High-Minded Bullshit

When Conor Oberst appeared on the Leno show two years ago, he came across as a musician, a foreign policy analyst, a theologian, and a philosopher. Something for nearly everyone. Except George W. Bush, who was at the sharp end of Oberst’s verbal knife. “When the President talks to God,” he sang, “does he ever think that maybe he’s not?” “When he kneels next to the presidential bed, does he ever smell his own bullshit?”

That’s the philosophical part. Ever since Princeton’s eminent philosopher Harry Frankfurt became a celebrated expert on bullshit (with his bestseller titled, appropriately, On Bullshit), this word has found a new, academic respectability. (Watch out for a surge of books by Ivy League authors with four-letter titles, at least in blue state bookstores.) In Frankfurt’s hands, bullshit became an intellectual problem (and not just, as Oberst hinted, a problem for Iraq).

None other than Ludwig Wittgenstein, the towering intellectual godfather of postmodernism and the most celebrated philosopher of the 20th century, gave Frankfurt the anecdote he needed to begin asking what precisely bullshit really is: “I feel like just like a dog that has been run over,” a bed-ridden friend told Wittgenstein when he called to see how she was doing. But in return he could only criticize her. “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.” (On Bullshit, Princeton, 2005) When it came to being a nice guy, Wittgenstein was very, very smart. He was famous for calling “nonsense” or bullshit wherever he found it, regardless of the circumstances or other people’s feelings.

You might think that Frankfurt’s success with On Bullshit rested on a kind of discovery — the fact that we use this word so often reveals that there’s a little bit of the famously prickly Austrian philosopher in all of us. (Okay, all of us except for presidents.) But in fact there’s been a parade of philosophers who for centuries have struggled to identify what it is that makes bullshit bullshit and, equally important, why we seem cognitively disposed to produce it, to be mislead by it, or to tolerate it.

— from “On Bullshitmania” in Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time (Open Court, 2006)

Photo from ICA Rodeo.com

The Dream of a Bullshit-Free Culture

If ours is a culture of bullshit, then why was it that Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher, took center stage as America’s main bullshit-analyzer? Why not a novelist or sociologist? We philosophers don’t pretend to understand the vagaries of fashion and popular taste better than anyone else. But part of the answer, we think, is that Frankfurt is reviving a philosophical tradition. Philosophers have long sought to understand exactly how it is that certain statements or beliefs seem to deceive us, take us in, or make us not care very much whether they are true or false. Long before Frankfurt, that is, philosophers have been trying to determine exactly what bullshit is and how it works its magic.

This may be a surprising claim. Philosophy itself, after all, is often regarded as part and parcel with the bullshit of popular culture. The person who survives a personal tragedy by reflecting on the mysteries of the universe, someone might say, is “taking things philosophically”. That’s more polite and respectful, after all, than pointing out that she’s distracting herself from unbearable loss or disappointment by almost absent-mindedly contemplating abstractions or pondering paradoxes, i.e., bullshitting herself. A walk through the philosophy section at your local bookstore may confirm the impression that philosophers’ interests are in that otherworldly arcana of the supernatural, the occult, and the metaphysical.

Not so. Some of the most influential and enduring philosophy, dating back centuries, is devoted to identifying and understanding bullshit. This is not so that bullshit may be indulged in further, but so that we may liberate ourselves from its delusions and deceptions. The archetypal sage-in-a-toga Socrates, for example, is justly revered for dedicating his life to the search for persons who were truly wise, rather than interested merely in passing on opinion, or hearsay, or beliefs of any sort bereft of evidence or simply good sense.

Twenty centuries later, the French polymath René Descartes started off the first of his six Meditations on First Philosophy with the rather brave recognition that so much of what he learned in the best French schools of the time was just plain false. “Some years ago I was struck,” he wrote, “by the large number of falsehoods that I had accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them.” [Descartes, René, Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies, J. Cottingham (ed. and trans.) Cambridge University Press, 1996]

Descartes’ remedy was a program of self-discipline that began with the rejection of those beliefs that fell short of certainty and, that completed, proceeded with the construction of a system of beliefs that was “stable and likely to last.” It was a lonely, individualistic enterprise, but the very fact that Descartes recorded his progress in his Meditations reveals that it was something he believed others could, and ought, to do as well. It was, indeed, a common Enlightenment fantasy that everyone would follow along. The result would be a world with a lot less bullshit, maybe none at all.

That vision was shared by the next century’s David Hume (who otherwise shared precious little with Descartes, but it was enough). Hume held that all real knowledge took the form either of mathematics and similar “formal” sciences (which he termed “relations of ideas”) or of natural science (for Hume, “matters of fact”), and he ended his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (a popularization, relatively speaking, of his two-volume A Treatise of Human Nature) with clear instructions for how to treat bits of speech that pretended to, but in fact did not, belong in either category:

When we feel compelled to peruse the stacks in libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion! [Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Eric Steinberg (ed.) (Hackett Publishing Company, 1993]

An Enlightenment call for book burning? Not quite. The books Hume would have us cast into the flames are books only in the most literal sense: they have pages, bindings, covers and words strung together into sentences and paragraphs. But they say nothing. Their offense, moreover, is that they are presented as though they do say something. That’s the illusion, and it’s perpetrated by the sophistry of printed words, pages, bindings, covers, blurbs, reviews, and the rest. Better to burn such sham books, such bullshit, says Hume. Burn it all.

