The Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black

A greatly expanded version of the Stanton Griffis Lecture at the Cornell Medical School, New York City, March 1980. A variety of versions have been delivered at Cornell University, the University of New Mexico, Dartmouth College, and elsewhere. Published in The The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays (Cornell University Press, 1983). Originally published in a slightly different form in Philosophic Exchange, vol. 13, 1982.
It would be a wonderful thing for mankind if some philosophic Yankee would contrive some kind of "ometer" that would measure the infusion of humbug in anything. A "Humbugometer" he might call it. I would warrant him a good sale.

— P. T. Barnum


      Humbug has the peculiar property of being always committed by others, never by oneself. This is one reason why it is universally condemned. No doubt we can agree that humbug is a Bad Thing; but what are we agreeing about? It proves astonishingly hard to say. In trying to understand what humbug is, which is my main objective, one soon finds that no satisfactory definitions are available. I therefore propose to use for the most part an inductive approach. I shall offer a number of varied examples for consideration, hoping that we can eventually arrive at some reasonably satisfying analysis of this elusive concept. There should be time, also, to reflect on the mischief that humbug can work, and to consider some ways of curbing the disposition to produce it.

Chekhov’s Lady

      My first exhibit is drawn from Maxim Gorky’s reminiscences of Chekhov:

Once a plump, healthy, handsome, well-dressed lady came to him and began to speak a la Chekhov: "Life is so boring, Anton Pavlovich. Everything is so grey: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me grey. . . . And I have no desires . . . my soul is in pain … it is like a disease."
     "It is a disease," said Anton Pavlovich with conviction, "it is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus fraudulentus."
     Fortunately, the lady did not seem to know Latin, or, perhaps, she pretended not to know it.1

      Morbus fraudulentus — literally, "the fraudulent disease" — is not listed in manuals of pathology, although the disorder is endemic, infectious, and seriously injurious to thought, feeling, and ac­tion. (A medical friend has compared it to rheumatism.) The Latin label is too opaque for common use, but "humbug" serves nicely. Chekhov’s lady provides us with a clear example of humbug.

Bernard Shaw on Disarmament Conferences

      My next example is taken from an interview granted by George Bernard Shaw to an American journalist (M. E. Wisehart) in 1930, on the eve of a naval conference. When the interviewer called the coming meeting a "disarmament conference," Shaw strenuously objected:

" ‘Don’t!’ exclaimed Mr. Shaw. ‘Everyone knows it’s an armament conference! . . . The question is not ‘Shall we do away with armament?’ but ‘How much armament?’"

The interviewer referred to the preliminary conversations between the British prime minister and President Hoover as "an event of great historical importance," and went on to say:

"It is a harbinger of international understanding and good will. It has brought the English-speaking peoples together as never before and shown them that in sentiment, friendship, respect and good will they are united."

Shaw exploded:

"Do you really believe that?

When the interviewer said, "Why do you say ‘humbug’?," Shaw replied:

"Because, generally speaking, Englishmen and Americans do not like one another. Now they are asked to pretend that they do. And this pretense of being affectionate cousins is as dangerous as poison. Better to confess our dislike — our hatred, if you please — and ask ourselves what it is all about. Then there would be the possibility of ridding ourselves of it."2

The Shavian Probe

      Bernard Shaw’s formula, "Do you really believe that?" is a useful device; but it needs to be generalized into "Do you really mean that?" in order to fit cases involving something other than belief. In this form, it is a useful blunt instrument that deserves a label. I propose to call it the Shavian probe.

      Unfortunately, it won’t always work. No doubt, a journalist who actually thought in terms of bringing nations "together as never before" so that they become "united" in "sentiment, friendship, respect and good will" would be well advised to change his occupation — perhaps to that of a speech writer for presidential candidates. So in the case I have cited, Shaw’s accusation of humbug seems justified.

      But what are we to make of the following episode? On January 25, 1980, Mary McCarthy said, in an interview with Dick Cavett on Public Broadcasting, that Lillian Hellman was "a bad writer, overrated, a dishonest writer." Well, true or false, justified or not, there was no humbug about that. But on being asked by Mr. Cavett what was dishonest about Miss Hellman’s writing, Miss McCarthy continued: "Everything. I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’" Well, did she really believe that one could lie by using the words "and" and "the"? Hardly — unless she was using "lie" in some extraordinary and unusual sense. But no doubt Mary McCarthy was in earnest, and did mean what she said, was using just the words she wanted. That leaves the question of whether McCarthy committed humbug still unsettled: we have to undertake a difficult and controversial evaluation of the speaker’s feeling and attitude.

      According to Miss Hellman’s lawyer, his client may get damages for defamation if she can show that "the person making the allegedly defamatory remarks either knew them to be untrue or uttered them without caring whether they were untrue." A philosophical logician might object that truth, in the sense of conformity with ascertainable matter of fact, is not in point. Yet a writer can be dishonest while saying something that is neither true nor untrue: common sense would regard some caricatures as libelous even if they were uncaptioned. When the lawsuit is ultimately heard, it will be interesting to see how judge and jury will cope with the possibly extenuating effects of context — and with such controversial issues as the applicable legal constraints on emotive or offensive language.

Some Preliminary Comments

      Chekhov’s lady and Shaw’s interviewer provide clear cases of humbug. I think of them as touchstones of usage — paradigm cases. For me, the two examples are cases of humbug if anything is; if you disagree, then your usage of the key word probably differs in certain respects from my own.

      These paradigm cases have some readily discernible features that are worth noting, for future reference in struggles with more controversial examples.

      One reason why "Humbug!" is so offensive an exclamation is that it charges the speaker with some kind of falseness. But in neither of our cases was the speaker be lying. For Chekhov’s lady was not necessarily lying when she said that everything looked and felt "grey" to her: perhaps she used that very word in her private thoughts. Humbug need not entail lying in the strict sense of that word — even though humbug can be akin to outright lying.

      We can usefully distinguish between the speaker’s message, as I shall call it, and his or her stance. By the message I mean whatever is explicitly or implicitly said about the topic in question; while I reserve the term "stance" for the speaker’s beliefs, attitudes, and evaluations, insofar as they are relevant to the verbal episode in question. To illustrate: If you say to me in a confident way, "The plane leaves at four o’clock," you are not saying that you believe what you say, because that is not the topic on which you are supplying information. But of course, by speaking as you do, in a standard situation in which trustworthy information is normally expected, you are giving me reason to believe that you are not deliberately misleading me.

