On being unconcerned with lies and the truth: “On Bullshit”

Dr OTTENSOOSER —  September 15, 2011 — Leave a comment

Avner Ottensooser presents a summary of “On Bullshit,” a book published by Princeton Press and written by Harry G. Frankfurt.  This is the first post in a series of articles by Avner Ottensooser summarising certain business, oratorical, and philosophical concepts.

Holy Cow!

Bullshit coming from a holy cow ... Holy Shit?

My feeling is that he just never learned the difference between the truth and a lie[1].

Frankfurt, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton University, wrote this essay 19 years ago. This, probably pioneering work, has since been republished three times.

Frankfurt defines Bullshit, in the moral context, as a deliberately deceptive statement that rather than being right or wrong, is unconcerned with the truth. A person lying is as concerned with truth as much as a person telling the truth (given that it is {legally} impossible to lie unless one is convinced one knows the truth). The bullshit artist, on the other hand, does not care if what he says is true or false.


A 4th of July orator who goes on about

“our great founding fathers who, under divine guidance, created a new beginning for mankind.”

Here the orator does not care what his audience thinks about the founding fathers. What he does care about is what people think of him (a patriot with deep thoughts and feelings about the origin and mission of our country).

The philosopher Wittgenstein once asked Fania Pascal, his biographer who was sick at the time, how she felt.

She croaked: “like a dog that has been run over”.

To which Wittgenstein responded disgusted: “You do not know what a dog that has been run over feels like”.

Was Pascal’s answer bullshit or a figurative use of language? Well, Pascal plainly did not lie. She would have been lying if she was aware that she actually felt quite good. The trouble with Pascal’s statement is that it conveyed not just any bad feelings but the distinctive bad feelings of a dog that has been run over. This is what Wittgenstein considered bullshit. Pascal does not even think she knows how a run-over dog feels. Her fault was not that she failed to get things right, but that she did not try.

Bullshit is not excrement

Bullshit is not produced in a careless manner; on the contrary, some bullshit is finely crafted with meticulous attention to details by exquisitely sophisticated craftsman in the realm of advertising and public relations, for commercial or political reasons. These craftsmen, with the help of market research, dedicate themselves to getting every word and image they produce correct, exactly so.

Why is bullshit produced?

Following are some reasons why people use bullshit:

  • When circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. This requirement may arise from the conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have an opinion about everything.
  • Various forms of scepticism deny that we can have reliable access to an objective reality, and therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. This undermines the confidence in the value of objectively determining what is true and what is false.
  • When an informed speaker is avoiding an answer, yet not willing to accept the consequences of not answering a question or lying.

On dealing with bullshit

While the risk of being caught lying or bullshitting may seem the same, the consequences of being caught bullshitting generally seem less severe. Even people who do not forgive false statements tend to forgive bullshit. Why? Frankfurt leaves this unanswered. The bullshit artist wishes to be credited as being informed yet takes no interest in whether what he says is true or false. For this reason lying does not make a person incapable of ever telling the truth but bull…t does. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides in the same game. The bullshit artist ignores the rules of the game altogether. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lying is.

However studiously the bullshit artist proceeds, he is trying to get away with something. It seems that bullshit involves a kind of bluff. But the bluff is not what the bullshit artist says. The bluff is the bullshit artist’s concern with the value of the truth of the statement. The bluff is in the attitude of the bullshit artist. For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. Phony need not be (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is wrong with counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it is made. This leads us to a similar and fundamental characteristic of bullshit: while it is produced without concern with truth, it need not be false.

The content of a bullshit story may not be a lie. The lie would be the bullshit artist’s enterprise. Hence, to deal with bullshit, rather than questions the content of the story, questions the process the bullshit artist followed in arriving at the story.

[1] Harry S. Truman on General Macarthur in “Plan Speaking, an oral biography of Harry S. Truman” by  Merke Miller page 297.




I design enterprise solutions for education,funds management, insurance, telecommunication, and manufacturing. My expertise are in Business Process Management (BPM), Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Sentiment Analysis, and the Software Delivery Life Cycle (SDLC). These expertise were gained while holding the roles of programmer, database administrator, test automation engineer, workflow expert, analyst, application architect, and integration architect. My PhD is in computer science.

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