On Bullshit

As a hermit whose first step out of her shell was partaking in social media poetry, I was instantly made aware of how much bullshit there was in the world. The scary thing was, I was also made aware of how susceptible I was to it. So, at a recommendation from my boyfriend (if writing is my whetstone, Keith is my blacksmith–and it often hurts), I read Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit“.

What Frankfurt’s trying to do here isn’t to give a decisive definition of what bullshit is but rather to distinguish between some common modes of misrepresentation, so that we may be wary of them. Frankfurt identifies, inter alia, two ways in which truth can be misrepresented: 1. through lying, that is, communicating something false, and 2. by ‘making assertions that purport to describe the way things are’ (15), without caring about whether these assertions are true or false. The second mode of deception is what he calls bullshit.

In normal contexts, of course, as Frankfurt recognises, we use the term far more loosely. (My boyfriend likes to snap, “Bullshit!” whenever he thinks I’m lying to him. I’m not a very good liar, so he’s usually right. 🙄 ). But for communication purposes it helps to think of bullshit and lying in separate terms.

Bullshit is much more dangerous than a lie, Frankfurt says (I think they’re both equally dangerous), because underlying a truth or lie is still the assumption that there are facts that can be known, and hence communicated or concealed. But bullshit has no concern for the facts at all. It may be true or false; it doesn’t matter, because what the bullshitter is concerned with isn’t truth or its concealment, but the promulgation of a certain image of himself. The essence of bullshit is its ‘indifference to how things really are’ (8).

In his book Lean Logic, under “How to Cheat in an Argument”, David Fleming lists out some hazards, or fallacies, that often misguide or confuse thought. ‘Bullshit’ is one of them. This he defines generally as the act of ‘talk[ing] at length about nothing’ (xxiii), and more specifically as

  1. The waffle produced by someone who is expected to know what he is talking about, but does not
  2. An accusation thrown at a person who is attempting to lift the discussion from the reductionist torpor into which it has sunk
  3. Brief description of a content-free argument.

The first one echoes Frankfurt. The second, dry humour notwithstanding, shows just how hard it is to tell a bullshitter from someone with good intentions. When we think about what it is about bullshit we need to be wary of, though, I find the third definition most enlightening. After all, I wouldn’t know if a person doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about, unless I can identify that his argument has no content, or is, in other words, unsubstantiated.

Well then, what makes for a content-free argument? Petter Naessan, quoting from Grice’s Logic and Conversation, suggests a number of conditions that would sufficiently qualify something as bullshit, in addition to the necessary condition of its speaker’s indifference to the truth: 1. conveys not enough information, 2. conveys too much information, 3. lack evidence, 4. are irrelevant to the topic at hand, or 5. are obscure, ambiguous, unnecessarily wordy or disorderly. Some of the fallacies Fleming lists are also useful in identifying content-free arguments: ‘assertion’, for example, which is to ‘simply assert your case, without any argument’, or ‘counterexample: cite one instance which disproves the other side’s entire belief system: “But I have a friend who …”‘

Oh good, I thought. So now I can more justifiably say that something like

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 17.49.19.png

is bullshit (I won’t identify the ‘poet’, if she can be called that, but for some reason it’s got 227 likes on Insta so far, and it’s worthwhile to consider why). Boy does it fulfil condition 5.

And yet–can I discount the fact that this unfathomable combination of words may mean something, may even shed light on some truth, to some people? Here’s what someone commented:

… it’s a beautiful and haunting way to explain what could be considered a higher being or the meaning of life itself–the human mind cannot fathom or comprehend the beauty and the destruction … that can bring forth existence and then tear it down.

I have no idea how this person derived this meaning from such a pleonastic text flooded with ‘unintelligible murkiness’, but wouldn’t it be presumptuous, even egotistical, of me to dismiss that person’s view entirely, just because I didn’t get that meaning (or any meaning whatsoever) from the text myself? Doesn’t the beauty of poetry stem, at least in part, from its potential to generate infinite meanings, so that a single image can take on several meanings to different people? But if this is the case, if the very art of poetry lies in its use of figures of speech, metaphors etc. that deliberately obscure meaning or leave it ambiguous, how can you tell bullshit from truly profound art?

Frankfurt might say that the difference between poetic bullshit and art lies in the intent of the speaker, but practically, how can one tell what someone else’s intent is? Even if a computer can sound like Deepak Chopra, I can’t in good conscience judge beyond reasonable doubt that Deepak Chopra as a phony unconcerned with truth, especially when I don’t even know him in person.

Even a poem that simply makes a statement about the poet’s subjective view would by Frankfurt’s definition be considered bullshit. Because he doesn’t even believe one can make any genuine claim about oneself!

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial–notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit (16).

What Frankfurt seems to be suggesting here is that even if we think we’re being sincere, telling a truth about ourselves through our art, we’re actually just bullshitting. Ouch. So much of art is an expression of the artist’s mental or emotional state, it really makes me wonder if bullshit in art can’t be helped.

I’m not saying that all poems necessarily make ambiguous or unsubstantiated claims, although a lot of them certainly seem to. (Just think of haiku, which by the very nature of its form implies some sort of ‘enlightenment’, some truth or insight about the poet’s internal or external reality.) But if there’s any substantiation to be found in the sparse words of a haiku, it would be more likely found in the reader’s experience and not in the poem itself as clear and objective evidence.

So now I’m starting to think that, although when reading poems we often assume, if not expect, that the poet is sincere or genuine, perhaps that shouldn’t affect our value judgments at all. Perhaps poetry can be fake and still be good–that is, can still be art. Frankfurt does recognise the mode of creativity behind the notion of the ‘bullshit artist’ (13). Why should we judge the poem produced by the insincere poet to be of any lesser quality than that produced by the genuine one? What is their comparative value, especially if they both use language in equally esoteric ways? ‘Bullshit’ implies worthlessness, and Frankfurt certainly seems to think society would do better without it, but someone’s bullshit may just be someone else’s elixir.

That seems intuitively wrong to me, though. If Wordsworth were to rise from the grave right now and announce that he’d created all his poems with a bullshit generator using algorithms and buzzwords, I don’t think I’d ever read a line of his again. I’ve always felt that art should reveal some kind of truth, that we ought to get from art some sort of revelation and not just pleasure from its beauty, or there’d be nothing distinguishing Van Gogh from a flower or a friendship or my sister’s pretty mass-produced teddy bear.

And now I find myself deleting draft after draft of Twitterpoetry, my thumb hovering, constipated, over the Tweet button. The already formidable task of poem-ing now appears even more difficult. If I can’t make any sincere truth claims about myself, how can I express myself poetically without bullshitting? Must I resign myself to the fact that ‘[e]ach of us contributes his share [of bullshit]’ (1); that I can’t ever be wholly genuine due to the vast portions of myself hidden from me, and so every statement I make about myself is bullshit?

Maybe I’m missing something here. I’m probably unwittingly making some unwarranted assumptions. Comment below to to let me know what you think! Any recommendations for further reading would also be appreciated. 🙂

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Author: ckye

Celine Low, a.k.a. Ckye, is a writer and creative writing tutor with an Honours degree in English Literature. Her fictional works have been published by The Bride of Chaos and Marshall Cavendish, and she posts regularly on Twitter and Instagram on an eternal quest to capture both beauty and sublimity through her words. An academic at heart, she also enjoys reading and writing research papers, as she finds a rather masochistic pleasure in gnawing on the musings of wise old philosophers or critics. She aims to travel the world one day, and hopes that the Northern Lights look as good as they do in Google wallpapers.

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