G. A. Cohen’s commentary on Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”

G. A. Cohen, Finding Oneself in the Other, 2012: Chapter 5: “Complete Bullshit.” This chapter is a reprint of an article which appeared in Sarah Buss and Lee Overton, eds., Contours of Agency: Themes from the Philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, 2002. In this festschrift, Frankfurt replied: “Reply to G. A. Cohen.” In this piece, Cohen marks the important distinction between a bullshitter and bullshit.

See also: William Lewis, “Is there less bullshit in For Marx then in Reading Capital?”


Place of Bullshit in Philosophy

Accepting or succumbing to bullshit is foolish; rejecting bullshit is wise.

The proposition above is an example of an appraisal, a value judgment. And what field of learning studies appraisals? According to the late philosopher Curt Ducasse, the primitive or basic subject studied by philosophy is precisely various appraisals. And the knowledge of the norms of appraisals is wisdom. A philosopher, on this line of reasoning, is a lover of — in the sense of a searcher after — wisdom, which happens to be the etymological description of philosophy.

However, knowing what wisdom is, does not make one wise. The reason is quite straightforward. Wisdom consists of knowing how to act A in given circumstances C, which can be expressed by the condition statement.

If one is in circumstance C, one should act (or do) A.

Now, it is possible to know this rule or norm, but not know that one is in circumstance C, or not to have a clear idea of the circumstance C. But the difficulty in acting wisely is further complicated by the phenomenon called “weakness of the will.” In other words, although you know how you should act, you do not. You may be lazy, you may procrastinate, you may be pulled by some other desire, with the result, you fail to act at all, or you fail to act in a timely manner. My point is, that wisdom is one thing, and acting wisely is another. Philosophy, according to Ducasse, studies the nature of wisdom; it does not make you wise. Put otherwise, the necessary condition for acting wisely, is having wisdom. But having wisdom is not a sufficient condition for being wise.

See: C. J. Ducasse, Philosophy as a Science: Its Matter and Its Method, 1941.


Sophists, the bullshitters of ancient Greece

The following description of the sophists is taken from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy, 1914.


The new movement was represented by the Sophists. The term Sophist originally meant a wise and skilful man, but in the time we are describing it came to be applied to the professional teachers who traveled about, giving instruction for pay in the art of thinking and speaking, and preparing young men for political life. [The name gradually became a term of reproach, partly because the Sophists took pay, partly owing to the radicalism of some of the later Sophists, which scandalized the conservative element.]

To this task they devoted themselves with feverish zeal. “If you associate with me,” Protagoras is reported to have said to a young man, “on the very day you will return a better man than you came.” And when Socrates asks how he is going to bring this about, he answers: “If he comes to me, he will learn that which he comes to learn. And this is prudence in affairs, private as well as public; he will learn to order his house in the best manner, and he will be able to speak and act for the best in the affairs of the State." [Plato’s Protagoras.] In order to fit himself for a career, it was necessary for the young man to perfect himself in dialectics, grammar, rhetoric, and oratory. Such subjects the Sophists began to study with a practical end in view, and thus broke the soil for new fields of investigation. They also turned their attention to moral and political questions, and so gave the impetus to a more systematic and thorough treatment of ethics and the theory of the State. As the moral earnestness of the times declined, and the desire to succeed at all hazards intensified, some of the later Sophists, in their anxiety to make their pupils efficient, often went to extremes; it became the object of instruction to teach them how to overcome an opponent in debate by fair means or foul, to make the worse appear the better cause, to confuse him with all sorts of logical fallacies, and to render him ridiculous in the eyes of the chuckling public.

