February 14, 2005

On Bull

Today's NYT contains an article about a new book by Princeton philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt, entitled ON BULLSHIT. (The Times prints the title with dashes.) The humorous but serious little volume says:

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bull. 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 bull and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.… Even the most basic and prelimninary questions about bull remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked."

Frankfurt decides that unlike a lie, which denies truth but still takes the possibility of truth seriously, bullshit takes no account of the possible existence of truth. This is more dangerous than an old-fashioned lie, because a society in which bull prevails is one that rejects "the possibility of knowing how things truly are."

"It follows," Times writer Peter Edidin paraphrases, "that any form of political argument or intellectual analysis or commercial appeal is only as legitimate, and true, as it is persuasive. There is no other court of appeal.… the reader is left to imagine a culture in which institutions, leaders, events, ethics feel improvised and lacking in substance."

Sound like any culture we know?

Frankfurt identifies what we call bull with what Socrates called sophistry or rhetoric. Socrates considered this the great enemy of philosophy. One of its dangers, Frankfurt says, is that for still unknown reasons we tend to laugh off bull, treating it as "sort of cuddly and warm…outside the realm of serious criticism." In contrast, a discovered lie is considered an act of serious betrayal.

"I used the title I did," Frankfurt says, "because I wanted to talk about bull without any bull, so I didn't use 'humbug' or 'bunkum.'" Same here.

It seems to me that the fact that "each of us contributes his share" must be at the heart of why we are so tolerant of bull. When everyone is trying to sell something, every must collude in pretending to buy.

Also, in the past generation the media have spread an attitude of kneejerk irony toward just about everything in our civilization, perhaps because it's safer and more entertaining than serious criticism. Irony is a stance of fake acceptance. That's the attitude we as a culture have come to take toward all the bull we're on the receiving end of. And we're on the receiving end of so much, perhaps irony seems like the only kind of rebellion we can afford, the only one that stands a chance against the leviathan. Postmodernism in academia must come in for its share of the blame, too. When you're taught that nothing is objectively true and all evaluations are a matter of personal interpretation, how can you even recognize, much less oppose, bullshit?