      Similarly, Mary McCarthy, to return to the earlier example, was not saying that she despised the subject of her scathing comments, nor was she overtly claiming to be sincere, but clearly she spoke as one who expected her remarks to be taken as a sincere expression of contempt. (Try saying: "She’s disgusting — but of course I don’t feel disgust." That would be a paradox: we could make some sense of it, but not without hard work.)

      Now, the pejorative implication of a charge of humbug is commonly leveled against the content of a message (a remark or a text) rather than at what I have called the speaker’s stance: then it usually has the force of "Stuff and nonsense," denigrating the message without necessarily imputing falseness or insincerity.3

      Consider the following mini-dialogue:

First speaker: As McLuhan has taught us, the medium is the message.
Second speaker: Humbug!
Here I take the second speaker to be rejecting McLuhan’s absurd slogan, that is, rejecting the substance of what is being said: there need be no imputation about the sincerity of the speaker’s “stance.” For he or she may genuinely regard McLuhan’s widely quoted fragment of pseudo-wisdom as profoundly illuminating. No matter: without impunging a speaker’s stance, we can sometimes condemn what is being said as balderdash, claptrap, rubbish, cliche, hokum, drivel, buncombe, nonsense, gibberish, or tautology. With so rich a vocabulary for dismissing the substance of what is said, we could dispense with this use of "humbug. " That useful word might well be reserved for criticism of a speaker’s stance — to discredit the message’s provenance rather than its content. I shall respect current usage, however, by sometimes using "humbug" in the sense of "piece of humbug."

      What then is the prima facie charge against a speaker accused of humbug? Well, some of the words that immediately suggest themselves are pretense, pretentiousness, affectation, insincerity, and deception. Often there is also a detectable whiff of self-satisfaction and self-complacency: humbug goes well with a smirk. A common symptom is clever-me-ism, as in Jack Horner’s case. In this respect, it resembles cant, which Dr. Johnson memorably defined as "a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms."

      To say that humbug has something to do with insincerity and deception is to point in the right direction, but does not sufficiently identify the word’s meaning. Let us see whether the history of the word’s changing uses can provide a more specific analysis.

A Short History of the Word’s Shifting Meanings

      I used to think that the word "humbug" came into general use in the nineteenth century — possibly because I took the Victorians to be especially prone to hypocrisy. To my surprise, I discovered that its career dates from the middle of the eighteenth century, when it seems to have entered the language as "a piece of fashionable slang" (Century Dictionary) of unknown origins. It may have been used originally in the restricted sense of a false alarm, a hoax, or a practical joke. But its meaning was uncertain even from the start. In 1751 a writer (quoted in the Century Dictionary) complained about it in the following terms:

There is a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which though it has not even the ‘penumbra’ of a meaning yet makes up the sum total of the wit, sense and judgement of the aforesaid people of taste and fashion! [He gives quotations] Humbug is neither an English word nor a derivative from any other language. It is indeed a blackguard sound made use of by most people of distinction! It is a fine make-weight in conversation, and some men deceive themselves so egregiously as to think they mean something by it!
Dr. Johnson did not include the word in his dictionary (1775), possibly because he thought it too coarse or vulgar to be noticed.

      By 1828, the first edition of Webster’s dictionary treated "humbug" as an approximate synonym for "swindle" or "fraud." As a noun, Webster says, it refers to "an imposition under false pretences"; and as a verb it means "to deceive; to impose upon" — or, as we might nowadays say, "to con." So the relatively innocent old sense of a practical joke had made way by then for something more obnoxious.

      An explicit example of this use occurs in The Pickwick Papers, when Mr. Pickwick furiously upbraids Mr. Winkle for pretending to be able to skate:

Mr. Pickwick . . . uttered in a low but distinct and emphatic tone, these remarkable words, —
     "You’re a humbug, sir."
     "A what!" said Mr. Winkle, starting.
     "A humbug, sir. I will speak plainer if you wish. An impostor, sir."
Readers familiar with The Wizard of Oz may remember the unmasking scene, in which the Great Wizard is finally revealed as a timid old man, who confesses to having been making believe.
"I’m supposed to be a Great Wizard."
     "And aren’t you?" [Dorothy] asked.
     "Not a bit of it, my dear; I’m just a common man."
     "You’re more than that," said the Scarecrow, in a grieved tone; "you’re a humbug."

      Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1966 contains the following entries:

for the noun’s head sense, "something designed to deceive and mislead" (with cross-references to QUACKERY, HOAX, FRAUD, and IMPOSTURE);
for the verb, "impose on" (with cross-references to DECEIVE, CAJOLE, and HOAX);
for its application to a humbugger, "a person who usually willfully deceives or misleads others as to his true condition, qualities, or attitudes, one who passes himself off as something that he is not" (with cross-references to SHAM, HYPOCRITE, and IMPOSTOR).
The general impression left by this rather confused set of definitions is of adherence to the strong nineteenth-century equation of a humbug with an impostor or swindler. But that identification fails to reflect present usuage. If a main sense of "humbug" were that of something designed to deceive and mislead, a skillfully constructed wig would have to count as a prime example. If a humbugger is a person who willfully deceives others, then the pseudo-Arabs lately used by the FBI to "sting" congressmen would be properly described as humbugs.4 Something is plainly wrong.

      By relying too much on the entries in earlier editions, the makers of Webster’s Third have overlooked the present dilutions of the old intensely pejorative implications of "humbug." I hope that in the end we can do somewhat better, by considering some further examples of clear cases and test cases.

Russell’s Tirade

      Consider now the following glimpse of the private behavior of a famous philosopher. In a charming book of reminiscences, Rupert Crawshay-Williams tells of accompanying Bertrand Russell on a trip to inspect a house that was being remodeled for Russell’s use. When the two friends arrived, they had to suspend a lively discussion of a new book by the pragmatist F. C. S. Schiller.

      On meeting the builder and the architect, who were awaiting his arrival, Russell at once launched a furious denunciation of their supposed delinquency. He brushed aside their excuses, called the architect a liar, and hardly allowed the others to finish a sentence.

The tirade rolled over them until both of them were left floundering and gasping.
     Russell ended off by demanding a complete change in their future behaviour. He stopped talking and walked smartly out to the car; we got in; I started the engine;
     ‘So Schiller was really making the context of the statement part of its meaning’, said Russell.
      Elizabeth and I were still stunned.
     ‘But Bertie’, we said, ‘you seem quite calm!’
      ‘I am quite calm’, he said. ‘That’s taught them a lesson I think, hasn’t it?’
      ‘We certainly think they were impressed. Do you mean to say’, we asked, ‘that the whole explosion was deliberate and contrived?’
      ‘Yes indeed’, said Russell, ‘it was the only thing to do — the only way of making an effect.’
     ‘Well, I suppose it may work’, I said. ‘But I did think you were being just a little bit unfair at times.’
     ‘Unfair!’ Of course I was being unfair.’5
Crawshay-Williams, reverting to a previous conversation, then said: "There you are . . . it’s what we were saying last night: you’re an aristocrat, and I’m merely a gentleman." Fair comment, although a proper English gentleman may not call himself a gentleman, except ironically.

