Neil Postman, “Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection”

Neil Postman, also in 1969, published Teaching as a Subversive Activity.


Bullshit and the Art of Crap-Detection
by Neil Postman

(Paper, Delivered at the National Convention for the Teachers of English [NCTE], November 28, 1969, Washington, D.C.)

With a title like this, I think I ought to dispense with the rhetorical amenities and come straight to the point. And I almost will. Almost, because I want to make two brief comments about the title. For those of you who do now know, it may be worth saying that the phrase, “crap-detecting,” originated with Mr. Ernest Hemingway who when asked if there were one quality needed, above all others, to be a good writer, replied, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof, crap detector.” I am sure he was right; as I am also sure that his reply is equally applicable to at least two dozen other questions, among which is the question, “What is the one thing you need in order to survive a professional conference?” If any of you requires further information on the origins of the word “crap,” may I refer you to the December 1st issue of  Newsweek Magazine, p. 63, in which there is a full page story devoted to Thomas Crapper, the father of the modern toilet.

As for the word in the first part of my title, it has no such illustrious beginning. So far as I can find out it was spread, if not originated, by Gypsies about a hundred years ago, and may be having its most glorious moment at this convention — for, as you can well imagine, this is the first time it has appeared in print in an official program produced by and for the English teachers of our nation. I trust that lexicographers of all persuasions will take not of that fact, since in that way, I might, at long last, make some contribution to the subject of linguistics.

Now, to the point. As I see it, the best things schools can do for kids is to help them learn how to distinguish useful talk from bullshit. I think almost all serious people understand that about 90% of all that goes on in school is practically useless, so what I am saying would not require the displacement of anything that is especially worthwhile. Even if it did, I would still be able to argue that helping kids to activate their crap-detectors should take precedence over any other legitimate educational aim. I won’t attempt such arguments here because of the lack of time. Instead, I will ask only that you agree that every day in almost every way people are exposed to more bullshit than it is healthy for them to endure, and that if we can help them to recognize this fact, they might turn away from it and toward language that might do them some earthly good.

Thus, my main purpose this afternoon is to introduce the subject of bullshit to the NCTE. It is a subject, one might say, that needs no introduction to the NCTE, but I want to do it in a way that would allow bullshit to take its place alongside our literary heritage, grammatical theory, the topic sentence, and correct usage as part of the content of English instruction. For this reason, I will have to use 15 minutes or so of your time to discuss the taxonomy of bullshit. It is important for you to pay close attention to this, since I am going to give a quiz at the conclusion.

Now, there are so many varieties of bullshit and, again time is so limited, that I couldn’t hope to mention but a few, and elaborate on even fewer. I will, therefore, select those varieties that have some transcendent significance. Now, that last sentence is a perfectly good example of bullshit, since I have no idea what the words “transcendent significance” might mean and neither do you. I needed something to end that sentence with and since I did not have any clear criteria by which to select my examples, I figured this was the place for some big-time words. Thus, we have our first variety of bullshit — what some people call, pomposity. The title or theme of this conference — Dreams and Realities — is another good example of pomposity. In the first place, I find it very difficult to believe that any group of English teachers can be all that familiar with what most people call “reality.” It is a fair guess that there are very few people living on this planet who regard as “real” the things most English teachers like to talk about and the fact that English teachers have not generally noticed this may be of transcendent significance.

In the second place, I don’t know what “dreams and realities” is intended to mean. I do not deny that it is a classy phrase, but it does challenge one to task, whose dreams? And whose realities? Surely not those of the thousands of black kids who go to school in this city. Or for that matter, kids any place. Perhaps it refers to the dreams and realities of English teachers, in which case, we probably should translate the phrase to read, “Our aims and our failures.” Not classy, but more to the point. In any event, the phase is not worth dwelling upon except to say that it is a good example of the triumph of style over substance, which is the essence of pomposity.

Now, pomposity is not an especially venal form of bullshit, although it is by no means harmless. There are plenty of people who are daily victimized by pomposity in that they are made to feel less worthy than they have a right to feel by people who use fancy titles, words, phrases, and sentences to obscure their own insufficiencies. Many people in our profession dwell almost exclusively in the realms of pomposity, and quite literally, would be unable to function, if not for the fact that our profession has made respectable this form of bullshit. With the possible exception of the field known as educational administration, English teaching probably includes more pompous language than (you ready for this?) any other “discipline.” If you have some doubts about this, may I suggest that you review the NCTE Convention programs of the past ten years. I may be mistaken, but I am under the impression that some years ago someone gave a speech entitled, “The phoneme — Whither goest?”