The critical spirit of the age, which had, in a large measure, been fostered by philosophy, began to react upon philosophy itself and led to a temporary depreciation of metaphysical speculation. Thought weighs itself in the balance and finds itself wanting; philosophy digs its own grave. No two philosophers, so it is argued, seem to agree in their answers to the question of the essence of reality. One makes it water, another air, another fire, another earth, and yet another all of them together; one declares change to be impossible, another says there is nothing but change. Now, if there is no change, there can be no knowledge: we cannot predicate anything of anything, for how can the one be the many? If everything changes, there can be no knowledge either; for where nothing persists, how can we predicate anything of anything? And if we can know things, only so far as they affect our senses, as some hold, again we cannot know, for then the nature of things eludes our grasp. The upshot of it all is, we cannot solve the riddle of the universe. The truth begins to dawn on the Sophist that the mind of man is an important factor in the process of knowing. Thinkers before him had assumed the competence of human reason to attain truth; with all their critical acumen they had forgotten to criticise the intellect itself. The Sophist now turns the light on the knowing subject and concludes that knowledge depends upon the particular knower, that what seems true to him is true for him, that there is no objective truth, but only subjective opinion. "Man is the measure of all things," so Protagoras taught. That is, the individual is a law unto himself in matters of knowledge. And from this theoretical skepticism, the step is not far to ethical skepticism, to the view that man is a law unto himself in matters of conduct. If knowledge is impossible, then knowledge of right and wrong is impossible, there is no universal right and wrong: conscience is a mere subjective affair. These consequences were not drawn by the older Sophists, by men like Protagoras (born about 490 B.C.) and Gorgias, but they were drawn by some of the younger radical set, by Polus, Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Euthydemus, who are spokesmen in Plato’s Dialogues. Morality to them is a mere convention; it represents the will of those who have the power to enforce their demands on their fellows. The rules of morals are contrary to " nature." According to some, laws were made by the weak, the majority, in order to restrain the strong, the " best," to hinder the fittest from getting their due: the laws, therefore, violate the principle of natural justice. Natural right is the right of the stronger. According to others, the laws are a species of class legislation; they are made by the few, the strong, the privileged, in order to protect their own interests. That is, it is to the advantage of the overman that others obey the laws so that he can the more profitably break them.

“The makers of the laws,” says Callicles in the Platonic dialogue Gorgias, “are the majority who are weak; and they make laws and distribute praises and censures with a view to themselves and their own interests; and they terrify the stronger sort of men, and those who are able to get the better of them, in order that they may not get the better of them; and they say that dishonesty is shameful and unjust; meaning by the word injustice the desire of a man to have more than his neighbors; for knowing their own inferiority, I suspect that they are too glad of equality. And therefore the endeavor to have more than the many, is conventionally said to be shameful and unjust, and is called injustice, whereas nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior. For on what principle of justice did Xerxes invade Hellas, or his father the Scythians? (not to speak of numberless other examples). Nay, but these are the men who act according to nature; yes, by heaven, and according to the law of nature: not, perhaps, according to that artificial law, which we invent and impose upon our fellows, of whom we take the best and the strongest from their youth upwards, and tame them like young lions, — charming them with the sound of the voice, and saying to them, that with equality they must be content, and that the equal is the honorable and the just. But if there were a man who had sufficient force, he would shake off and break through, and escape from all this; he would trample underfoot all our formulas and spells and charms and all our laws which are against nature: the slave would rise in rebellion and be lord over us, and the light of natural justice would shine forth.”

Thrasymachus talks in the same strain in the Republic:

“The just is always a loser in comparison with the unjust. First of all, in private contracts: wherever the unjust is the partner of the just you will find that when the partnership is dissolved, the unjust man has always more and the just less. Secondly, in their dealings with the State: when there is an income-tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust less on the same amount of income; and when there is anything to be received the one gains nothing and the other much. Observe also what happens when they take an office; there is the just man neglecting his affairs and perhaps suffering other losses, and getting nothing out of the public, because he is just; moreover he is hated by his friends and acquaintances for refusing to serve them in unlawful ways. But all this is reversed in the ease of the unjust man. I am speaking as before of injustice on the large scale in which the advantage of the unjust is most apparent; and my meaning will be most clearly seen if we turn to that highest form of injustice in which the criminal is the happiest of men, and the sufferers or those who refuse to do injustice are the most miserable, — that is to say tyranny, which by fraud and force takes away the property of others, not little by little but wholesale; comprehending in one, things sacred as well as profane, private and public; for which acts of wrong, if he were detected perpetrating any of them singly, he would be punished and incur great disgrace, — they who do such wrong in particular cases are called robbers of temples, and man-stealers and burglars and swindlers and thieves. But when a man besides taking away the money of the citizens has made slaves of them, then, instead of these names of reproach, he is termed happy and blessed, not only by the citizens, but by all who have heard of the consummation of injustice. For mankind censure injustice, fearing that they may be the victims of it, and not because they shrink from committing it. And thus, as I have shown, Socrates, injustice, when on a sufficient scale, has more strength and freedom and mastery than justice; and, as I said at first, justice is the interest of the stronger, whereas injustice is a man’s own profit and interest.” [Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Dialogues.]

