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.

Economic Bullshit

Government and Land Rights

Centralized Government

Decentralized Government

Free Land

Socialism

Anarchism

No Free Land

Capitalism,
Neoconservativism

Anarcho-Capitalism,
Neoliberalism,
Libertarianism

 

 

In the past, the subject of economics was called “political economy”; nowadays it is called simply “economics.”  Why the change?  Let me explain.  There are alternative economic arrangements possible as to who owns what. Specifically, we can have alternative laws about land rights.  Compare, for example, how indigenous native Americans dealt with land with the British colonial policy in America.  American natives did not have a concept of land ownership; whereas the British did.  Which system prevails is a political matter; hence “political economy.”

Since the 19th century,  the economic system which has predominated is that of capitalism.  And books with the title “Economics” are really about the workings of capitalism.  Now, what is capitalism?

Max Weber, in the 22nd chapter: “The Meaning and Presuppositions of Modern Capitalism” of General Economic History (Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 1923), translated by Frank H. Knight, 1927, lists six necessary conditions for modern or “rational” capitalism. What interests me, and on which I want to focus attention, is the 5th necessary condition, which is:

“The fifth feature is free labor. Persons must be present who are not only legally in the position, but are also economically compelled, to sell their labor on the market without restriction. It is in contradiction to the essence of capitalism, and the development of capitalism is impossible, if such a propertyless stratum is absent, a class compelled to sell its labor services to live; and it is likewise impossible if only unfree labor is at hand. Rational capitalistic calculation is possible only on the basis of free labor; only where in consequence of the existence of workers who in the formal sense voluntarily, but actually under the compulsion of the whip of hunger, offer themselves, the costs of products may be unambiguously determined by agreement in advance.”

What people is he talking about? He is talking about people who do not possess property, which really means the people who have no free access to land on which they can have a home, have a garden, have some animals: in short, on which they can subsist. They are people who have no access to free subsistence land. Since such people tend to aggregate in cities, they are called proletarians; George Orwell in 1984 calls them “proles.”

It is ironic or euphemistic to call them “free laborers.” They are free relative to the law in not being slaves or serfs. But, as Weber notes, they are compelled to work to avoid starvation. Marx, I think, is more accurate in calling them “wage-slaves.”

See my articles: “Land and Liberty”

Milton Friedman’s Hidden Anarchism in Capitalism and Freedom

Greatest Problem in the World

David Pimentel, “FOOD, LAND, POPULATION and the U.S. ECONOMY,” 1994.

Andrew Chrucky, The Greatest Problem in the World, 1985.

Paul R. Ehrlich & Anne H. Ehrlich, The Population Explosion, 1990.

Thomas Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Antony Flew, Introduction to Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1970)