A neo-Augustinian take on “bullshit”

by Kim on April 27, 2009

“Why is there so much bullshit? Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about… This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled … to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything …

“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to objective reality, and therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are… One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself… he devotes himself to being true to his own nature…

“But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinite, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Out natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial - notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”

Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 62-67.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }


ee 04.28.09 at 10:28 am

Your recent posts have dealt with a lot of shit, Kim. I think you need a Freudian therapist :)

Does Mr Frankfurt just diagnose societal bullshit, or does he also prescribe an enema for getting rid of it? Or perhaps immodium for containing it?


Richard 04.28.09 at 1:54 pm

On matters faecal, Kim is our resident expert. :)


Kim 04.28.09 at 3:38 pm

Psychologically anal retentive, blogologically anal expressive - it’s the Luther-an in me!

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>