The Enlightenment passion that carried Hume to the end of his Treatise continued to inspire in philosophers visions of a bullshit-free world. You find them in the writings of Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example, though again you’d be hard-pressed to find much more in common among these philosophers or, for that matter, all the philosophers who have railed against bullshit. The 20th century apotheosis of the anti-bullshit crusade, however, is certainly the Vienna Circle, a collective of science and math-minded Germans and Austrians that shook a communal fist at the culture of their time and place, the intellectual free-for-all of Germany and Austria in the ’20s and ’30s (that culture, sadly, shook its much more powerful fist back, sending nearly all of the Circle flying to England and the United States by 1939).

The Vienna Circle’s preferred term for bullshit was ‘metaphysics’, and so their 1929 manifesto, the Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung (“Scientific World-Conception”), led off with the worry that “metaphysical and theologizing thought is again on the increase today, not only in life but in science.” [Wissenschaftliche Weltauffassung. Der Wiener Kreis. Translated as The Scientific Conception of the World. The Vienna Circle, and reprinted in Sarkar, S. (ed.), The Emergence of Logical Empiricism from 1900 to the Vienna Circle, New York, NY: Garland Publishing, 1996] The “Scientific World-Conception” would be the antidote. It was an embrace of modern science and a scientific attitude toward things, as well as the “new objectivity” (or neue sachlichkeit) pursued by many artists, designers and architects in European culture.

The Vienna Circle’s target was not the intellectual diversity that surrounded them, but the putative parts of it that were presented (even accepted) as meaningful — indeed, profoundly meaningful — but in fact amounted to nothing. In 1932, the Circle’s Rudolf Carnap criticized Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most prominent German-speaking philosopher of the time, on precisely these grounds. [Rudolf Carnap, “Überwindung der Metaphysik durch Logische Analyse der Sprache” Erkenntnis 2 (1932), translated by Max Black and reprinted as “The Elimination of Metaphysics through Logical Analysis of Language” in Ayer, A.J. (Ed.), Logical Positivism (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1959)]

In his 1929 book, What is Metaphysics?, Heidegger ruminated on the nature of Das Nichts (literally, “the nothing”), and inspired Carnap to figure out exactly what was wrong with such supposedly deep and insightful metaphysical inquiries. In statements like Heidegger’s ‘Das Nichts selbst nichtet’ (“The nothing nothings”), Carnap concluded, there was only the appearance of a meaningful statement. Behind that appearance, there was Nichts, leading Carnap to suggest that metaphysicians were like “musicians without musical ability.”

Much as a tone deaf musician would likely misuse an instrument, metaphysicians misused language and presented things that could not be conveyed in words as though they could be. Carnap and others of the Circle argued and debated about just how dangerous this passing off, this bullshitting, was. But it was bullshit all the same, and it met with a similar response: if one wanted to express an attitude towards life, that’s fine, but don’t pass it off as science or something similar. Better to take up poetry, as Friedrich Nietzsche does, for example, in his Thus Spake Zarathustra (which Carnap cites, incidentally, with approval).

It is almost an intellectual tragedy that the Vienna Circle and its philosophical legacies, logical positivism and logical empiricism, came to be associated with stodgy, dispassionate, irrelevant logic-chopping. That characterization occludes the Circle’s raison d’etre, which was nothing less than the cultivation of a critical attitude toward concentrations of bullshit in pseudoscience, and the belief that philosophy would, when taken up generally, reduce bullshit in government, religion, the market, and everyday life. The Vienna Circle’s members thought of themselves not simply as professional philosophers who happened to live and work in Vienna, Austria, but as the keepers of a tradition of liberal, Enlightenment thinking that had made Vienna the cradle of progressive housing programs, adult education, architecture, art and design. Oh, and progressive philosophy.

Which brings us back to Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Perhaps by now it’s clear that we see Frankfurt as the latest carrier of the anti-bullshit torch in the Enlightenment Olympics, now several centuries running. In this flaming light, the real significance of this bullshitmania is that an age-old impulse within philosophy to establish itself as a cultural, and not just an academic, enterprise, may finally have found the right formula and the right language. If so, the best explanation for the popular interest in On Bullshit may have been that first one, about the novelty of the word itself. Indeed, it may all come down to that word — understood not as a joke, but as a welcome point of connection between what goes on in philosophy seminar rooms and what goes on when the lights go out and philosophers join their fellow citizens in the marketplace, coffee shop, town hall, and voting booth.

Photo from Bivens.ca


George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.

Gary L. Hardcastle is Assistant Professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, where he teaches philosophy of science, logic, and — if he is asked nicely — introduction to philosophy. He is also an expert on the themes of analytic philosophy found in the work of Monty Python.