An Examination of Bullshit
Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (1986) is a gem of contemporary philosophy. It is concise, insightful, and important for both theory and practice. In the work, Frankfurt distinguishes lying from what he calls “bullshit.” This distinction has both academic and applied significance. In this article, I examine Frankfurt’s term by distinguishing a species of bullshit which I call Euthydemusian Bullshit (EB).1placeholder
In Plato’s Euthydemus, Socrates encounters two sophists, the brothers Euthydemus and Dionysodorus. They claim to be prepared to demonstrate something crucial for human life. Hoping to learn, Socrates asks about the topic of their demonstration. The brothers respond: “Virtue, Socrates! We believe we can impart it — no one in the world so well or quickly!”2placeholder In other words, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus claim that (a) they can impart virtue, (b) they can do so better than anyone else in the world, and (c) they can do so more quickly than anyone else in the world.
These are astounding claims, as Socrates immediately recognizes, despite his reasonable doubt that they are true. As the dialogue proceeds, it becomes evident that the brothers are not primarily concerned about whether their claims are true. Rather, they are concerned with their reputation and influence as sophists. It seems that they care above all about how competent they appear to be from the perspective of the crowd watching their show. And an entertaining show is what the crowd wants. The brothers realize that they can win the favor of the crowd by entertaining it, and that this favor will increase their prestige and power.
Consider the following example. At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates describes the brothers’ skill to Crito: “they have become so skillful in wordy warfare that they can confute with equal success anything which anyone says, whether false or true!”3placeholder Socrates then narrates the event to Crito, noting that Euthydemus began his show with the following question: “Now Clinias, which of mankind are the learners, the wise or the ignorant?”4placeholder After further questions from Euthydemus and answers from Clinias (who is just a boy), Euthydemus concludes the answer to his initial inquiry: the ignorant learn, but not the wise. Upon this conclusion, the crowd cheers for Euthydemus. Then Dionysodorus questions Clinias, which leads him to admit the opposite: the wise learn, but not the ignorant. At this answer, the audience again cheers, suggesting to the reader that the purpose of the show is to entertain. No one in the audience (except Socrates) seems concerned that the dialogue has generated a contradiction. Since contradictions are necessarily false, the reader is prompted to suspect that the brothers and their followers are indifferent to the truth of the matter at hand.
Socrates describes this moment of adulation from the crowd as follows: “Then indeed the two men’s admirers laughed loud and long, applauding their wisdom, but all the rest of us were dumb-struck and had nothing to say. Euthydemus noticed that we were dumb-struck and wanted us to admire him more [my emphasis]; so he would not let the boy alone, but went on asking, doubling and twisting around the same question, like a clever dancer.”5placeholder It is clear from this passage that the brothers do not care about the true answer to Euthydemus’ initial question, nor are they interested about the truth of their claims to teach virtue. Instead, they are interested in their status before the crowd.
Consider the passage at length, narrated by Socrates:
“Well, Euthydemus began something like this, I think.
Now Clinias, which of mankind are the learners, the wise or the ignorant?
This was a large question; so the boy blushed, and looked at me in doubt. Seeing that he was troubled I said, My dear Clinius, cheer up and answer like a man, whichever you think, for perhaps it will do you a deal of good.
Just then, Dionysodorus leaned over me, and whispered in my ear, smiling all over his face, Now look here, Socrates, I prophesy that whichever the lad answers, he will be refuted!
While he spoke Clinias made his answer, so I had not a chance to warn the boy to take care, and he answered that the wise were the learners.
And Euthydemus said, There are people you call teachers, aren’t there?
The teachers are teachers of the learners; for example, the music master and the grammar master were teachers of you and the other boys, and you were learners?
He said yes.
Of course at the time when you were learning, you did not yet know the things you were learning?
No, he said.
Then you were wise when you did not know these things?
Certainly no, said he.
If not wise, then ignorant?
So you boys, while learning what you did not know, were ignorant and were learning?
The boy nodded.
So the ignorant learn, my dear Clinias, not the wise as you suppose.