Ghotbzadeh’s Indignation

      At the end of January 1980, the Canadian government announced the escape of six American diplomats who had been sheltered in the Canadian embassy in Teheran.

      According to the news reports, one of the so-called embassy militants responded by crying, "That’s illegal! That’s illegal!" When the Iranian foreign minister, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, later met reporters, he took the same line, calling the secret operation a "flagrant violation" of international law.

"’They have violated the laws they claim to defend,’ Mr. Ghotbzadeh said of the Canadians. He denounced ‘so-called international laws’ as having been made only ‘for the suppression of the small nations by the big ones.’"6
To this egregious nonsense Ghotbzadeh added a veiled incitement to violence — "Canada will pay" and "Everybody is free to do whatever they want" — apparently intending "an open invitation to Iranians around the world to take action against Canada or Canadians"; also an allegation that he must have known to be a lie, to the effect that he had received an apology from the Canadian prime minister, with an accompanying explanation that "the action had been for political reasons in Canada" (both immediately denied by Joe Clark).

      In this farrago, I am particularly interested for present purposes in the role played by what is surely a prime case of humbug, the implicit presentation of the speaker (what I have previously called his "stance") as one who, himself respecting international law, is therefore entitled to complain of an alleged violation. Ghotbzadeh’s own explicit denunciation of "so-called international law" merely adds to the confusion of what an editorial in the New York Times called his "flagrant logic."

Emerson’s Friendship

      Ralph Waldo Emerson says the following about friendship, in his celebrated essay with that title:

The moment we indulge our affections, the earth is metamorphosed: there is no winter and no night: all tragedies, all ennuis vanish, — all duties even; nothing fills the proceeding eternity but the forms all radiant of beloved persons. Let the soul be assured that somewhere in the universe it should rejoin its friend, and it would be content and cheerful alone for a thousand years.7
4 Well, all of us have sometimes been kept waiting for a good friend, but a delay of a thousand years is, as the English say, a bit much. But Emerson is relentlessly enthusiastic about friendship:
Happy is the house that shelters a friend! It might well be built, like a festal bower or arch, to entertain him a single day. Happier, if he know the solemnity of that relation and honor its law! It is no idle bond, no holiday engagement. He who offers himself a candidate for that covenant comes up, like an olympian, to the great games where the first-born of the world are the competitors. He proposes himself for contest where Time, Want, Danger, are in the lists, and he alone is victor who has truth enough in his constitution to preserve the delicacy of his beauty from the wear and tear of all these.8
Surely there is something suspicious about this exaggerated rhapsodizing. Indeed, the very last paragraph of the essay suggests that Emerson might really have preferred the kind of friend that need never be met:
It has seemed to me lately more possible than I knew, to carry a friendship greatly on one side, without due correspondence on the other. Why should I cumber myself with the poor fact that the receiver is not capacious? It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain unto ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet. Let your greatness educate the crude and cold companion. If he is unequal he will presently pass away; but thou art enlarged by thy own shining, and no longer a mate for frogs and worms, dost soar and burn with the gods of empyrean.9

      "It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain"; "thou art enlarged by thy own shining." Enlarged or puffed up? Emerson sometimes reminds me of Mr. Pecksniff, who is described on his first appearance in Martin Chuzzlewit as "a moral man, a grave man, a man of noble sentiments, and speech." Dickens says of him (in connection with his calling his daughter Mercy a "playful warbler"):

"Playful — playful warbler," said Mr. Pecksniff. It may be observed in connexion with his calling his daughter "a warbler," that she was not at all vocal, but that Mr. Pecksniff was in the frequent habit of using any word that occurred to him as having a good sound and rounding a sentence well, without much care for its meaning. And he did this so boldly and in such an imposing manner that he would sometimes stagger the wisest people with his eloquence and make them gasp again.

The Czar’s Vodka

      The back cover (The New Yorker’s issue of January 21, 1980, displays a richly colored photograph captioned "The spirit of the Czar lives on." We see an impressively bearded man, head tossed back, with a smidgeon of a smile, dressed in full regimentals, with scarlet jacket, white sash, and enough medals to start a collection. In one hand he holds a wineglass, with the other he is fondling the neck of a fine borzoi. Meanwhile his czarina, with an equally lavish display of evening dress and jewels, squats on the imperial carpet to play with a couple of borzoi puppies. And the message? This, in part:

It was the Golden Age of Russia, and the Czar reigned supreme. Europe, Asia: all the empire was his. Regal coaches carried him in elegance, but with his Cossacks he rode like thunder. Hunting wild boar in the northern forests, hosting feasts for a thousand guests in the Great Palace, no man could match the Czar’s thirst for life. And his drink? The toast of St. Petersburg. Genuine Vodka.
(I omit the brand me of what I think of as “Humbug Vodka.”)

      It would be a waste of time to criticize this text by asking such questions as why the pseudo-czar is wearing all those medals, and why he "rode like thunder," and whether he really did thirst for life as nobody else could, and what all this has to do with the barely perceptible difference between one vodka and another. We know that good sense and relevance have nothing to do with the case, the desired effect on the impressionable reader being achieved if favorable associations are created.

Zaftig Bedfellows

     Consider now the following item from the "Personal" columns of The New York Review of Books (February 21, 1980):

ZAFTIG FEMALE WANTED. NYC male, 35, editor/author, lean, reasonably good-looking, financially secure. Seeks woman Renoir would have painted, 25-35, with pretty face, stable personality. Excellent opportunity to share museums, movies, affluence, quiet conversations, caring, maybe marriage. NYR, Box 2956.
If you think this hard to beat for vulgarity, listen to the journal’s own puff, on the same page, for its new English affiliate:
AMERICAN INTELLECTUALS too warm and bloody open for you? Prefer treacle in your tarts, not your mail? Tired of being mashed by provincial American bangers? Woo your very own little gooseberry fool abroad merely by running an accurate but winning Personal Ad in the columns of The London Review of Books.
A rare example, this, of puffing a go-between. It might be called pimping for a pimp — or metapimping.