Significance of Sophistry

Owing to the hostile criticisms of Plato and Aristotle, as well as to the nihilistic teachings of some of the younger Sophists, the importance of the Sophistic movement in the history of thought was long misjudged. It is only since Hegel and Grote attempted to give a fairer estimate of these thinkers that justice has been done them. There was good and there was evil in their teachings. Reflection and criticism are indispensable to sounder conceptions in philosophy, religion, morals, politics, and in all fields of human endeavor. The appeal to reason was commendable in itself, but the fault lay in the inability of Sophistry to use the instrument of reason in anything like a constructive way. The Sophists brought philosophy down from heaven to the dwellings of men, as Cicero said, and turned the attention from external nature to man himself; with them the proper study of mankind was man. But they failed to recognize the universal element in man; they did not see the forest for the trees, they did not see man for men. They exaggerated the differences in human judgments and ignored the agreements. They laid too much stress on the illusion of the senses. They emphasized the accidental, subjective, and purely personal elements in human knowledge and conduct, and failed to do justice to the objective element, the principles which are accepted by all.

Nevertheless, their criticisms of knowledge made necessary a profounder study of the problem of knowledge. The older speculators had naively and dogmatically assumed the competence of the mind to reach truth; in denying the possibility of sure and universal knowledge, the Sophists forced philosophy to examine the thinking process itself and opened the way for a theory of knowledge. In employing all sorts of logical fallacies and sophisms, they made necessary a study of the correct laws of thought and hastened the birth of logic.

The same thing may be said of moral knowledge and practice. The appeal to the individual conscience was sound: from mere blind, unintelligent following of custom, morality was raised to the stage of reflective personal choice. When, however, the appeal became an appeal to mere subjective opinion and self-interest, it struck a false note. Independence of thought easily degenerates into intellectual and moral anarchy; individualism, into pure selfishness. Yet in this field, again, Sophistry rendered a service: radical criticism of the common notions of right and wrong and public and private justice, made necessary a profounder study of ethics and politics, — a study that was soon to bear wonderful fruit.

The great value of the entire Sophistic movement consisted in this: it awakened thought and challenged philosophy, religion, custom, morals, and the institutions based on them, to justify themselves to reason. In denying the possibility of knowledge, the Sophists made it necessary for knowledge to justify itself: they compelled philosophy to seek a criterion of knowledge. In attacking the traditional morality, they compelled morality to defend itself against skepticism and nihilism, and to find a rational principle of right and wrong. In attacking the traditional religious beliefs, they pressed upon thinkers the need of developing more consistent and purer conceptions of God. And in criticising the State and its laws, they made inevitable the development of a philosophic theory of the State. It became necessary to build upon more solid foundations, to go back to first principles. What is knowledge, what is truth? What is right, what is the good? What is the true conception of God? What is the meaning and purpose of the State and human institutions? And these problems, finally, forced the thinkers of Greece to reconsider, from new angles, the old question, which had been temporarily obscured, but which no people can long ignore: What is the world and man’s place in nature?


See also the Wikipedia article “Sophist

Can we choose to believe?

“Escaping from bullshit,” in one important sense, is an elliptical expression for “escaping from bullshit beliefs.” But if you believe something, it seems that you don’t recognize it as a bullshit belief. If you did, you wouldn’t believe it. So, let us assume that there may be among your many beliefs some bullshit beliefs. Why make this assumption? Because you recognize that others have beliefs which are incompatible with your beliefs, and incompatible beliefs can’t be both true; so, one of you has to have some bullshit beliefs. Is it you?

Most of the beliefs we have we inherited from our culture. Others we obtained through observation, hearsay, and authority. It comes from listening to people we encounter, news sources, magazines, television, and now the internet.

So, if someone asks you why you believe what you do, you may answer that you learned about it from Bill, or you heard it on the radio, or you read about it on the internet, or it is in your sacred book.

The response may be: “OK, I understand the source of your information, but how do you know that this information is true?”

And instead of offering a justification for their belief, people sometimes say: “I choose to believe it.” And it is sometimes said to others: “You shouldn’t believe this,” or “you shouldn’t believe him.”

