I picked up a copy of Harry Frankfurt’s little pamphlet ‘On Bullshit’ recently. Frankfurt attempts to characterise bullshitting, to say what it is and to distinguish it from other sorts of speech act such as lying. And I think he does a pretty good job.
To start with, a liar is someone who intentionality tells someone else something that is false or that they believe to be false. They misrepresent in two ways. They misrepresent what’s going on in the content of what they say and they misrepresent the state of their mind, in that they give out that they believe something when in reality they don’t. In this second way, but not the first, they resemble bullshitters.
A bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is someone who pretends to be trying to say something true and germane on a subject but in reality doesn’t care whether what they say is true or not. They don’t care about what they’re talking about, but they want to be perceived as someone who does.
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 convey the truth nor 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.
Frankfurt speculates that people bullshit when they are called upon to speak about things about which they are ignorant or more cynically when they don’t really believe there are facts of the matters in question at all. Frankfurt thinks that too much bullshitting desensitises a person to the truth in a way that lying does not, for the liar has to think there are facts in question (which they want to obscure from you). Bullshitting, on the other hand, is dangerous because people who do it too often start to cease to value truthfulness.
It occurs to me that a lot of advertising could be called bullshit by Frankfurt’s definition. I don’t mean advertising that is primarily informative, like ‘there’s a sale on toilet paper at Tesco’s’ etc. I mean advertising where there is very little to differentiate one company’s product from its competitors’ so they talk about the qualities of the product, I presume, as a way of getting people to think about the company.
…Our product is made from carefully selected ingredients, from locally sourced, independent sustainable farms, guided through the process by expert team of master blenders, made with passion, the traditional way, using the latest technology, and our patented process, to extract the maximum taste and freshness, to give you exactly the product you expect, that crisp dry thirst quenching sweetness you love… and so on and so on
Some of the descriptions have no substantive content like ‘made with passion’ or ‘the traditional way’ ‘extracting maximum taste and freshness’. Some are true but really mean something more commonplace, like ‘using the latest technology’ which means in our factory or ‘carefully selected ingredients’ which means ‘we choose the cheapest raw materials consistent with the defined specifications of our product.’ ‘locally sourced’ means something, of course, but local to where? the and how nearby counts as local? And some are arguably truth-valueless because they related to subjective, or observer relative phenomena like taste that varies from person to person, but no person is specified.
Harry Frankfurt (2005) On Bullshit Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.