When he said this, it was like conductor and chorus — he signaled, and they all cheered and laughed, I mean Dionysodorus and Euthydemus and their followers. Then before the boy could take one good breath, Dionysodorus took over and said, What happened, my dear Clinias, when the grammar man dictated to you? Which of the boys learned the things dictated, wise or ignorant?
The wise ones, said Clinias.
Then the wise ones learn and not the ignorant, and you answered wrong just now to my brother.
Then indeed the two men’s admirers laughed loud and long, applauding their wisdom, but all the rest of us were dumb-struck and had nothing to say. Euthydemus noticed that we were dumb-struck and wanted us to admire him more; so he would not let the boy alone, but went on asking, doubling and twisting around the same question, like a clever dancer. He said, Do the learners learn what they know, or what they don’t know?
And Dionysodorus whispered softly to me again, Here’s another, Socrates, just like the first…”6placeholder
The brothers continue for several turns to tease Clinias in this way until Socrates, desiring to help him, says the following:
“My dear Clinias, do not be surprised if the arguments appear strange to you. Perhaps you do not understand what our visitors are doing with you…So consider now that you are hearing the beginnings of the sophistic ritual…Well, all this is just a little game of learning, and so I say they are playing with you …[They play with people] because of the different sense of words, tripping them up and turning them upside down, just as someone pulls a stool away when someone else is going to sit down, and then people roar with joy when they see him lying on his back…
Then, my dear Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, let your play end here — perhaps we have had enough — but now please demonstrate by attracting the boy and showing him how he must practice wisdom and virtue.”7placeholder
In the dialogue, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are guilty of bullshit: they are indifferent to the truth of the matters about virtue and learning, although they pretend to care; rather, they are interested in prestige and power. Nevertheless, the brothers do not seem guilty of lying. Note that, for Frankfurt, a deposit of bullshit is different from a lie. Given the nature of lying, a liar must care about the truth. To lie successfully, a liar must distinguish between truth and falsehood, and thus must attend to the truth. However, a claim of bullshit proceeds from a claimant who does not care about the truth: he is not concerned whether his claim is true or false, but only whether it can be used to influence his listeners in the desired manner. Frankfurt writes:
“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he 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. This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar… But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are. It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. 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.”8placeholder
The passage from Frankfurt raises the following question: What is the purpose of the bullshitter? Let us assume he has a purpose; his activity is not random. As Frankfurt notes, he is not “anarchically impulsive.” Since his purpose is neither to speak the truth nor to convey propositional knowledge — a necessary condition of which is truth, the bullshitter has some other purpose. But purposes vary by person and by situation, which suggests that there are different kinds of bullshit relative to the bullshitter and to his goal.9placeholder
The goal of Euthydemus and Dionysodorus seems to be the cultivation of a reputation for appearing to be wise. This does not seem to be their ultimate end, but only an instrumental goal for the sake of achieving a further set of objectives: prestige, influence, and power. Whereas a general sophist might admit that he is after power, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus are subtle sophists; they are concerned with the sort of power which has the appearance of wisdom and hence does not seem to be power as such. The brothers want to appear wise, which will provide them with what they actually pursue — a kind of influence which has the trappings of intellectual sophistication.
Euthydemusian Bullshit — EB — is indifferent to truth, knowledge, and wisdom — as all bullshit is. However, EB requires a degree of plausibility. To seem wise, the Euthydemusian’s claims must be plausible, at least to those who comprise popular society and contribute to popular culture — many of whom lack a trained eye to detect bullshit but are impressed by feats of skill. The few thinkers who consistently detect bullshit and are not impressed by verbal tricks, thinkers such as Socrates and Plato, need not worry the skilled Euthydemusian; a small number of discerning persons likely will not prevent him from achieving the influence he seeks.
By “a degree of plausibility,” I mean a degree of either probability or pseudo-probability,10placeholder the latter of which appears justified relative to the faculties of interpretation and evaluation possessed by the general adult human being who is not educated in logic and critical thinking. Such persons are inclined to accept what seems credible, even if it is not so. The scope of apparent credibility includes a range of fallacies such as wishful thinking, appeal to emotion, ad populum, ad hominem, confirmation bias, and the like. In this sense of “plausibility,” a plausible proposition can be one that seems justified to those unaware of the standards of justification, unprepared to recognize fallacious reasoning, and thus vulnerable to sophistry.
