d be ok. It turned out alright in the end, but it was bullshit.
Was this wrong? My career would’ve stalled if I’d sought 100% confidence in my knowledge at the start. But while “fake it til you make it” can pay off, it’s a tricky proposition. If you don’t make it, you can hurt people (including yourself.) But there’s another risk: It’s easy to “believe your own press” — i.e., to fall for your own bullshit. At that point, you stop learning. And even worse, your relationship to the truth becomes strained. As Frankfurt writes, “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.”
And the risk doesn’t end after your career is underway. You’ll likely become interested in lots of new things throughout your life. In some cases, you’ll be drawn to work on and discuss areas where you have little competence. Therein lies the path to bullshit. There’s a precariously fine line between passionate neophyte and dangerous dilettante. (Perusing Twitter’s “Trending” tab yields lots of examples.)
Ideally, we can be transparent about our abilities and still have other people value our worth. In the best case, they’d give us leeway and learning opportunities commensurate with our stage of development. But this ideal is far from reality: most people want confidence and respect. As a result, many resort to bullshit, to the detriment of others — and themselves. I’ve done it too. But I’m working on it — and this book helps.
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