The Cornell Ship

     Ceremonial and political occasions invite humbug. Here is a prime example from the early history of Cornell University:

      On Inauguration Day, October 7, 1868, the new university had so many more students than it could handle that "the department of geology was confined to a single room adjoining the coal cellars, and demonstrations in natural history were conducted in the vacant space next to a furnace." The campus consisted partly of "a ravine six or eight feet deep, bridged by two dirt causeways."10 Against this kind of backdrop, George William Curtis delivered an elaborate address with the following peroration:

Here is our university, our Cornell, like the man-of-war, all its sails set, its rigging full and complete from stem to stern, its crew embarked, its passengers all ready and aboard; and even as I speak to you, even as the autumn sun sets in the west, it begins to glide over the waves as it goes forth rejoicing, every stitch of canvas spread, all its colors flying, its musical bells ringing, its heartstrings beating with hope and joy.11

     "Complete from stem to stern" — and students in the coal cellars! The university’s cofounder and president, Andrew Dickson White, "looking out over the ragged cornfield and the rough pasture land and noticing the unfinished buildings and the piled-up rubbish," felt that no words "could fail more completely to express the reality," and Ezra Cornell confessed that there was "not a single thing finished."12 Curtis, one might say, was operating on the principle of "Take care of the sounds and the nonsense will take care of itself." The sentiments were appropriately edifying, and the elaborately studied and rehearsed phrasing evoked the expected applause.

Academic Humbug (Veblen)

      Any survey of the varieties of humbug should include specimens of the pretentious verbiage that infests scholarly writing. I reproduce the following from Thorstein Veblen’s book The Theory of the Leisure Class (part only of an extraordinarily long paragraph) for the pleasure of resuscitating H. L. Mencken’s commentary on it.

In an increasing proportion as time goes on, the anthropomorphic cult, with its code of devout observances, suffers a progressive disintegration through the stress of economic exigencies and the decay of the system of status. As this disintegration proceeds, there come to be associated and blended with the devout attitude certain other motives and impulses that are not always of an anthropomorphic origin, nor traceable to the habit of personal subservience.

Not all of these subsidiary impulses that blend with the bait of devoutness in the later devotional life are altogether congruous with the devout attitude or with the anthropomorphic apprehension of sequence of phenomena. Their origin being not the same, their action upon the scheme of devout life is also not in the same direction. In many ways they traverse the underlying norm of subservience of vicarious life to which the code of devout observances and the ecclesiastical and sacerdotal institutions are to be traced as their substantial basis.13

      Here we have garrulity laced with jargon. Mencken says that Veblen "achieves the effect, perhaps without employing the means, of thinking in some unearthly foreign language — say Swahili, Sumerian or Old Bulgarian — and then painfully clawing his thoughts into a copious but uncertain and book-learned English." As to the long passage he quotes, Mencken concludes that Veblen is trying to say "that many people go to church, not because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the music, and like to look at the stained glass, the potted lilies and the rev. pastor." Mencken says that "this highly profound and highly original observation" might have been made on a postage stamp, thereby saving a good deal of wasted paper.14

Misfires and Violations

      With these varied examples of ostensible humbug before us, we can ask what it is about such episodes that inclines us to regard all of them, in spite of their obvious differences, as instances of the same complex phenomenon. Do we mean the same thing each time, or are we perhaps applying the pejorative label to cases connected only by shifting similarities, rather than by the presence of some detectable common property?

      Let us first recall the great amount and variety of information normally transmitted in even the simplest and most familiar kind of conversation. Suppose the driver of a stationary automobile asks me the way to, say, Route 13. I would normally take for granted much concerning the speaker’s situation and competence that is unsaid, indeed much that would mark the episode as perplexing if it were said: for instance, that the driver wants to get to the highway in question, that he is en route to some other destination, and that he doesn’t know how to proceed. Also, on the evidence of his question, that he is a native English speaker who knows what he is saying and hasn’t made a slip of the tongue. Correspondingly, I assume that he himself is making parallel assumptions about my own understanding of his problem and willingness to help. (I shall ignore any further information possibly conveyed by signs of anxiety, distress, and the like.)

      I propose to speak in such cases of the framing presuppositions of the initiated verbal transaction — or, more briefly, of the conversation’s framework. Establishing the framework — an operation so commonplace that we normally fail to notice it — determines the character of the initiated conversation in a way that is crucially important for the possibility of a successful outcome. (Of course much talk has little discernible purpose, amounting to no more than friendly chatter or cocktail-party babble.)

     The centrality of the role played by what I have called the conversation’s framework can be highlighted by cases of willful falsification of the presupposed understandings. Suppose that on being asked by a stranger, "Do you know the way to the campus from here?" I simply reply, "Yes." That will probably get me a look of resentful incomprehension, especially if I respond to the further question "Would you like to tell me how to get there?" by saying, "No." Please notice that, far from lying, I may be literally — yet quite inappropriately — telling the truth. In such a case I would of course be willfully violating the conditions that normally enable the kind of conversational exchange in question to proceed. No doubt I would be resentfully regarded as "trying to be funny." If I then suffer a change of heart, pursue the departing stranger, and, having caught up with him, say, "Would you like me to tell you the way?" he may play the same down-putting game by saying, "No!"

      I shall now contrast two different kinds of ways in which intended exchange of information may fail. The first type of case, which I shall call a misfire, results from ignorance or incompetence on the respondent’s part: I might mishear the number of the highway in question, or get the number right but not know how to get there, or I might even be suffering from some painful personal anxiety that made me unable to help. In the absence of such impediments I might be simply inept in giving intelligible and useful instructions. Such misfires — or as our president recently called them, in his usual euphemistic mode when caught blundering, "failures of communication" — are sufficiently common to induce caution in relying on testimony or authority, however generally reliable and useful. But the risk of misfire is no ground for radical skepticism about the feasibility of successful communication in relatively unproblematic cases. If one stranger doesn’t know the way, perhaps another does; if some passer-by is too stupid to understand my problem or too selfish to help, perhaps another will.

      Far more serious than such occasional hitches in communication (“misfires,” in my terminology) are breakdowns in communicative interaction induced by deliberate falsifications of the constitutive framework. To start with relatively innocuous but still potentially pernicious abuses of this sort: a prankster might perversely pretend not to understand the motorist’s question, or pretend to be unable to speak (pointing meaningfully at his own throat), or even deliberately act as if he were a lunatic. (The case I previously considered of an absurdly literal interpretation of a polite formula would also fall under this heading.) In such a case I propose to speak of a violation of the standard framework. Violations, unlike misfires, are not the predictable and excusable consequences of human ignorance or incompetence. They maliciously trade on and undermine the implicit understandings that underpin successful communication and cooperation, and hence erode the foundations of social existence. (Imagine a society in which joking was so common that one could never be certain whether communications were serious or maliciously disruptive.) Violations of the understandings that sustain communication must be regarded as perversions of verbal interaction, animated by deliberate deceit.

