On this April Fools’ Day, I do not offer a hoax, joke, or parody, but my post does involve a species of foolery—namely, bullshit. One of Lawrence Auster’s readers and commentators recently discussed an essay, On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt from Princeton University. Clearly, Frankfurt had fun with the article, but his phenomenological examination of bullshit is still pretty insightful. Written in A.D. 1986, his treatment remains quite timely today, given the omnipresence of bullshit in public and private discourse.
Frankfurt examines the difference between a lie and bullshit, and he finds bullshit to be the more corrosive of our respect of truth. Both the honest man and the liar are concerned with the truth of a situation; the first conforms his words to the truth, while the second intentionally distorts the truth. Yet, they both seek to know how things really are. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not appear to be interested in objective reality at all. On page 21, we read:
One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.
Frankfurt admits that bullshit probably always exists in society, but if there is more bullshit in our civilization today than in the past, it might be due to two general phenomena. First, in our society, so many people have to talk about so many things about which they are ignorant. Concerning political matters alone, a democratic regime cultivates a habit of bullshit in its populace because any democracy will require the ignorant to govern and to pontificate on all sorts of matters about which they know little or nothing. Second, the loss of confidence in reason and in the ability to attain truth has contributed to the pervasive spread of bullshit. One simply has to look into the publications of the contemporary university system to see how deeply bullshit seeps into the halls of learning. What is postmodernism, in the end, if not bullshit?