A much more malignant form of bullshit than pomposity is what some people call fanaticism. Now, there is one type of fanaticism of which I will say very little, because it is so vulgar and obvious. I am referring to what is called bigotry. With a few exceptions, such as Spiro Agnew, most people know that statements like, “Niggers are lazy” or “Fat Japs are treacherous” are deadly and ignorant, and not to be taken seriously. I want only to remark here that some of us who should know better have been slow to recognize that at least as much bullshit is generated by H. Rap Brown as by, say, Agnew. Statements like “Cops are racist pigs” make no more sense than any other form of bigotry. And I would include in this the statement that “Black is beautiful.” That is bigoted bullshit no matter who it comes from or how righteous his cause. I can assure you that the great proletarian revolution will be hastened, not retarded, by acknowledging that black men are as capable of generating bullshit as white men.

But there are other forms of fanaticism that are not so obvious, and therefore perhaps more dangerous than bigotry, and one of them is what I can Eichmannism. Now, Eichmannism is a relatively new form of fanaticism, and perhaps it should be given its own special place among the great and near-great varieties of bullshit. At this point, I would judge it to be a branch of fanaticism, because the essence of fanaticism is that it has almost no tolerance for any data that do not confirm its own point of view. Here I want to provide an example of Eichmannism so that you will see why I think it is essentially fanatical. The example also points to, I think, some singular characteristics of Eichmannism.

Some months ago a young man presented himself to me requesting to be admitted to a Masters Degree program in communications offered by my university. He is the author of an intriguing book on the subject of media and cybernation. He has written a half-dozen articles on the subject, has lectured at major universities in this country and abroad, and was the principal investigator of an extensive research effort into the relationship of television and sensory bias. There was one difficulty. He does not have what is called a Bachelors Degree. I was not entirely sure why he wanted a Masters Degree, but it seemed perfectly clear that he was “intellectually capable” of pursuing such studies. I will not report on the various episodes that followed my request that he be accepted into the M.A. program. They are both boring and hideous. Here was the result: His application was denied because, and I quote, “by definition, one cannot be qualified for an M.A. program unless he holds a Bachelors degree.” And there you have the essence of Eichmannism. Eichmannism is that form of bullshit which accepts as its starting and ending point official definitions, rules, and categories without regard for the realities of particular situations. It is also important to say that the language of Eichmannism, unlike other varieties of fanaticism, is almost always polite, subdued, and seemingly neutral. A friend of mine actually received a letter from a mini-Eichmann which began — “We are pleased to inform you that your scholarship for the academic year 1968-69 has been cancelled.”

In other words, Eichmannism is especially dangerous because, as Hannah Arendt has shown us, it is so utterly banal. That means, among other things, that some of the nicest people turn out to be mini-Eichmanns. When Eichmann was in the dock in Jerusalem, he actually said that some of his best friends were Jews. And the horror of it is that he was probably telling the truth, for there is nothing personal about Eichmannism. It is the language of regulations, and includes such logical sentences as, “If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.” Can you imagine some wretched Jew pleading to have his children spared from the gas chamber? What could be more fair, more neutral, than for some administrator to reply, “If we do it for one, we have to do it for all.”

One final point about Eichmannism, and I would like to state it as Postman’s First Law — so perhaps you will want to write this down: “Everyone is potentially somebody else’s Eichmann. So be careful.” Postman’s Second Law is: “Everyone is already somebody else’s Eichmann. You weren’t careful enough.”