How Humbug Differs from Lying

      We have already seen that violations of the communicative framework need not consist in the utterance of falsehoods. If I reply on the telephone to the question "Have you got any sausages today?" by saying, "No," and continue in the same vein, saying that I won’t have any in the foreseeable future, and the like, everything I say may be literally true, but I shall deceive the other as if I were deliberately lying. As William Blake said (in Auguries of Innocence):

A truth that’s told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent.
There is good reason, however, to regard conscious and deliberate falsity — what Immanuel Kant calls "intentional untruthful declaration" — as having primary theoretical importance. Sissela Bok, in her valuable book Lying, is following a long-established tradition when she confines her discussion to explicit lying, defined as the production of an utterance expressing what the speaker disbelieves.15 Let us call such an utterance, with acknowledgment to Shakespeare, the lie direct. Until further notice, when I speak of lying I shall mean the utterance, as if believed, of an assertion disbelieved by the utterer.

      Moralists have long regarded brazen lying (the deliberate assertion of "the thing that is not," or at least "the thing thought to be not") as meriting the severest reprobation. Montaigne said,

"Lying is indeed an accursed vice. We are human beings, and hold together only by speech. If we knew the horror of it, and the gravity, we should pursue it with fire, and more justly so than other crimes."16
In such statements as this, lying is regarded as a cardinal vice, an unforgivable sin against humanity. Such a view led Immanuel Kant to claim — implausibly, I think — that we have an absolute duty not to lie, even when a truthful reply would lead an intending murderer to his victim. If this rigoristic condemnation of lying and the corresponding elevation of truthfulness to a supreme virtue were justified, it would be hard to understand the absence of references to lying in the Ten Commandments (except in the special prohibition against "bearing false witness") or in other religious compendia of vices and virtues.

      Traditional defenses of such rigor are unconvincing. Kant, like other writers on the subject, notices the damage inflicted on the liar himself, but reserves his most earnest condemnation for the damage inflicted by a lie on all humankind. But as much can be said about all vice: every criminal injury to an individual also damages the moral fabric of society. Nor is a lie the worst injury: violence and willful cruelty may be regarded as at least equally damaging to the moral character of the perpetrator and as a violation of general obligations needed for social life.

      A plausible justification of the prominence assigned to the vice of lying is suggested by a gloss of Montaigne’s contention that as human beings "we . . . hold together only by speech." It is obvious that children could not learn to speak if they were reared only by adults who lied to them irresponsibly and at random. For in such an environment a child could not even learn the common names of familiar objects. Closely connected with this point is the familiar observation that the liar is parasitic on general, though not universal, veracity: lying, as a species of deceit, would be futile in the absence of general efforts to be truthful. It seems reasonable to conclude that a liar is, in a radical way, sapping the foundations of social institutions, all of which depend on the general effectiveness of speech. The liar is indeed an enemy of society, who tends to undermine all possibility of civilized intercourse. Universal lying would destroy intelligible speech.

      Still, an endorsement of Montaigne’s emphasis on the gravity of shamelessly explicit lying needs some supplementation, if it is not to be misleadingly one-sided. The immediate harm done by a successful lie direct — the deceitful generation of a false belief by concealed violation of the standard framework — can often be achieved more efficiently, and with less fear of detection or reprisal, by indirect means. One can intimate "the thing that is not" by implication, by significant silence, or even by the double bluff of pretending to lie while actually speaking the truth (as in the classical Minsk-Pinsk joke). (The annals of espionage are a rich source for this kind of deception.) Such maneuvers, a standard resource of advertising and diplomacy, are secure against the accusation of explicit and knowing mendacity: the offender can always plead that he didn’t literally say anything that he himself disbelieved. Given the prevalence and effectiveness of such indirect ways of achieving the disreputable benefits of lying, it is surprising that we have no better label for indirect verbal deception than the lawyer’s tag of suggestio falsi. We might perhaps speak in such cases of virtual lying. (Webster defines the relevant sense of "virtual" as "being functionally or effectively but formally not of its kind.")

      With virtual lying, we are at last in the close neighborhood of the kind of humbug that "functionally or effectively" implants false belief. For in such cases there is characteristically a conscious discrepancy between the utterer’s beliefs and the false beliefs to be implanted. Such cases cannot properly be regarded as cases of outright lying, but are all the more pernicious for that reason. The person who composed the vodka advertisement probably believed that the drink he was puffing was virtually indistinguishable in taste and sedative power from any of the competing brands on the market. In eschewing direct lies or even, for the most part, virtual lies for which he might be accountable, he was relying on the powerful forces of suggestion and association — with all the flummery of the czar’s legendary court and so on — to implant what would have been a naked lie if it had been explicitly stated. The difference between such cases of humbugging deception and outright or even virtual lying is not in the content of the communicated message, or in the intention to deceive by implanting false beliefs, but rather in the sophistication of the means used to achieve the purpose.

      The continuities between explicit lying, virtual lying, and what I now propose to call falsidical humbug (I borrow the term "falsidical" from W. V. Quine) have tempted many writers to regard the conventional distinction between lying and humbug as superficial and ultimately misleading. Indeed, some writers will assimilate to lying even relatively harmless efforts to make a good public showing.

      Thus Adrienne Rich, in her notes on lying, says:

"We have expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, to pluck eyebrows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasized our helplessness."17
(One supporting myth regards only nudity as genuinely natural and "truthful," all concealment or clothing being counted as hypocritical.)

      The tendency here illustrated to convert similarities into supposedly profound underlying identities (dressing and personal adornment as "really" the same thing as lying) is a constant temptation for philosophically inclined scholars in search of excitingly paradoxical insight.

      For a splendid example one might turn to George Steiner and his startling rediscovery of "the creativity of falsehood," which he characterizes as "a seminal, profound intuition" of the Greeks.18

Linguists and psychologists (Nietzsche excepted) have done little to explore the ubiquitous, many-branched genus of lies. . . . Constrained as they are by moral disapproval or psychological malaise, these inquiries have remained thin. We will see deeper only when we break free of a purely negative classification of ‘untruth’, only when we recognize the compulsion to say ‘the thing which is not’ as being central to language and mind. We must come to grasp what Nietzsche meant when he proclaimed that ‘the Lie — and not the Truth is divine!’19
Steiner quotes Nietzsche again, approvingly, as saying, in The Will to Power:
"There is only one world . . . and that world is false, cruel, contradictory, misleading, senseless. . . . We need lies to vanquish this reality, this truth, we need lies in order to live. Steiner seems himself to endorse the view that "lying is a necessity of life" by which "man violates an absurd confining reality" in a way that "is at every point artistic [and] creative."20

      This confused and shoddy defense of lying is what Jeremy Bentham would have called "nonsense on stilts." Steiner here seems to be emulating that kind of German metaphysician than whom, according to Carlyle, none could dive deeper or emerge muddier. It is a prime example of the kind of academic or scholarly humbug that consists of saying more than you can reasonably mean, for the sake of the booming sound of your periods (what the older rhetoricians called "bomphoiologia"). If you fail to make the distinctions that I have been proposing between plain lying, virtual lying, pretentious inflation of belief, and so on, proceeding so far, in Steiner’s case, as to regard hypothetical if-then statements as cases of lying, you will end with a conceptual gruel in which everything looks like everything else and all intellectual distinctions have vanished in the service of grandiose obfuscation.

