How to Spot Bullshit: A Manual by Princeton Philosopher Harry Frankfurt (RIP)

Note: Over the week­end, the Prince­ton philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt passed away at the age of 94. After a long career, he became the author of the sur­prise best­selling book, On Bull­shit, which we fea­tured in 2016. Please revis­it our orig­i­nal post below.

We live in an age of truthi­ness. Come­di­an Stephen Col­bert coined the word to describe the Bush administration’s ten­den­cy to fudge the facts in its favor.

Ten years after the Amer­i­can Dialect Soci­ety named it Word of the Year, for­mer pres­i­dent Bush’s cal­en­dar is packed with such leisure activ­i­ties as golf and paint­ing por­traits of world lead­ers, but “truthi­ness” remains on active duty.

It’s par­tic­u­lar­ly ger­mane in this elec­tion year, though politi­cians are far from its only prac­ti­tion­ers.

Take glob­al warm­ing. NASA makes a pret­ty rock sol­id case for both its exis­tence and our role in it:

97 per­cent or more of active­ly pub­lish­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists agree: Cli­mate-warm­ing trends over the past cen­tu­ry are extreme­ly like­ly due to human activ­i­ties. In addi­tion, most of the lead­ing sci­en­tif­ic orga­ni­za­tions world­wide have issued pub­lic state­ments endors­ing this posi­tion.

In view of such num­bers, it’s under­stand­able that a sub­ur­ban Joe with a freez­er full of fac­to­ry-farmed beef and mul­ti­ple SUVs in his garage would cling to the posi­tion that glob­al warm­ing is a lie. It’s his last resort, real­ly.

But such self-ratio­nal­iza­tions are not truth. They are truthi­ness.

Or to use the old-fash­ioned word favored by philoso­pher Har­ry Frank­furt, above: bull­shit!

Frank­furt–a philoso­pher at Prince­ton and the author of On Bull­shitallows that bull­shit artists are often charm­ing, or at their very least, col­or­ful. They have to be. Achiev­ing their ends involves engag­ing oth­ers long enough to per­suade them that they know what they’re talk­ing about, when in fact, that’s the oppo­site of the truth.

Speak­ing of oppo­sites, Frank­furt main­tains that bull­shit is a dif­fer­ent beast from an out-and-out lie. The liar makes a spe­cif­ic attempt to con­ceal the truth by swap­ping it out for a lie.

The bull­shit artist’s approach is far more vague. It’s about cre­at­ing a gen­er­al impres­sion.

There are times when I admit to wel­com­ing this sort of manure. As a mak­er of low bud­get the­ater, your hon­est opin­ion of any show I have Lit­tle Red Hen’ed into exis­tence is the last thing I want to hear upon emerg­ing from the cramped dress­ing room, unless you tru­ly loved it.

I’d also encour­age you to choose your words care­ful­ly when dash­ing a child’s dreams.

But when it comes to mat­ters of pub­lic pol­i­cy, and the pub­lic good, yes, trans­paren­cy is best.

It’s inter­est­ing to me that film­mak­ers James Nee and Chris­t­ian Brit­ten trans­formed a por­tion of their learned subject’s thoughts into voiceover nar­ra­tion for a light­ning fast stock footage mon­tage. It’s divert­ing and fun­ny, fea­tur­ing such omi­nous char­ac­ters as Nos­fer­atu, Bill Clin­ton, Char­lie Chaplin’s Great Dic­ta­tor, and Don­ald Trump, but isn’t it also the sort of mis­di­rec­tion sleight of hand at which true bull­shit­ters excel?

Frank­furt expands upon his thoughts on bull­shit in his apt­ly titled best­selling book, On Bull­shit and its fol­lowup On Truth.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Schools 9/11 Truther; Explains the Sci­ence of Mak­ing Cred­i­ble Claims

Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the Eng­lish Lan­guage a New Exple­tive (1910)

“Call­ing Bull­shit”: See the Syl­labus for a Col­lege Course Designed to Iden­ti­fy & Com­bat Bull­shit

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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Comments (4)
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  • Álvaro Sousa says:

    Boa tarde

    Não quero faz­er nen­hum comen­tário sobre o assun­to, ven­ho ape­nas comu­nicar com o Open Cul­ture faz­er a seguinte questão :
    Eu sou Por­tuguês de Por­tu­gal, a tradução em Por­tuguês do Brasil é para mim e para mil­hões de pes­soas, muitas vezes incom­preen­sív­el, ven­ho por este fórum pro­por, porque já existe tradução em por­tuguês de Por­tu­gal, que o façam

    Álvaro de Sousa

  • John V. Petrocelli says:

    Har­ry Frank­furt was the man. Much of my book, The Life-Chang­ing Sci­ence of Detect­ing Bulls#!t, is an ode to him. RIP Har­ry Frank­furt.

  • Jonathan says:

    Basi­cal­ly any­thing you don’t believe is bull­shit. For­get what your lying eyes tell you! Of course this guy was a col­lege pro­fes­sor. Talk about smelling your own farts for a liv­ing.

  • Rod Stasick says:

    what am i? chopped liv­er?

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