There are two other dreadful varieties of bullshit that require more than a word or two of explanation, and one of them is what may be called inanity. This is a form of talk which pays a large but, I would think, relatively harmless role in our personal lives. But with the development of the mass media, inanity has suddenly emerged as a major form of language in public matters. The invention of new and various kinds of communication has given a voice and an audience to many people whose opinions would otherwise not be solicited, and who, in fact, have little else but verbal excrement to contribute to public issues. Many of these people are entertainers, such as Johnny Carson, Hugh Downs, Joey Bishop, David Susskind, Ronald Regan, Barbara Walters, and Joe Garagiola. Before the communications’ revolution, their public utterances would have been limited almost exclusively to sentences composed by more knowledgeable people or they would have had no opportunity to make public utterances at all. Things being what they are, the press and air waves are filled with the featured and prime-time sentences of people who are in no position to render informed judgments on what they are talking about and yet render them with élan and, above all, sincerity: like Joey Bishop on the sociological implications of drugs, Ronald Regan on educational innovation, Johnny Carson on campus unrest, David Susskind on anything, and Hugh Downs on menopause. “Menopause,” he said once, “is a controversial subject.” (This statement prompted a postcard from me on which I asked if he was for it or against it.) Inanity, then, is ignorance presented in the cloak of sincerity, and it differs from the last variety of bullshit that I want to mention, namely, superstition, in that superstition is ignorance presented in the cloak of authority. A superstition is a belief, usually expressed in authoritative terms for which there is no factual or scientific basis. Like, for instance, that the country in which you live is a finer place, all things considered, than other countries. Or that the religion into which you were born confers upon you some special standing with the cosmos that is denied other people.

Our own profession has generated, of course, dozens of superstitions, on which, incidentally, many professional conferences have been based. Among the more intriguing of these are the beliefs that people learn more efficiently when they are taught in an orderly, sequential and systematic manner; that one’s knowledge of anything can be “objectively” measured; and even that the act of “teaching” facilitates what is known as “learning.” By far, the most amusing of all our superstitions is the belief, expressed in a variety of ways, that the study of literature and other humanistic subjects will result in one’s becoming a more decent, liberal, tolerant, and civilized human being. Whenever a professor of literature alludes to this bullshit in my presence, I invariably think of the Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich and the ideological head of the Nazi Party, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, who at the age of 24 received his Ph.D. in Romantic Drama at the University of Heidelberg. Sometimes, I even think of the professor of literature himself, and wonder if he would dare offer his own life as an illustration of the benefits that will accrue from humanistic studies. In any case, I have not noticed that English teachers are any more humane than, say, garage mechanics or certified public accountants.

There are, as I said earlier, dozens of other forms of bullshit, including several varieties I have been using in this speech. Perhaps my most obvious is what might be called earthiness, which is based on the assumption that if one uses direct, off-color, four letter words like crap and shit, one somehow is making more sense than if he observed the proper language customs. Earthiness is the mirror image of pomposity, and like it, rarely advances human understanding although, naturally, there are times when it does, as in the present instance. In any event, I must now refrain from mentioning any other varieties because inevitably we must come to the question: What, if anything, can be done about all this bullshit? Well, the first thing to say is that we should not expect too much to be done in school, no matter what teachers do. As Carl Rogers has said, teaching is a vastly overrated activity; and any impression to the contrary is, in my opinion, mostly superstition.

In the second place, teachers — especially English teachers — have not shown up to now a serious interest in educating children in the rational, functional, or human uses of language, which is probably why we know so little about how to do it. When teachers do take an interest in language at all, they are usually drawn to something like phonemics or tagmemics, which serves the purpose of providing them with a respectable exemption from dealing with what language is about. Such teachers usually say things like, “I am interested in studying language qua language.” I will resist the temptation to comment on that, except to say that when I hear such talk by own crap-detector achieves unparalleled spasms of activity. In the third place, even if teachers were to take an enthusiastic interest in what language is about, each teacher would have fairly serious problems to resolve. For instance, you can’t identify bullshit the way you identify phonemes. That is why I have called crap-detecting an art. Although subjects like semantics, rhetoric, or logic seem to provide techniques for crap-detecting, we are not dealing here, for the most part, with a technical problem. Each man’s crap-detector is embedded in his value system; if you want to teach the art of crap-detecting, you must help students become aware of their values.

After all, Spiro Agnew, or his writers, know as much about semantics as anyone in this room. What he is lacking has very little to do with technique, and almost everything to do with values. Now, I realize that what I just said sounds fairly pompous in itself, if not arrogant, but there is no escaping from saying what attitudes you value if you want to talk about crap-detecting. In other words, bullshit is what you call language that treats people in ways you do not approve of.

