Bullshit, Bullshitters, and Bull Sessions

Harry Fankfurt must be given credit for initiating an interest in clarifying the concepts of “bullshit,” “bullshitter.” and “bull session.” His essay — which became a small best-selling book — gave rise to other efforts at clarification. and now my own. My overall assessment is that although all the efforts capture aspects of bullshit and bullshitters, none have captured the genus and differentia. For one, starting with Frankfurt, most think that a bullshitter is, by definition, a conveyor of bullshit; or, conversely, wherever there is bullshit, there is a bullshitter. My thesis is that this is wrong. The concepts of a bullshitter and that of bullshit are independent concepts, i.e., one does not imply the other. To the Frankfurts, I make what to them is a paradoxical claim that a bullshitter does not have to resort to bullshit. In fact, the more sophisticated bullshitter will never use bullshit. And conversely, the more bullshit we detect, the less likely is it coming from a sophisticated bullshiter.

To make these claims plausible, I have to clarify the concepts of “bullshit” and “bullshitter.”


Those who say “bullshit” do so in reaction to some utterance or group of utterances. Saying “bullshit” is a dysphemistic way of expressing a rejection. Only in this sense, is “bullshit” a unitary concept. But the things to which a rejection applies are varied. This requires a listing. The first thing that comes to mind is a determination that a claim is false. If we used a neutral expression, i.e., neither a euphemism nor a dysphemism, we would say “That is false.” But resorting to a dysphemism — for whatever reason — we say “That is bullshit.”

What I have written above indicates the pattern for various other rejections. So, to save space, all I need do is present a table with neutral rejections and equivalent dysphemistic rejections.

Object of RejectionNeutral RejectionDysphemistic Rejection
Statement or Group of Statements Nonsensical or Meaningless Bullshit
Subject of Discourse Trivial or Unimportant Bullshit
Argument Invalid or Weak Bullshit
Proposal Impractical, Unworkable, UnrealisticBullshit
[Demand to do something“No” “Bullshit”


What all the writer on the nature of a bullshitter have missed is the identification of the bullshitter with Plato’s portrayal of a Sophist, and his contemporary embodiments in the lawyer, the politician, and the salesman. The essential trait of a bullshitter is not, as Frankfurt thinks, with a sloviness towards truth. but in the fact that he is more interested is winning or succeeding at whatever that he is trying to accomplish. And, the better he is at bullshitting, the more he is interested in knowing what the truth is. But his interest in the truth is not to express it, but to manipulate it to his advantage.

The goal of a lawyer is to win. He may take a case in which he is indifferent to the guilt or innocence of his client (an indifference to the truth), and his goal is for his client to prevail. Now, in his arsenal of techniques for winning, he may resort to using bullshit — meaning making false statement, pursuing a trivial matter, or using the panopoly of fallacies, such as ad hominem, red herring, appeal to emotions, etc. But if he is a sophisticated lawyer facing a sophisticated prosecutor, jury. and judge, then he may decide not to use bullshit of any kind. He will resort to various omissions of relevant material, and to selectively focus on issues to his advantage. Exactly the same strategy could be used by a politician and salesman. They are all bullshitters because they use language for the sake of winning (and not for gaining knowledge or finding the truth) — and depending on the context, they will resort to or refrain from using bullshit.

Bull Session

I think that Frankfurt is right in thinking of a bull session as a sort of explorations of hypotheses. This exploration can be done in a frivolous or a serious manner. Participant can pretend to hold particular views, and see what the reaction is. This can be done for sheer entertainment or to learn mind-sets of others. or whatnot. A bull session does not have to include any bullshitters or bullshit — though it may include both.

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