Readers of the this blog may recall my series on lying and deception and my abiding interest in the distortion of truth in general. I recently had fun with a book I ordered for my library called On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt. It’s only 67 pages — probably in keeping with the book’s theme — and offers a witty, penetrating analysis of the difference between liars and bullshitters. Frankfurt concludes that the latter are more menacing than the former.
The distinction is essentially between dishonesty and a-honesty: the truth matters to a liar; not so to a bullshitter.
“This is the crux of the distinction between the bullshitter and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. 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.” (pp 54-55)
It puts me in mind of one of my favorite literary characters, Hashi Lebwohl, from Stephen R. Donaldson’s science-fiction Gap Cycle. Hashi is the director of Data Acquisitions, sort of an intergalatic CIA equivalent, for whom truth is an ever-malleable tool:
“Hashi Lebwohl was not a dishonest man. It was more accurate to say that he was a-honest. He liked facts; but truth had no moral imperatives for him, no positive — or negative — valuation. It had its uses, just as facts had theirs: it was a tool, more subtle than some, cruder than others.” (The Gap into Madness: Chaos and Order, p 13)
This points back to the more general distinction between immorality and amorality — which Stephen Carlson, for instance, has been getting at with forgeries and hoaxes. Morton Smith was more a bullshitter (hoaxer) than a liar (forger.) But which is worse?
Frankfurt is clever with his metaphors, and I particularly like the way he attempts to address the seemingly oxymornic term “bullshit artist” (p 53):
“Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought. The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain… But it is not in fact out of the question. The realms of advertising and public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.” (pp 21-23)
Frankfurt has certainly dedicated himself to getting everything right in this book, and I heartily recommend it. I tend to agree that bullshit is more cancerous than lying. First of all, lying can often be a necessary and good thing. But even when it’s not, liars at least operate under the premise that truth matters. If it doesn’t, then it becomes hyper-relative, as seen in our postmodern age where falsity is excused in abundance.