So any teacher who is interested in crap-detecting must acknowledge that one man’s bullshit is another man’s catechism. If you will keep in mind that I understand this perfectly well, I will venture to say what are some of the attitudes that both teachers and students would have to learn if they are to help each other to recognize everyone’s bullshit, including their own.
It seems to me one needs, first and foremost, to have a keen sense of the ridiculous. Maybe I mean to say, a sense of our impending death. About the only advantage that comes from our knowledge of the inevitability of death is that we know that whatever is happening is going to go away. Most of us try to put this thought out of our minds, but I am saying that it ought to be kept firmly there, so that we can fully appreciate how ridiculous most of our enthusiasms and even depressions are. I am not saying, of course, that nothing matters; but if the thought keeps crossing your mind that you will be dead soon, it is hard to work up any passion for such questions as: What are the implications of transformational grammar for the teaching of writing? Reflections on one’s mortality curiously make one come alive to the incredible amounts of inanity and fanaticism that surround us, much of which is inflicted on us by ourselves. Which brings me to the next point, best stated as Postman’s Third Law: “At any given time, the chief source of bullshit with which you have to contend is yourself.” The reason for this is explained in Postman’s Fourth Law, which is that almost nothing is about what you think it is about — including you. With the possible exception of those human encounters that Fritz Peris calls “intimacy,” all human communications have deeply imbedded and profound hidden agendas. Most of the conversation at the top can be assumed to be bullshit of one variety or another. For instance, if you think that my main reason for giving this talk today is to make some contribution to the teaching of English profession, then your crap-detector needs to go back to the shop. If it doesn’t get fixed, you may even get to believe that the main reason you came to this conference was to learn something that will be professionally valuable to you. You have to keep remembering that that is only what you told your boss in order to get a few dollars and/or permission to come. Now, there is no problem here as long as you recognize all that as bullshit, and yourself as its source. This is why, incidentally, it is almost always better to deal with a corrupt man than with an idealist. A corrupt man knows all about bullshit, especially his own; which is another way of saying, he has a sense of humor. An idealist usually cannot acknowledge his own bullshit, because it is in the nature of his “ism” that he must pretend it does not exist. In fact, I should say that anyone who is devoted to an “ism” — Fascism, Communism, Capitalism — probably has a seriously defective crap-detector. This is especially true of those devoted to “patriotism.” Santha Rama Rau has called patriotism a squalid emotion. I agree. Mainly because I find it hard to escape the conclusion that those most enmeshed in it hear no bullshit whatever in its rhetoric, and as a consequence are extremely dangerous to other people. If you doubt this, I want to remind you that murder for murder, General Westmoreland makes Vito Genovese book like a Flower Child. Another way of saying this is that all ideologies are saturated with bullshit, and a wise man will observe Herbert Read’s advice: Never trust any group larger than a squad.

So you see, when it comes right down to it, crap-detection is something one does when he starts to become a certain type of person. Sensitivity to the phony uses of language requires, to some extent, knowledge of how to ask questions, how to validate answers, and certainly, how to assess meanings. But if that were all there was to it, S. I. Hayakawa wouldn’t now be one of Ronald Regan’s best friends. What crap-detecting mostly consists of is a set of attitudes toward the function of human communication: which is to say, the function of human relationships.

Now, I said at the beginning that I thought there is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication. You, therefore, probably assume that I know something about now to achieve this. Well, I don’t. At least not very much. I know that our present curricula do not even touch on the matter. Neither do our present methods of training teachers. I am not even sure that classrooms and schools can be reformed enough so that critical and lively people can be nurtured there. For all I know, there may be so few English teachers interested in the matter that it is hardly worth talking about. Nonetheless, I persist in believing that it is not beyond your profession to invent ways to educate youth along these lines. I’m not quite sure why I believe this except that one of my own cherished superstitions is that breast-fed babies grow up to be optimistic adults, and I was prodigiously breast-fed; in fact, until an age that most of you would consider unseemly. If you will keep in mind that my optimism is based on pure bullshit, then I will close by stating Postman’s Fifth and final law: There is no more precious environment than our language environment. And even if you know you will be dead soon, that’s worth protecting.

 

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?”

 

Sophists, the bullshitters of ancient Greece

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


Sophists

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

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.

Bullshitter

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. [As it turned out, Trump won despite the media’s attempt to ridicule him. Why?  Because instead of ignoring him as they did with Sanders and Stein, they gave him an enormous amount of free publicity.  But it doesn’t really matter who won for those in power or for us, both Trump and Clinton are agents of the oligarchs.]

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.