      Still, a decent respect for the conceptual distinctions between plain and fancy lying and the allied but distinguishable varieties of deceptive humbug, such as I am here advocating, leaves as yet undiscussed the question of relative harm. The subversive effects of the brazen liar in undermining the foundations of linguistic institutions might be compared to outrageous violations of the constitutive bases of other institutions. There is something peculiarly monstrous about a judge who accepts bribes, a farmer who adds poison to his corn, or a doctor who infects patients in order to ensure a steady income. Yet the adulteration of food, to stay with that example, may, in the not very long run, be even more harmful than outright poisoning. The most serious indictment of falsidical humbug is that, without directly striking at the roots of linguistic institutions, it tends progressively to adulterate speech and thought. As a recent writer has well said,

[The] "distortion of values, this insidious numbing of what we once knew without question as true or false, can be blamed, in part, on the language we hear and read every day and night."21

The Complexities of Self-Deception

      When humbuggers say what they themselves disbelieve, evading the risks of lying while reaping its benefits, the gross discrepancy between utterance and actual belief (the speaker’s stance) can sometimes be established beyond all reasonable doubt. If the perpetrator rebuffs the Shavian probe — "Do you really believe that?" — by insisting that he or she really did believe it, bolstering the original humbug by a brazen lie, perhaps tone, facial expression, or actions will expose the fraud. I call such conscious deception first-order humbug.

      Humbug is often less obvious and forthright. Suppose a college student told Vladimir Nabokov that he was the greatest writer since Gogol (an imaginary but plausible episode). Any eavesdropper who knew the student’s shaky standing in Nabokov’s course on Russian literature might question the flatterer’s sincerity; but how is the imputed bad faith to be established against reiterated protestations of sincerity? If we suppose the flatterer to be subjectively honest, we might still impute self-deception. If so, we shall have a good example of a self-humbugged humbugger producing what I shall call second-order humbug.

      Although self-deception is perhaps as common as lying, there is a difficulty in understanding how it can possibly occur. Consider the conditions for successful deception of one person by another. If somebody else is to be successfully deceived, what I say must seem initially plausible and my assertion of it must provide some reason for the other’s acceptance. Hence my own disbelief must be concealed. Should any of these conditions be violated, the attempted deceit will fail: if you say that you are the illegitimate son of the monarch, as one of the British spies used to do, your hearer will probably think that you must be joking (the intended effect); if you show by a wink that you don’t believe what you say, your hearer will not succumb to the intended deception. The deceptive appearance must masquerade as reality.

      How can one hide one’s own disbelief in an intended act of private deception? Is it not absurd to say to oneself, "I don’t believe such-and-such and yet I am going to believe it?" One cannot be an authority for oneself, and nothing that I know that I disbelieve can be a reason for me to believe it. And how can I fail to know my own disbelief? Ivy Compton-Burnett once said in an interview, "I don’t think there is such a thing as self-deception. When people say they do things unconsciously and sub­consciously, I am quite sure they do them consciously."22

     The following argument for the impossibility of self-deception seems to be conclusive: Humbug requires concealment of a deceptive intent; but if the speaker and the audience are identical, as in soliloquy, there can be no such concealment; so there can be no such thing as self-deception.

      One might respond by pointing to clear cases of what we call self-deception — as when a woman shows by words and actions that she still believes in her son’s survival, although she possesses proof of his death in battle. Anybody persuaded by the impossibility argument would presumably retort that what happens in such an instance is misdescribed as deception and ought properly to be called something else. But this would amount to an arbitrary change in language, motivated by nothing better than obstinate defense of a dubious argument.

      The impossibility argument is underpinned by the following conceptions: "Either you know that you believe what you say or else you don’t. And in either case you can’t be mistaken." Knowledge of one’s own belief is immediately accessible; and there is no middle term between belief and disbelief. Both contentions are wrong: knowing one’s momentary belief is not, like a sneeze, a hit-or-miss affair; and various degrees of awareness may be involved.

      Consider the following typical example. Before meeting my doctor to hear the latest report on some chronic affliction, I resolve to take a cheerful view. Then, while the doctor talks, I withdraw attention from, blank out, anything that begins to sound like bad news, while attending closely to encouraging remarks. In this way I end by genuinely believing a comfortable but wrong conclusion, based on deliberately selected and distorted evidence. When I close my ears in this way against a sentence that starts "Unfortunately your blood pressure . . ." so that I barely hear the rest of the sentence, do I know what the doctor says? Do I believe what he says? Am I aware of using a strategy of selective attention in support of a predetermined verdict? In each case the answer has to be "Yes and no."

      Do I hear the bad news about the blood pressure? Unless I am an unusually talented self-deceiver, I probably do — as shown by the fact that I may reluctantly be able to dredge it up into full consciousness later. But the censored news is relegated to the back of my mind; I know it as I know that I am writing a letter when I am attending to something other than the act of writing. One might say that I have twilight awareness of the suppressed material. (There is no need yet to invoke the unconscious.) Do I believe what I hear in this twilight way? Again, yes and no. Yes, because unless I do believe it, on my doctor’s unquestioned authority, I have no need to suppress it; no, since I manage to prevent the very question of belief from rising into full consciousness. Parallel verdicts apply to the overall program of selective attention and wishful distortion that I execute. I know what I am doing as I know that I am walking even while I am thinking about something else; but having a normal distaste for distortion of evidence, I need to mask my disreputable strategy.

