Can one escape from bullshit?

It was while I was teaching introductory courses in logic and philosophy at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, that I got the idea that the core of philosophy has always been escaping from bullshit. Of course, philosophers almost never used the word “bullshit” — though they used something like its cognates: absurd, nonsense, ridiculous, invalid, fallacious, moonshine, etc.

Socrates — to go to the beginning of philosophy — would simply assist his companions in dialogue to note that their hypotheses led to contradictions; which meant, of course, that their hypotheses were wrong, or, in other words . . .

Now I have always been careful not to claim that one can actually escape from bullshit. I deliberately use the word “escaping,” which means that one is trying to escape — only to the extent of having plans which may or may not be realizable.

But to evaluate something as being bullshit, one has to have a knowledge of the criteria of evaluation: one has to have some facility in clarity of language (i.e., as Stuart Chase put it: to be wary of the tyranny of words), general knowledge of the state of the world (i.e., an informed Weltanschuung), and an ability — as Susan Stebbing, in step with Robert H. Thouless, said — to spot twisted and crooked thinking.

What is extremely difficult to change are bullshit political and economic institutions. The greatest immediate danger is the ecological one. The ice caps are melting and the Brazilian rainforest is burning. The UN recognizes these dangers, and is calling for a Summit, September 23, 2019, in New York.

Now, our ecological problems are directly linked to the fact of human overpopulation. More people; the need for more resources and products. The more production, the greater pollution. However, nothing is really done about this — or even discussed.

And why not? Because the world is run by capitalism which controls governments and most of the mass media, and whose only interest is profit.

So, the situation is like this. If you were a slave, how could you escape? If you were a serf, how could you escape? And if you are a proletarian, how do you escape?

Individual escape is possible, but how does one change the institutions for the benefit of all?

Identifying default intellectuals

Richard Wolff keeps repeating that in trying to assess the merits of some claim, it is wise to listen to the proponents and the opponents of the claim. His interest is in the evaluation of capitalism. However, he does not tell us who he thinks is the best proponent of capitalism, but he does tell us that a formidable opponent of capitalism was Karl Marx.

Well, I am not ready to become a Marx scholar — there is too much to read. I want some trustworthy intellectual to tell me in a succinct formulation what I should learn from Marx. Who should I listen to?

And the above reasoning applies to all claims. The problem is this. It is living people who are writing and speaking on popular media and making an impact. And this is what creates something like “current popular opinions.” Couple this with a belief that the new is better than the old — a sort of belief in the inevitability of progress — and the “old” is placed in the dustbin of the antiquated.

It is true that the natural sciences and technologies advance, but this does not seem to be true of the moral and social studies where there is ongoing controversy.

To deal with this problem, I have sought to find intellectuals who have an aura of wisdom and authority. In the past — until the scientific revolution — Plato and Aristotle played such a role. They acted as a “benchmark” for evaluating claims. A few years ago I advocated treating the views of the British philosopher C. D. Broad for this role of a “benchmark,” giving the name “default philosopher” to such a role.

This is not to deprive other philosophers of a high status, but the fact remains that someone who lives later and can critically evaluate the scholarship of the past — has an advantage, provided he has done so well.

For topics not dealth with by C. D. Broad, I would extend the status of a default philosopher to Bertrand Russell.

As to present global affairs — involving war, economics, and politics — the current “default intellectual” — if I may use this phrase — is, for me: Noam Chomsky.

What is the practical implication of this view? One should read Chomsky, and when listening or reading where a claim is made about present global affairs, ask yourself: What is Noam Chomsky view on this?

Francis Bacon on bullshit beliefs

Francis Bacon (1561-1626), in his Novum Organum (1620), classifies the sources of false beliefs (i.e. bullshit beliefs) into four categories or idols:
idols of the tribe (idola tribus),
idols of the cave (idola specus),
idols of the market (idola fori), and
idols of the theater (idola theatri).

See also:


C. D. Broad, The Philosophy of Francis Bacon, 1926.