Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reading :: On Bullshit

On Bullshit
by Harry G. Frankfurt

This thin monograph, based on a 1986 paper, examines the concept of "bullshit" to attempt a definition. It's unclear how tongue-in-cheek the monograph is, but if we take it at face value, we can see it as a capsule of some of the problems and conflicts going on in philosophy.

What I mean by that is that the book is particularly concerned with truth-value and nailing down concepts in relationship to it. Frankfurt claims that "bullshit" is not lying, since liars are fundamentally concerned with truth and their relationship to it, but "bullshitters" aren't; the essence of bullshit is indifference to the truth. Furthermore, Frankfurt avers that
the contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are. These "antirealist" doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. (pp.64-65)
Frankfurt is of course describing -- at least in part -- postmodernism and its variants. He goes on to claim that one response to the postmodernist crisis is to turn to sincerity, i.e., being true to oneself because one cannot find objective truth. He punctures this conceit and concludes that "insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit" (p.67).

Well. This last gloss -- it appears in the last few pages of the book -- tells us a lot about the rest of the book. Frankfurt provides no cites here, performs a sweeping generalization of the postmodernist position (although he doesn't use the term "postmodernism"), and lumps a lot of separate inquiries into a straw argument. I didn't find this gloss to be particularly convincing or fair.

I also didn't find the author's methodology to be particularly convincing. Ask a linguist what "bullshit" (or any other term) means and she will point to how the word is enacted differently in different regions and communities. Ask a phenomenologist and he will conduct an empirical inquiry to demonstrate relative coherence in the concept's use within a given group. Ask a Deleuzian philosopher or an actor-network theorist and she will trace the associations that are made between the term and other relative terms. In each of these investigations -- some of which are empirical investigations -- we see some recognition that terms and concepts exist within human activity and in relation to other terms and concepts. But Frankfurt, who empasizes the importance of objective inquiry, avoids any empirical study of how the term and concept are used, contenting himself with examples from Wittgenstein's letters and thought experiments from daily life in order to nail down the "essence" of the term.

For an empiricist rhetorician like myself, that seems like a rather odd way to perform an objective inquiry -- unless an "objective inquiry" is as self-contained and solipsistic as the enterprise of "sincerity" that the author derides in his final pages.

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