      The foregoing analysis of what might be called, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s terminology, "bad faith" (mauvaise foi) seems to fit the most familiar cases of self-deception. But it does not fit severe cases of the repression of unwelcome thoughts or tidings, where the strategy of selective attention and rejection can induce neurotic symptoms. Yet it does fit such testimony as the following, from a recent discussion of obesity: "Even while on a binge [of gobbling] one vows to start a diet tomorrow and emerge from it miraculously transformed."23

      A further feature of the process of selective attention and repression of unwelcome input in the service of what might be called wishful acceptance deserves notice. In brushing aside the bad news of which he is at least partly aware, the self-deceiver makes the welcome good news part of his consciousness, part of himself, as it were, while doing his best to pretend that what he partly hears and would like to forget simply has not happened. But it has happened and he knows that it has. So there is a kind of dissociation at work, as in the familiar cases of motives that are suppressed as unworthy. So long as the self-deceiver is in the initial stages of the process sketched above, he has a "divided self," a state of strain that is disagreeable to all but accomplished hypocrites.

      The constant practice of self-deception may produce a character that cheats as effortlessly as a bird sings: the mask eventually becomes ingrown, fits the face as closely as a death mask. Exposure of such inveterate self-deception is difficult, since it requires a critical judgment of a whole way of life. When we are coping with confirmed hypocrisy rather than momentary self-deception, a verdict of humbug seems euphemistic.

      Yet the exposure of episodic self-deception is sometimes both practicable and useful. Second-order humbug can sometimes be detected even if the producer is unshakably convinced of subjective honesty and sincerity. It would itself be an act of humbug, however, to suppose that the critic can pride himself on being free of self-deception. Selective and differential attention, repression, and dissociation are features of all perception and thought. And even wishful acceptance is not necessarily reprehensible when it leads to beneficial results, at least in the short run. Should we denigrate the wishful belief that one is going to win a contest when self-verifying predictions are involved?

Is Humbug Ineradicable?

      Ought implies can, say the moralists. So before considering antihumbug remedies, we ought first to hear the vehement objections of those who consider such a project dangerously quixotic because, as one writer has put it, "deception is an inevitable aspect of human action." That quotation comes from a critical review of Sissela Bok’s book on lying — the only adverse notice of the book that I have come upon — by David Bazelon.24

      Bazelon reproaches Bok for exclusive attention to outright and explicit lying — which he regards as a "disastrous" limitation — and he heartily dislikes her recommended maxim that "no one should lie except on the rarest occasions." Bazelon thinks such concentration on the impracticable "best" will "unavoidably assure that lesser forms of deception will be used more frequently, accompanied by a greater sense of virtue." He himself (a "lumper" rather than a "splitter") wants attention to be paid to "the phenomenon of deception in full, rich context." Lying should always be regarded, he claims, as "the major form of modern power," short of actual violence, and hence "an actual or potential aspect of all action involving two or more people." Convinced as Bazelon is, then, of the ubiquity and inevitability of lying as an exercise of power over the deceived, he ends with the following remark and conclusion:

"Once the ubiquity of deception is appreciated, and also its central relation to power, the need of power to achieve one’s purpose, the issue clearly becomes — which lie to tell, when, to whom, and for how long."

      Since Bazelon is operating with so broad and comprehensive a definition of lying as a mode of deception, his argument, if sound, ought to apply equally well to humbug. No doubt Bazelon would say: The only sensible questions are how to humbug, when, to whom, and for how long. This conclusion might appeal to anybody impressed by the prevalence of humbug; but before succumbing to its attractive cynicism, we ought to notice that the implied argument is invalid.

      Think of parallel reflections about, say, dirt or infection: to the effect that since perfect cleanliness is a chimera, the only questions sufficiently practical to be worth considering are how much dirt to tolerate and in which circumstances. As a correction to an impracticable perfectionism, the position is acceptable. But surely indefensible is the suggestion that there is no harm in dirt, or that nothing needs to be done about it. It would be a gross example of the fallacy, for which there is no special label, of arguing from ideal impracticability to permissive laissez-faire.

      We need not be committed to the Utopian project of a society completely free from humbug in order to hold, as I do, that the evil should be combated to the best of our ability. Humbug may well be as ineradicable as degeneration and death, but that is a poor reason for indifference or complacency.

Coping with Humbug

      I shall now try to keep my original promise to say something useful about how to cope with humbug. I hope you will agree that while humbug has the short-term advantages of devious hypocrisy over naked felony, it is indeed an insidious and detestable evil.

      In order to cope with humbug we need, of course, to be sensitive to its occurrence. One soon develops a nose for it. Indeed, there is a danger of becoming tiresomely overzealous in its exposure.

      For short-term remedies, I recommend first the ploy that I earlier called the “Shavian probe” — the deliberately naive and rather impolite challenges expressed by the questions "Do you really believe that?" and "Do you really mean that?" (If the answer is yes, one might then use one of G. E. Moore’s favorite expressions: "How extraordinary!") A more elaborate maneuver is to take the humbugging formula literally in order to reveal its latent exaggerations and absurdities. Thus if somebody solemnly delivers the shoddy bit of proverbial wisdom that "the exception proves the rule," one might trump it by saying, "Quite so. The more exceptions, the better the rule!" But a more useful therapy is to translate humbug into plain and clear English. Such translation is especially effective in coping with learned humbug. (The abuse involved is a kind of converse of the emperor’s clothes — too many clothes and no emperor.) Strongly to be recommended also are humor, parody, and satire. (The glorious response, for instance, of the philosopher Samuel Alexander, in his deaf old age, shaking his ear trumpet with laughter on being introduced to a Harvard professor: "I must be getting very deaf — I thought you said he was a professor of business ethics!") Required reading might well include Flaubert’s dictionary of received opinions,25 Frank Sullivan’s interviews with Mr. Arbuthnot, the cliche expert,26 and some of the splendid parodies of Russell Baker.27

      Fortunately, literature provides wonderful portraits and caricatures of accomplished humbugs — Dickens’ Pecksniff, Uriah Heep, Podsnap, and many more; Moliere’s Tartuffe and Alceste; and the confidence men of Herman Melville and Thomas Mann. And much can be learned from a long line of exemplary anti-humbuggers, among whom I include Dr. Johnson, Samuel Butler, Sydney Smith, Anton Chekhov, George Orwell, Vladimer Nabokov, E. B. White, and Adlai Stevenson.


      It would be satisfying to be able to end with some concise and accurate definition. The best I can now provide is the following formula:

HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.
This definition covers only first-degree humbug. For second-degree humbug, produced by a self-deluded speaker or thinker, the unsatisfactory reference to thoughts and so on would need to be replaced by something like "thoughts . . . that might be revealed by candid and rational self-examination." I must leave the problems concealed in this all too brief formulation for another occasion.

      Plenty of work remains to be done. For, as Miss Mowcher liked to say: "What a world of gammon and spinnage it is!" and "What a refreshing set of humbugs we are, to be sure!"28


1. Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Andreev (New York, 1959), p. 79.

