A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction


“we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”  Harry Frankfurt


Princeton philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, writing On Bullshit, bestowed academic respectability on the subject. His analysis served to show that while bullshit often involves lying, the two things are not the same: the bullshitter ‘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.’

Indifference towards the truth can be a very great enemy indeed. And that is why I find myself writing the book that is being introduced here.[1]

Frankfurt alerted us to the need for a theory of bullshit, and I believe the need may be even greater than he suggested. His analytical focus was on what we may call the common-or-garden variety. The braggadocio of the locker room Lothario, for instance, would be a typical and redolent case. Frankfurt was certainly also concerned about how advertisers and PR people, for instance, can widely spread the stuff in sophisticated and elaborate ways, but he did not draw any particular distinctions between their practices and those of the individual braggart. Nor did he attend specifically to the phenomena associated with what we might call serious bullshit.

Frankfurt’s analysis focused on general features common to the various kinds of bullshit we encounter, and I consider his results sound. But I shall propose that we can adjust our analytical lens to reveal interesting differences between varieties. Frankfurt at one point observes that bullshit is not designed or crafted, but merely dumped. This, at a certain level of analysis is true.[2] Nevertheless, looking more closely, forensic scatology can reveal substantial differences between samples at more elemental levels of composition. Less figuratively, my point is that we should look more closely at how bullshit can be deployed to a variety of effects in different settings by means of alterations in its internal discursive structures.

But that sounds rather abstract. So let me illustrate just how significant the analysis of bullshit might be.

In 2003, a US-led military coalition went to war on Iraq. The consequences in terms of destruction, suffering, chaos and lives lost have been horrific. The onset of these hostilities was justified by a specific lie, namely, that there was evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) ready for deployment in Iraq. However, that particular lie – momentous as it was – might be seen as but part of a longer and more involved story. One might say it was a bullshit story that had led to attention being placed on Iraq in the first place, given that the ostensible provocation for US retaliation against terrorists from the Middle East – i.e. the attacks of 9/11 – involved no Iraqis, with those actually involved being largely from Saudi Arabia (and having anyway somewhat unclear loyalties).

Is such an egregious offence against humanity appropriately described as bullshit? Does using the term in such a serious context not risk trivialising the matter? Having reflected on these questions, my view is that the lack of seriousness – the atrocious lack of human feeling, integrity or honesty – resides with those who actually deploy bullshit as a strategy for achieving their ends. To call it as it is makes stark the contempt they show for humanity in using bullshit justifications for genocidal actions. In fact, every crime against humanity has a bullshit rationale, for there is no conceivable lie that could rationally or morally justify it. Those who cynically send our fellow humans to kill and destroy other humans are deserving of no better description than bullshitters. If they are also deserving of much worse, I leave its elaboration for others.

What, though, can we hope to learn from studying bullshit on a grand scale? Frankfurt  provides a crucial insight, namely, that the key pragmatic feature of bullshit is aiming to deceive about what you are up to. We need to develop this insight further, however, since Frankfurt does not engage in discussion of what particular kinds of thing a bullshitter might ‘really be up to’. Deception about what one is up to, on a grand scale, and especially if intended to endure for some time, can be expected to involve deployment of a variety of sophisticated strategies.

In order to detect and analyse these, we need a conceptual framework that enables us to differentiate varieties of bullshit.

At the outset, it is helpful to distinguish two very general categories of intention involved in deception. (Although Frankfurt is well aware of both, he does not call particular attention to the difference between them.) The difference I shall refer to in terms of proactive vs reactive bullshit. One common intention in bullshitting is to draw some advantage towards oneself or one’s business, say, by seeming somehow to be more important or alluring than might otherwise appear. The general kind of intention here would be manifest in what we might call proactive bullshit. We can distinguish this as a category from what we might correspondingly refer to as reactive bullshit. Paradigmatically, this is what people may engage in when making excuses for failing to meet some expectation others have of them. (Tellingly, Frankfurt points out how people might find bullshit a more generally convenient means of evading blame or responsibility than lying would be.)

Now one can certainly notice similarities in the intents of bullshit as bragging and bullshit as excuse-making: it is like the similarity between trying to look good and trying not to look bad. However, the circumstances in which the bullshitter finds the one rather than the other called for have a noticeable difference. In the proactive mode, the bullshitter calls the shots, so to speak, and has quite free rein to decide what the story’s to be; in reactive mode, with the story told and thus opened to questions, the bullshitter is on the back foot inasmuch as there is the constraint of maintaining consistency of any added information with what has already been said.

This difference, I shall later show, is fundamental in understanding different strategies of bullshit deployment on the grand scale. A key point to have in mind from the outset, though, is that the bullshitter in proactive mode has greater freedom of action than in reactive mode. In proactive mode, the bullshitter has something of a blank canvass, he is free to tell pretty much any story with the constraint only of heeding items of general knowledge that might be available to a sceptical hearer. Just as long as the bullshitter refrains from making claims that are manifestly preposterous on the basis of common experience, he has a lot of leeway for making stories up. In fact, a particularly skilful storyteller might even be able to get away with preposterous claims if he can build up to them from a good basis of shared understandings and seduce the listener to follow him into his imagined world.

The proactive bullshitter composes a narrative. However, he will know that what can be composed can also be decomposed. A story that involves any departures from truth – i.e. what can be confirmed by experience or by reason – is ultimately discoverable.[3] So although he may be indifferent as to which elements of his story are true and which not, he must, as a pragmatic matter, ensure that the receivers of the story do not discover its untruths, or, if they do, can be coaxed not to worry too much about them. This can involve quite some effort and planning when the trick is attempted on the grand scale.

So I demur somewhat from Frankfurt’s remark that bullshit is not the kind of thing that is carefully crafted, because I believe it can be. And how it can be will prove to be a matter of quite some interest when we come to look at cases involving the rise and fall of a bullshit story.

Next time, From Theory to Practice: Suppose you were to be tasked with achieving a major goal – say, a foreign policy goal – and you had to ensure that the world at large did not know exactly what you were up to. How would you go about it?


(Picture source: Freaking News)

[1] My plan is to produce a small book intended for a general readership. It will be, as announced here, A Theory of Bullshit, and will include some basic conceptual tools for bullshit diagnostics. In the preparation I shall be presenting each short chapter as a blog installment, and look forward to getting comments from readers that will help improve the final version. (Something that greatly heartened me in response to my recent blogs on communications about Syria was the quality of comment received. It also materially led me to explore new avenues. When I wrote the initial blog on MSF I had no plans to continue writing in that area, but it was thanks to readers comments that I got drawn into engagement with Amnesty International too, and then Channel 4. So who knows where this book will go. I have a plan, but it may change!) So please feel free to give feedback – it will be gratefully received and acknowledged.

[2] ‘Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.  The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity.’

[3] This is because of what we may call the natural entropy of lies (a topic to be discussed later on).

This entry was posted in bullshit, disinformation, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Theory of Bullshit: Introduction

  1. Tim,
    Good luck with the book. Any effort to connect the highly destructive effects of “bullshit” (deception, deceit, lying…) – which has inundated world public consciousness these days under the term “fake news” – with real events of truly tragic nature can only be welcomed, positive and viewed as a genuine service to humanity.

    • timhayward says:

      Thanks, Jerry, the aim is certainly to find and develop ways we can feel more clear and confident in calling out deception, especially subtle and strategic kinds.

  2. Elizabeth Ardley says:

    Greatly looking forward to the next installment!

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