On Bullshit

It’s been only a few days ago that I came across this seminal paper: “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt (via ribbonfarm, a constant source of inspiration!). Please, let me suggest you read the following quote (emphasis added), and I’ll share something with you (below):

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.

Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times. There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before, but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact that it is currently so great.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, (…)

Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.

The essay(1) was originally published in the Raritan Quarterly Review journal in 1986! i.e. more than 30 years ago, but I think it could have been written yesterday.

Interestingly, and following the author, bullshit seems to be growing in parallel with communication. The more we speak, the more likely we will eventually end up bullshitting.

Bullshit unveils a mind overwhelmed by complexity.


(1) Frankfurt, Harry G. “On Bullshit, Raritan Quarterly Review, Volume 06 Number 2”. Raritan Quarterly Review.

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