Although the Euthydemusian bullshitter is unconcerned about whether his claim is true, he should be concerned about whether it seems justified to the common person. Given the epistemic relation between justification and truth, the Euthydemusian should recognize that statements can appear justified and thus true (or probably true) to some people, even if he himself does not care whether in fact such statement are true. This analysis of EB suggests that such bullshitters must care about the appearance of truth, and thus about what I have called “pseudo-probability,” although they do not care about the presence of genuine truth or justification.
The successful Euthydemusian benefits from possessing a keen grasp of the kinds of claim that the hoi polloi is inclined to accept, and of the (sometimes fallacious) reasons commonly accepted for such claims. The effective Euthydemusian also benefits from having the rhetorical ability to present such assertions in an attractive manner. He has a grasp of the rhetorical value of logos, ethos, and pathos, and can use these tools effectively to win influence for himself. As a Euthydemusian, he does not care about logos per se, although he is able to manipulate logos to achieve his purposes. This is a sophisticated form of bullshit which deserves further study.
In closing, I will outline an example of such study by indicating some forms of bullshit and some forms of EB. First, consider a few forms of bullshit. Recall that the bullshitter is indifferent to truth; he pursues another end. Yet, to achieve that end, he must cultivate an appearance of truth which is instrumentally valuable toward his end. This combination of appearance and end is indicative of the specific form of bullshit at hand. Three forms are represented below. This is a short typology based on my own observation of human affairs and pertinent to areas of culture that are relatively prominent today; the reader likely can discover more forms to expand the typology.
Type of Bullshitter: Euthydemusian
This type of person pretends to care about truth, knowledge, wisdom, and other epistemic values. However, he really cares about power with the veneer of intellectual sophistication. This facade requires that he appear to be intelligent and plausible. Hence, he must pursue such appearance. Like Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, he might be skilled at reasoning. But his goal is power masked in intellectual prowess.
Type of Bullshitter: Ideological
This type of person pretends to care about truth, knowledge, etc., especially with respect to ideological dogma. The ideology might be religious, political, or otherwise. However, he really cares about power with the veneer of ideological (religious, political, etc.) respectability. This facade requires that he appear devoted to and informed about the ideology. Thus, he must pursue the appearance of ideological commitment and credibility. But his goal is power masked in ideological respectability. This type of person might also be motivated by a strong desire to alleviate the feeling of anxiety associated with his lack of certainty about the world, a feeling which might be mollified by a false sense of certainty that the ideology provides for him.
Type of Bullshitter: Moralizing
This type of person pretends to care about moral truth and moral knowledge. However, he really cares about power with the veneer of moral sophistication. This facade requires that he appear committed to the moral concerns influential in his society. Consequently, he must pursue the appearance of being virtuous and morally aware (a contemporary popular term for this awareness is “wokeness”). Nevertheless, his goal is power masked in moral refinement.
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It should be noted that, in the category of “Really Cares About,” I universally included power. However, although power might be treated as an end in itself, it might also be a means to some higher (or lower?) end, such as desire gratification. Hence, it could be the case that the purveyor of EB has specific desires which he seeks to satisfy, and he uses his power and influence to achieve those ends. Accordingly, perhaps there should be a “Hedonistic Bullshitter.” I do not expand on this category here because, although I have a general sense of the sorts of desires that people have, I do not know the specific desires of every person.
Second, consider some forms of EB. As noted above, the purveyor of EB pretends to care about truth, needs to appear plausible and intelligent, but really seeks power and influence. Euthydemus and Dionysodorus demonstrate one kind of EB. The brothers cultivate a plausibility relevant to dialectical reasoning. Together, they exemplify a type of anti-Socrates (we might call the brothers “Anti-Socratic Euthydemusian Bullshitters”). Whereas Socrates is a master of dialectic and of elenchic inquiry who is concerned with values such as truth, knowledge, wisdom, and virtue,11placeholder the brothers use their dialectical skills and questioning method to attain power and prestige. The brothers’ pretended enterprise is truth, which requires that they instrumentally pursue a degree of plausibility, but their actual enterprise is power. There are other kinds of plausibility (and thus other kinds of EB), such as scientific or historical. Moreover, virtually every fallacy is a piece of mistaken reasoning which appears plausible. The EB could attain plausibility by employing one or more fallacies in his intellectual showmanship.
