On Bullshit
Harry G. Frankfurt

A neat, concentrated exploration of what bullshit really is and a foray into why there's so much of it. Can be read in a single sitting. Beautiful stuff.

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry." (Page 1)

There's lots of bullshit, and what there is of it is poorly understood. Is it possible to build a better understanding of it through philosophical analysis?

Frankfurt first looks at a definition of the word "humbug" but it isn't quite right. He then goes through a number of terms and definitions. None of them are quite right, or are just totally wrong.

He then poses a few starter questions. Is bullshit a lack of care in making? Well no, not quite, because bullshit can be carefully constructed. Politics, PR, consulting are all bullshit to some extent. So, perhaps bullshit, is to some extent an exercise in getting away with something.

"It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit." (Page 33)

Bullshitting does seem to be some kind of bluff. Bluffs are not quite lies per se because bluffing is fakery, rather than falsity. The essence of bullshit, then, is that it is phoney.

"What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it is made." (Page 47)

He also leaves an open question here at this point: why is it that we are generally more forgiving of bullshit than we are of lies?

"What [the bullshitter] does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to." (Page 54)

Frankfurt then outlines the main difference between lies and bullshit:

  • The liar is concerned about the truth in their purpose of telling the lie
  • The bullshitter doesn't care about the truth

Why is there so much bullshit, though?

"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person's obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic." (Page 63)

There is also the common belief that everyone should have an opinion about everything (especially true in a world where social media exists).

Finally, there's also the proliferation of sincerity as a response to scepticism about reality being possible to truly know. This includes the belief that one should be honest about oneself because it is the only thing that can be truly known. But there's no evidence for this whatsoever.

To know ourselves, this cannot be done on its own. We must know ourselves in context, we must know ourselves in relation to others. There is nothing to suggest that it is either easy or possible to know ourselves.

"Insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit." (Page 67)
More of this, but in your inbox.

I write a newsletter about the internet. It's called Internet Connection. There's a few hundred of us that fall down the rabbit hole every other week. Want to come along for the ride? Drop your email below.

Let me read it first