Calling something a “bullshit argument” is just a vulgar way of rejecting an argument. What is an argument? And what are the reasons for rejecting arguments?
An “argument” is a group of statements – two or more – of which one statement is allegedly supported by the other statement or statements. The allegedly supported statement is called the “conclusion” of the argument, and the allegedly supporting statement or statements are the “premise” or “premises” of the argument. I say “allegedly” because the conclusion may not, in fact, be supported by the premises. However, whether the premises do or do not support the conclusion, an argument exists because the premises are offered in support of the conclusion.
If the premises do not, in fact, support the conclusion, we can say that the argument is a bad argument, i.e., a bullshit argument.
Logic is the discipline which studies the nature and the goodness of arguments. There are very many good textbooks on logic, and I have nothing to add to what they cover.
However, in logic books written by philosophers, there are sections which are called “fallacies” which present a problem. The problem is this. On the one hand, a fallacy is simply a bad argument. In that case saying that the argument is unsound or uncogent should end the matter. [A deductive argument which is invalid or has a false premise is unsound. An inductive argument which is weak or has a false premise is uncogent.] But, on the other hand, various utterances are called fallacies which aren’t even arguments. So, it seems that under the category of “fallacies” is subsumed something other than arguments, and this needs explanation.
An excellent explanation was given by C. I. Hamblin in his book Fallacies. The gist of his explanation is that we have to understand fallacies from the standpoint of formal debates as practiced in antiquity and in the middle ages. Fallacies, from this perspective, are the fouls which can occur in formal debates.
An interesting collection of fallacies is found in W. Ward Fearnside and William B. Holther, Fallacy: A Counterfeit of Argument, 1959.
I am on Facebook for the same reason I have a website, and now a weblog. I want people to focus on (1) important matters, (2) to discuss them, and (3) to reach an agreement on plans of action. Although for the most part, I focus on economic and political issues, I sometimes stray from this by sharing some piece of music which I like, or a photograph of some scene, a joke, or whatever. I understand that we all want to be entertained and to entertain others. But as Neil Postman put it so well in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985, rev. 2005)[pdf copy] our obsession with entertainment is acting like soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
On Facebook, I have tried to garner “friends” who have political interests. Although I have a global interest, I have concentrated on Ukraine because that is where my roots are, and where the political situation is not as rigid as it is in the United States; thus, allowing for a political revolution. My ideal of a political structure is anarchism. By this, I do not mean chaos or the absence of government. By “anarchism” I mean a bottom-up federalism, as contrasted with a centralized state – unitary or federated. In Ukraine, this form of government was promulgated by Nestor Makhno during the Russian Civil War (1917-1921), and it was promulgated in Spain during the Spanish Civil War (Revolution) (1936-1939).
I mention this to tell you that I want to discuss these matters somewhere. But it turns out that social media, such as Facebook, do not work. I find that people do not know how to discuss, and, worse, they don’t want to discuss. They simply want to express an opinion or share something, and one can react to this by “liking” it, or making a “comment.” Comments are especially annoying. For example, there was a short video on what is happening in Ukraine which I shared on Facebook. The comment was that it was simplistic and slanted – that’s it. No explanation. Trying to solicit an explanation did not work. This is typical.
The only political value that I see in using Facebook is a source of news, articles, and commentary. And, I hope, that I have stimulated some people to reflect on what I have written or shared.
STANDING ARMY . A journey into the world of U.S. Military bases with Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky
The Bases of Empire – The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts. Ed. Catherine Lutz. New York University Press, 2009.
Jim Miles, Review: The Bases of Empire – The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts, Foreign Policy Journal, March 23, 2010
To understand the title “Escaping from Bullshit,” 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 leaving a pile, 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 veracity.
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:
It is used to negatively appraise importance, relevancy, and genuineness.
It is used to negatively appraise the truth value: factual falsity or logical inconsistency.
It is used to negatively appraise the worth of an argument.
It is used to negatively appraise the worth of an excuse or justification.
It is used to negatively appraise the meaningfulness of a piece of prose.
- 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. [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:
- Lies: making up information or giving information that is the opposite or very different from the truth.
- Equivocations: making an indirect, ambiguous, or contradictory statement.
- Concealments: omitting information that is important or relevant to the given context, or engaging in behavior that helps hide relevant information.
- Exaggerations: overstatement or stretching the truth to a degree.
- Understatements: minimization or downplaying aspects of the truth.
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.
Bullshit and Philosophy: Guaranteed to Get Perfect Results Every Time, edited by Gary L. Hardcastle and George A. Reisch, 2006