2. The Mentor (Springfield, O.) 18 (1930): 16.

3. Of course, criticism of the substance of a remark will often imply censure of its producer. When Scrooge, in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, responded to his nephew’s cheerful greeting of “Merry Christmas!” with the unforgettably scornful “Bah! Humbug!” he reinforced his disgust by the rhetorical question “[W]hat right have you to be merry? what reason have you to be merry?” A little later he said: “If I could work my will, . . . every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Similarly, in the wonderful first chapter of The Pickwick Papers, Mr. Blotton (the haberdasher from Aldgate), in calling Mr. Pickwick a humbug, plainly intended a personal insult, later expunged by the frank declaration “that, personally, he entertained the highest regard and esteem for the honorable gentleman; he merely considered him a humbug in a Pickwickian point of view” (another tantalizing glimpse of our elusive quarry).

4. The point is well made in the second chapter of P. T. Barnum’s Humbugs of the World (New York, 1866), the only book, to my knowledge, devoted to examination of humbug and its practitioners. He there says: “[A]s generally understood, ‘humbug’ consists in putting on glittering appearances — outside show — novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear” (p. 20); and “An honest man who thus arrests public attention will be called a ‘humbug,’ but he is not a swindler or an impostor” (p. 21). Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-91), often called the Prince of Humbugs, deserves to be better remembered than as the co-founder of the Barnum & Bailey circus. An international celebrity in his day, a favorite of Queen Victoria and a friend of Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, and Thackeray, he was an honest and harmless humbug, a magnificent advertiser, showman, and entertainer. Fortunately, his extraordinary career can now be enjoyably followed in Neil Harris’ fine biography, Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (Boston, 1973).

5. Rupert Crawshay-Williams, Russell Remembered (London, 1970), pp. 18-19.

6. New York Times, January 31, 1980, p. Aio.

7. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (New York, 1926), p. 139.

8. Ibid., p. 145.

9. Ibid., p. 146.

10. Carl L. Becker, Cornell University: Founders and the Founding (Ithaca, N.Y., 1944), pp. 132, 134.

11. Ibid., p. 135.

12. Ibid.

13. The opening section of the first paragraph of chap. 12 of Veblen’s book, quoted from H. L. Mencken, Prejudices: First Series (New York, 1919), pp. 67-68.

14. Ibid., pp. 66-67, 69.

15. Sissela Bok, Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (New York, 1978), p. 14.

16. From the essay “Of Liars,” in The Essays of Montaigne, trans. E. J. Trechmann (New York, 1946), I:30.

17. Adrienne Rich, “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose (New York, 1979), p. 188; my italics.

18. George Steiner, After Babel (New York, 1975), p. 220.

19. Ibid., pp. 221-22.

20. Ibid., p. 227.

21. M. F. K. Fisher, “As the Lingo Languishes,” in The State of the Language, ed. L. Michaels and C. Ricks (Berkeley, 1980), p. 270.

22. Kay Dick, Ivy and Stevie (London, 1971), p. 10.

23. Sylvia Robinow, review of Marcia Millman, Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, in New Republic, April 12, 1980, p. 35.

24. Times Literary Supplement, August n, 1978, pp. 908-10.

25. Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, trans, and ed. Jacques Barzun (Norfolk, Conn., 1954).

26. See, for instance, the fine examples collected in George Oppenheimer, Well, There’s No Harm in Laughing (Garden City, N.Y., 1970), formerly titled Frank Sullivan through the Looking Glass.

27. Russell Baker, So This Is Depravity (New York, 1980).

28. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, chap. 20.

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.

Six Kinds of Bullshit

I wrote that there are six areas which one can find things which are unacceptable, i.e., which are  “bullshit.”  Expressed in neutral terms, they are —  without being exhaustive — the following:

1. Appraise importance, relevancy, and genuineness.

2. Appraise the truth value: factual falsity or logical inconsistency.

3. Appraise the worth of an argument.

4. Appraise the worth of an excuse or justification.

5. Appraise the meaningfulness of a piece of prose.

6. Appraise actions, practices, and institutions.

Let me illustrate each of these.

1.  What is and what isn’t important is, of course, relative to our goals and interests.  And since our goals and interests vary, so will the importance and relevancy of the means to achieve these goals.  But let’s be realistic. To do anything, you have to be alive and healthy; so, staying alive and healthy has an importance and priority over other goals and interests.  Now, consider a person who has to be self-sufficient — as an extreme, consider a person stranded on an island.  He can stay alive and healthy by using the resources available to him on the island.  What is important and relevant in his case is survival techniques, the sort Boy Scouts learn and Bear Grylls exhibits.  The city-dweller, by contrast, can buy everything he needs and desires, if he has the money. So, it is important for him to get money — to make a living.  

2.  To make his way either on the island or in the city, a person has to have knowledge, and knowledge is of the what is true.  If he is living in fictions, he will not survive either on the island or in the city. Take note of what Bear Grylls knows, and also knows how to do.

3.  Many things are known indirectly, either by hearsay, by induction, and by deduction — by circumstantial evidence, as lawyers say.  You should be able to judge accurately the worth of each.  If you don’t, you may wind up with fictions — with falsehoods. Since almost everything we know about the changing world comes by way of the news and editorials, it is important to have a keen sense of bullshit detection.

4.  People you rely on may not pan out.  And when confronted, they will offer a justification or an excuse for why they failed.  Some excuses may be genuine; others, not.  Can you distinguish between a genuine person and a bullshitter?   

5. I can’t tell you how many times I listened to lectures or tried reading articles and books, without being able to understand.  At first, I put the onus on myself, thinking that I was not familiar enough with the topic, or did not have a clear command of the English language, or that the topic was, as they say, “too deep” for me.  As I grew older, and more read, I realized that now I could make a distinction between what was intrinsically incomprehensible (or relatively so), and where I lacked the background knowledge.  There are such things as nonsense or meaningless sentences, contradictions, and a whole slew of unclarities due to ambiguity, vagueness, sloppy sentence constructions, highfalutin language, pomposity, needless verbiage and double talk.

6.  As to human institutions, this is like a garbage heap.  There are superstitions, religions, pseudo-science, stereotypes, prejudices, but most importantly bad political institutions, which control the nature of economics, i.e., the way one survives.  Here there is a division between those who want to preserve the status quo — the Conservatives or the Right; and those who want to change things for the benefit of the common people — the Left.  The conservatives are those who are successful in their economic status, or who have religious tribal allegiance. The left are mostly teachers and writers, but also those who are not economically successful.  Conservative like capitalism; leftists do not.

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.


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 “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:

  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.


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.