Consider scientific plausibility. Scientism is an example of scientific plausibility which might be sought by the purveyor of EB. Roughly, scientism is the epistemic view that only the disciplines of science provide propositional knowledge (this can be called strong scientism), or that science is by far the best method to obtain propositional knowledge (weak scientism). According to the former, only scientific propositions can be known and/or rationally believed. On the latter, a weak sort of propositional knowledge is possible outside the sciences, but science is superior to all other disciplines as a means of acquiring propositional knowledge and reasonable belief.12placeholder
There is a cognitive bias, similar to confirmation bias, which is called the law of the hammer. It is represented by the adage “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” Your hammer might be science, technology, mathematics, politics, etc. Consider science: given its contemporary success, every human problem — even non-scientific ones — might appear to be a scientific problem soluble by the scientific method. In this way, scientism (i.e., the hammer of science) appears plausible to the lay person.
Nevertheless, there are many difficulties with scientism. For instance, strong scientism is self-refuting. The claim that “only scientific propositions can be known and/or rationally believed” is not itself a scientific claim. Hence, according to the logic of strong scientism, its own central claim cannot be known or rationally believed. Strong scientism thus destroys itself. For another example, the general discipline of science rests on several philosophical assumptions concerning the intelligibility of the world, the nature of truth, the effectiveness of inductive reasoning, the nature of causation, and so forth. As such, strong scientism destroys the very foundations of science, since these foundational claims are not scientific propositions. For a third example, there are many axiological and deontic claims about science (e.g., that science is good for human life; that we ought to listen to scientists when they speak about their disciplines; that we ought to study science; that scientists ought to be empirical, honest, candid about their findings, rigorous, etc.) which are not themselves scientific claims. According to strong scientism, such assertions cannot be known or rationally believed, which seems absurd. The purveyor of EB who engages in scientism might be called a “Scientistic Euthydemusian Bullshitter.”
EB should be of interest both for the theoretician and the practical person. In terms of theory, EB is a species of Frankfurt’s original concept. To understand EB is to possess an analytic knowledge of bullshit. In terms of practice, EB is relevant to many important areas of human life, such as politics, religion, spirituality, the news media, and the entertainment industry.13placeholder The person who possesses a cultivated ability to detect EB is better suited to distinguish the authentic from the inauthentic in these and other significant areas of contemporary human life.
There are other kinds of bullshit, but I leave that topic for the reader to pursue.
See The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 388.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 386.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 389.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 390.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 389–390.
The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Twentieth Printing, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 391–392. This passage demonstrates a clear difference between Socrates and the brothers. He seeks truth, knowledge, and wisdom. They seek power.
See On Bullshit, 16–17, available at http://www2.csudh.edu/ccauthen/576f12/frankfurt__harry_-_on_bullshit.pdf Date of Access: 28 Sept. 2020.
For example, perhaps the bullshitter’s goal is to defend an ideology. Or maybe his goal is to be accepted by a group. There might be many other motivations which determine the kind of bullshit at hand.
Roughly, by “probability” I mean the epistemic status of being more justified to believe than to reject. A proposition is pseudo-probable if it appears to be probable but is not so.
In Apology, Socrates repeatedly claims that he cares about these values. The fact that he was a martyr for them gives us good reason to believe him.
By “science,” scientism typically refers to the hard sciences, such as physics, chemistry, and biology. The so-called soft sciences or social sciences are less reliable, according to scientism. I am skeptical that the “social sciences” are in fact instances of science, but that is the subject of a different essay.
The reader is encouraged to read Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Showbusiness (New York: Penguin Books, 1985). This book is an astute study in EB.