Monday, August 07, 2006

Learned BS (Bookblogging #17)

[H]e is neither on the side of truth nor on the side of false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whethe the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
- Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit

This is a wicked little pleasure of a book. (Emphasis on "little" - it's only 67 index-card sized pages. I've read, and probably written, wordier blog posts.) It's Frankfurt's, Princeton Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, attempt to set forth a unifying theory of BS - he examines and rejects comparisons to a similar study of "humbug," and eventually settles on a the definition implied above - not intentional perverecation so much as a complete disregard for truth and fact.

Of course, there is a sense throughout the whole essay that Frankfurt is simply, well, bullshitting. Consider the following:

There are similarities between hot air and excrement, incidentally, which make hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit. Just as hot air is speech that has been emptied of all informative contente, so excrement is matter from which everything nutritive has been removed. Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrememnt is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance any more than hot air can serve those of communication.
Now, either that is the most pretentiously high-falutin' academia ever, or Frankfurt's tongue is practically stapled to his cheek.

Not that it matters of course - Franfurt's conclusion:

[S]incerity itself is bullshit.

Depending on the intended inflection, either shockingly relatavistic or delightfully ironic.

Update: In light of such things as "Informational Anarchy" and the Reuters fake photo controversy, I'd feel remiss if I didn't quote one more lenghty passage:

[T]lling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertionas without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person's normal habit of attending to the way things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to facts as he understands them, although the repsonse of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meat its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are. (Emphasis mine)

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