The implication is that you can choose to believe or not to believe. But, is it possible to choose to believe or not to believe?

A very detailed and insightful essay on this topic was written by William P. Alston, with the esoteric title, “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification” (1988).

Assume that you are convinced by Pascal’s Wager that it is better to believe that God exists (in other words, you want to believe that God exists), but you don’t believe that God exists.  Can you choose to believe that God exists?


Definition of “Bullshit”

To understand the title, one must have an understanding of what is bullshit. We who speak English already know intuitively what it is;  otherwise, we would not know when to use the word or what to make of someone who uses it. But apparently from reading essays which attempt to define the term, they only get it partially correct. So I will try to spell it out in such a way that you will say “Of course that’s what it means, it’s obvious.”

To get a handle on what is bullshit, we must start with when the word is used. It is used paradigmatically as an exclamation, more precisely, as an explicative: “Bullshit!” It is a response to some claim or proposal.

For example, in most cities in the US, one must pick up the excrement of one’s pet dog from the sidewalk, grass, or street. I see your dog defecating, and I see you watching him, and after he finishes, you simply walk away. I, in my civic duty, call out to you to pick-up the pile left behind. And you reply that I am mistaken; that pile was left by some other dog. I respond with righteous indignation: “Bullshit, I saw you watching your dog take a dump.”

Now, when I say these words, I am expressing righteous indignation because either what is obvious to me is being questioned, or I am being treated as a fool for saying what was obvious – so, yes, I do wish to say something abusive for this insult to my intelligence and veracity.

Here,  then, is my succinct dictionary (lexical) definition of “bullshit”:

It is a ubiquitous dysphemistic exclamation of negative appraisal expressing -– in paradigm cases — righteous indignation in an abusive and vulgar tone. The righteous indignation is about the challenge to one’s knowledge.

We can call this the paradigm use of “bullshit.” Other uses are truncations. I mean that it could be used without expressing righteous indignation, but retaining the abusive rejection. And, in some circles, even the abusive element is missing. “Bullshit” becomes simply a vulgar term of rejection.

As I said, the primary use of “bullshit” is as an exclamation. Its secondary use is simply the dysphemistic negative appraisal without expressing the righteous indignation, but now implying a strong conviction of being right in the negative appraisal; otherwise why use a dysphemistic term? And, finally,  it is just a vulgar term of negative appraisal.

Why is it ubiquitous? It is a ubiquitous term because it applies to appraising all sorts of things.  Using neutral terms, the word “bullshit” is used for the following:

  1. It is used to negatively appraise importance, relevancy, and genuineness.

  2. It is used to negatively appraise the truth value: factual falsity or logical inconsistency.

  3. It is used to negatively appraise the worth of an argument.

  4. It is used to negatively appraise the worth of an excuse or justification.

  5. It is used to negatively appraise the meaningfulness of a piece of prose.

  6. It is used to negatively appraise actions, practices, and institutions.

The word “bullshit” is a relatively modern term and it is a term that is not used in polite company. To use it is – well – rude, and perhaps marks you off as not complying with the standards of polite etiquette. Well, etiquette changes, and things like, for example, wearing a hat for a man indoors, especially in someone’s home, seems to be tolerated, ignored, or made nothing of. The word “bullshit” has also received wider usage and tolerance.

In any case, in former times, in polite , especially British, academic circles, if one felt some kind of righteous indignation at someone’s claim, one had a repertoire of words as humbug, poppycock, drivel, and moonshine.

I have particularly in mind a passage in the writings of C. D. Broad, who I consider to be one of the best philosophers in the twentieth century. But my point here is not to praise him, but to focus on how he expressed his rejection of an idea which he felt was to him especially irksome. The idea he was rejecting was the proposition that people should do both physical and intellectual work. This is an idea which was promulgated by some socialists and anarchists, explicitly so by Peter Kropotkin. Broad was a self-conscious snob –- an elitist –- and sarcastically pointed out that chambermaids can get some satisfaction from knowing that they are serving to promote such intellectual gems as himself. Normally, Broad provides arguments for his claims, but, in this case, he resorts to aloof condescension. And blows off the proposal with the word “moonshine.” And he does this, ironically, in a chapter devoted to Spinoza –- a philosopher who made his living by grinding lenses, i.e. by combining intellectual and physical labor.

