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"On Bullshit," a philosophical tract

In her book Plato and the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein mentions the "philosophical tract" On Bullshit by Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University, Harry G Frankfurt – a tiny book published in 2005 that's listed at Amazon.com.

Frankfurt began his book:

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.

This touches on what the website you are now looking at is about: the BS as described by the two philosophers above. This involves understanding what BS is and knowing how to avoid it, which is in the purview of philosophy.

Goldstein in Plato at the Googleplex has a fictional character, a cocky neuroscientist, Shoket, who is hostile towards philosophy and uses the word bullshit differently:

I'll tell you the way I see it.... Philosophers hold down the fort until the cavalry, who are the scientists, arrive... Once the scientists arrive then the work begins. Because before that, let's face it, it was all bullshit.

Under the definition of bullshit that Goldstein and Frankfurt use, Shoket is talking bullshit. Philosophy in my opinion, and I gather Goldstein's opinion, is a platform that supports how we think. It's a part of self-examination. As I see it, it includes approval of the methodology of science.

Philosophers like definition, and Goldstein, in 2014, describes the differences between lying and bullshitting that Frankfurt made a decade ago. She writes,

A bullshitter, too, may end up saying something that is true. But unlike the liar, the bullshitter is not trying to keep track of what is true. The truth-conditions of his statements, their correspondence to the facts they purport to convey, are irrelevant to his motives for saying what he does.

Frankfurt considered Fourth of July bombast about our Founding Fathers under divine guidance as humbug, but he went on to say the speaker may believe his rhetoric to be factual and is therefore not lying. Humbug, he wrote, becomes bullshit to the degree that the speaker intentionally speaks "in a careless or self-indulgent matter." Frankfurt suggested that the bullshitter is "a mindless slob." He wrote of the philosopher Wittgenstein praising the dedication and exactitude of stonecutters in ancient times who avoided slop, and Frankfurt wrote of excrement not crafted at all, just emitted.

Frankfurt mentioned those who believe that truth is whatever they want to believe – the relativists. They can avoid bullshit only by making no "assertion whatever about the facts." It seems he might agree with me that the Macedonian philosopher Pyrrho, the founder of skepticism, was a bullshitter. Pyrrho believed all opinions were equal and concluded that we couldn't make valid conclusions.

Frankfurt wrote that "Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what they are talking about." And he wrote of people bullshitting despite their sincere intentions because they don't know what they are talking about. To avoid bullshit the burden is on them to learn their subject.

I'd like to add that a problem in avoiding bullshit is to make associations where we should and not where we shouldn't. This I've pointed to on my site regarding disconnects including those by Salina O'Grady and Margaret Thatcher. Despite intelligence, sincerity, education, failures occur because people don't give enough thought to the validity of the connections they make. We don't take the time to be exceedingly introspective or are unaware of the significance of the problem.

Copyright © 2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.