Theory of 'Bullshit' & Witnesses to 'Truth' –

Reading “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt.

There is a certain hazard involved in commenting on such a definitive work that masterfully weaves satire, wit, and a comparative analysis of humbug with references to Longfellow, anecdotes from the life of Wittgenstein, and even Augustine’s eight types of lying. I am all too cognizant of the fact that people would be much better off reading this delightful little essay for themselves than suffering through whatever inane observations I could muster up here.

Still, inanely observe I must! – Frankfurt’s basic conclusion is that bullshit is a greater enemy of truth even than lying because it has no care for the truth whatsoever. Those concerned with honesty or deceit are at least ‘playing the same game’ – not so for those engaging in bullshit. He further, somewhat poignantly, observes that part of the reason bullshit is so prevalent in our current context is the almost omnipresent demand to ‘speak about that which we know little or nothing about’.

He then muses about the apparent move to trade ‘correctness’ for ‘sincerity’ as the core value or motive in basic communication. This is devastating, as he points out in the final lines, because it is undeniable that the most uncertain knowledge we have is that of ourselves – finally declaring (in proportion to the unstable nature of our own natures) that sincerity itself is bullshit. So, that’s essentially the rundown – but – as they used to say on ‘Reading Rainbow’, don’t take my word for it! (insert jingle and cut to LeVar Burton) Ok, I’m afraid we can’t cut to LeVar Burton. I do hope you heard the jingle though . . .

What perhaps resonated with me most was the forceful repudiation of epistemic pessimism while affirming the need for intellectual humility in the face of the hard-fought nature of knowledge acquisition. This is a ‘golden mean’ very few seem aware of, much less manage to achieve!

In my own ‘world’ of Christian religious philosophy (I spent some of my wasted youth in Bible college!), this divide is painfully evident. On the one hand (let’s call it the right), we have ‘conservative’ fundamentalists who have a sort of imperialistic epistemology marked by an absurd and self-defeating over-confidence. On the other hand (let’s call it the left), we have ‘progressive’ social advocates who believe certainty of any kind is the enemy of love (and life) itself!

This situation is made all the more depressing by the Protestant milieu in which it manifests itself (at least in my experience). Setting aside for a moment that many of these communions confuse ‘conservatism’ and ‘progressivism’ with some sort of content (they are, in fact, dispositions), the apparent indifference to ‘truth’ – either as subjectively acquired or objectively available – certainly seems to qualify as so much ‘bullshit’, at least in the terms outlined in Frankfurt’s theory of the same.

The irony, of course, is profound – since religious philosophy (of any sort) has traditionally been the domain in which explorations of ‘truth’ (even with a capital ‘T’) were most explicitly and deliberately conducted. The fact that this assertion may sound odd to many a modern reader in no way dilutes its historical accuracy – rather it shows, perhaps, the advanced state of degradation permeating religion in our society.

My own Christian canonical tradition has the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea, quite memorably, asking a certain marginal Jew:

“What is truth?”

This would seem to be the perennial question, perhaps most especially in the delicate matter of constructing a theory of bullshit.


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