If you wish to suppress abuse and the expression of righteous indignation, but express the negative appraisal, then, of course, you can use less abusive language or the neutral terms of evaluation.

See Mark Peters, Bullshit: A Lexicon, 2015.


One would think that a bullshitter is one who throws out bullshit.  Well, this may be true of a crude or unsophisticated bullshitter, but it is not true of a master bullshitter.

Before we get to that, let us think of what kinds of people we tend to classify as bullshitters.  A few types immediately come to mind: salesmen, politicians, and lawyers.   What do they have in common?  Well, they are all trying to sell or convince us of something.  This is obvious with the salesperson.  His goal is to have us buy whatever he is selling.  The politician wants us to give him our vote, and the lawyer wants us to bring in the verdict he is fighting for. Harry Frankfurt says that the bullshitter is slovenly with truth.  Yes and no.   Personally, he may have a high regard for truth; but in the context of his sales pitch, he may think it irrelevant what the truth is as long as he can persuade us.

The case which fits Frankfurt’s idea of a bullshitter as slovenly and careless with the truth is a student who has been assigned to write a 10 page paper, and has exhausted his idea at the end of the second page.  His goal is not to write about the truth; his goal is to get a good grade, at least a passing grade; not to fail.  So, he uses whatever filler material seems appropriate, including plagarism.  This, to me, is a paradigm of Frankfurt’s bullshitter as indifferent to truth.  There are also the cases where an ignorant person is asked for his opinion, and he offers it as if it were based of some source of information or some critical reflection, but, in reality, is just something that popped into his head.  Such a person is acting for the sake of making an impression, without really a concern for the truth.  And such a person too fits Frankfurt’s definition of a bullshitter as someone who is indifferent to the truth.

However, a person who really does not care about truth (or the making of appraisals) is not a bullshitter, but a fool.   Frankfurt’s description of a bullshitter as indifferent to truth is better labeled as a description of a fool. A fool is someone who is indifferent to appraisals (including the truth) or as someone who is incapable of making good appraisals.

The sophisticated bullshitter, in contradistinction to Frankfurter’s indifferent bullshitter, is very much interested in the truth.  He knows that truth is power.  The sophisticated bullshitter — qua salesman, politician, and lawyer — convinces us not by resorting to bullshit, but by selective omissions.  The car salesman points out all the good features of the car, but fails to mention the bad features.

The best bullshitters are newspeople and journalists who select the news and slant it as they wish.  They convince us by omission. Parodying the law, they tell us the truth and nothing but the truth, but they omit to tell us the whole truth.  And it is in this ability to omit and slant that we have the makings of a sophisticated bullshitter.

Let me illustrate. I have said that a sophisticated bullshitter will manipulate his rhetoric through omissions of relevant information, which is, in fact, how much of the news media manipulate information. For example, in the present presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders was hardly mentioned, until in the later stages of campaigning when it became awkward not to mention him. Now that the Republican and Democratic Parties have picked their nominees for president, note that Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, is hardly ever mentioned. Talking about Stein would be a form of advertisement for her, and since the corporate world does not want Stein to be president, the strategy is to act as if she did not exist. By not mentioning Stein, the media is making it appear that the only (viable) candidates are Clinton and Trump.

Bullshitter as a deceiver

I was searching for a word for broadcasting information, and  I thought that perhaps the word “propaganda” was used in this neutral way.  But if it did have that meaning, it no longer has it.  It now means broadcasting deceptive and slanted information.  I then looked up the wikipedia entry for  “deception.”  It listed the following forms of deception:

  1. Lies: making up information or giving information that is the opposite or very different from the truth.[2]
  2. Equivocations: making an indirect, ambiguous, or contradictory statement.
  3. Concealments: omitting information that is important or relevant to the given context, or engaging in behavior that helps hide relevant information.
  4. Exaggerations: overstatement or stretching the truth to a degree.
  5. Understatements: minimization or downplaying aspects of the truth.[1]

Yes, a sophisticated bullshitter would use all these except for lies.  Lies are for unsophisticated bullshitters — unless you are a leader of a country and keep repeating big lies.

Another technique for manipulation is to distract attention from the importan and relevant material to the unimportant and irrelevant.  See: Distraction principle.


See Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, 1957.