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The Weaponization of Bullshit

by Neil Levy

It’s not often that philosophers come to broader public attention, but Harry Frankfurt managed it with his 2005 book On Bullshit. The book made the best-seller lists and led to a Daily Show appearance. On Bullshit had a more recent resurgence with the advent of the Trump presidency, as people sought to understand the Trump phenomenon and make sense of his constant stream of garbage.

Trump seemed to embody Frankfurtian bullshit. According to Frankfurt, bullshit is distinguished from lying centrally by the intention of the bullshitter. The liar wants you to believe something that is false; the bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth either way. The bullshitter may not know whether what they’re saying is true or false, and sometimes it will in fact be true. It’s indifference to truth, not deceptiveness, that is characteristic of bullshit, according to Frankfurt.

While Frankfurt’s view has been hugely influential, it’s not the only model of bullshit out there. Interestingly, when psychologists became interested in bullshit they defined it using Frankfurt’s account but operationalized it quite differently. Their paradigms of bullshit were the tweets of Deepak Chopra.  Bullshit, according to Pennycook and his co-authors, consists in assertions that seem meaningful but actually lack content. They measured individual differences in the disposition to find these assertions meaningful. Whereas Frankfurt’s account of bullshit turns on the intentions of producers, this account turns on the content. Obviously, they give different results: Deepak Chopra might care deeply whether what he says is true, and Trump’s bullshit can be quite clear. The psychologists would have done better to cite Gerry Cohen, not Frankfurt: his rival account of bullshit as unclarifiability is what they seem to be after.

So we have two accounts of bullshit already. We don’t need to choose between them: as Cohen himself says, there’s lots of bullshit out there, and it might come in more than one form. In fact, two accounts may not be enough: maybe there’s bullshit that is neither unclarifiable nor produced by those indifferent to the truth.

In On Bullshit, Frankfurt recounts the following story, told by Fania Pascal (who taught Wittgenstein Russian in the 1930s).

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”

Frankfurt cites this as an instance of intolerance for bullshit. According to Frankfurt, Pascal’s complaint was mindless, because she doesn’t know “except in the vaguest way”, how a dog that’s been run over feels. She manifests indifference to truth, and is therefore bullshitting.

I have to say my reaction to this story is rather different. I agree there’s bullshit hereabouts, but it’s not Pascal who’s the source. It’s Wittgenstein who is full of it. The great theorist of language purports to forget how figurative language functions in order to chastise someone. Pascal’s language is perfectly comprehensible. It’s certainly true that she doesn’t convey anything very precise, but how can she reasonably be expected to do better? What was she supposed to do, calibrate a pain scale with Wittgenstein in order to express her pain more precisely? Even if she had done that, she still wouldn’t have conveyed anything like the quality of her experience. She conveyed how she felt as precisely as she could be expect to; instead of sympathy from her friend, she received criticism. It’s not her whose flaws are on display here.

Now, Wittgenstein’s remark was perfectly clear; it’s not Cohen-style bullshit. Nor does it display indifference to the truth. Quite the contrary, it makes a show of his passionate concern for truth. But he’s clearly engaged in bullshit. He’s not engaged in a good faith attempt to communicate anything; rather, he spots an opportunity to use an apparent concern for clarity and truth to draw attention to his supposed virtues. Wittgenstein here engages in what might be seen as the weaponization of bullshit; engaging in bullshit via a display of intolerance for bullshit. This was in fact a characteristically Wittgenstein move, of a piece with his indifference to the harms he caused his disciples via his displays of a concern for morality (this is, it should be noted, a criticism of Wittgenstein the man; while his philosophical work displays some of his personal defects, it’s not apparent that these flaws makes it less valuable as philosophy).

Can we use these remarks to identify a third kind of bullshit, to stand alongside unclarifiability and indifference to the truth? I don’t think it would be very helpful to delineate a category of bullshit consisting in a bad faith concern for bullshit. I doubt it’s a common enough occurrence to warrant such a category. Rather, Wittgenstein’s bullshit is a reminder that nonsensical talk can come in many varieties. It’s also a reminder that sometimes excessive concern for virtue is a stealthy manifestation of vice, a concern that can obscure our vices from others and even from ourselves.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. We should not, especially when it comes to Wittgenstein, read too much into one anecdote, or indeed a selection of anecdotes that have been ‘carefully’ chosen. Wittgenstein was a strange and often prickly character who liked to play games with people’s minds. You are probably right that he was ‘full of bullshit’ and he may well have accepted the description if he had been allowed to explore it.

    The later Wittgenstein was not, as you put it, ‘the great theorist of language’. The early Wittgenstein could be described as a theorist if we forget about propositions like 6.54 and what ‘he’ believed the Tractatus to be about. (1) He believed that the propositions of the Tractatus were nonsense and once understood to be so the propositions are seen to be transitive. But here is certainly not the place to go into Wittgenstein’s nonsense because it has become a major controversy in philosophy. I do, however, believe that the early Wittgenstein did have some interesting insights into what happens when we reach and go beyond the limits of language. He abandoned this approach of what is ‘senseless’ and ‘nonsense’ but still played with nonsense. He may have been playing with it when he appeared to you to ‘weaponize bullshit’. He might have thought – rightly or wrong – that the way to distract his friend when she was in pain would be to immediately engage her in a little philosophical “nonsense”. His use of the word ‘know’ in the context of ‘knowing’ the pain of an animal would have been of interest to him on a number of levels. Indeed, how do we use the word ‘know’ when it comes to our own pain? Pascal says she ‘feels like a dog that has been run over’ which Wittgenstein appears to think would require prior knowledge of a dog’s pain. But, as with bats, ‘knowledge’ of the mental states of animals becomes an interesting philosophical problem and perhaps could be used as a diversion from being ‘in’ pain. Who knows?

    (1) See his Lecture on Ethics. Philosophical Review. 75 (1965). Luckhardt, C. G. (ed.) (1979). Wittgenstein: Sources and Perspectives. Sussex: Harvester Press. Letters to C. K. Ogden with Comments on the English Translation of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. G. H. Von Wright. (ed.) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (1973).

  2. Ah yes, Harry. One of my favorites! Of all time. His little books have cheered me up and calmed me down. And, he does not need reams of ponderous rhetoric to do that. He, like Twain, Rogers and other heroes before them, is a national treasure.

  3. theoutlawbradyhawkesjr

    Since the 80’s (the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney,Canadian PM era) ,the right has weaponized BS. to incite its ugly,dull-normal flock and now has stooped to targeting POC,LGBTQAIs, women ,immigrants and their other favourite GTH (groups to hate) to detract from its culpability in the growing chasm between the one-one-millionth-of one percent and the rest of the populace.

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