Believing Your Own Bullshit

(Wikimedia Commons)

1

For an academic text written by an academic philosopher, Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit has had a very unusual reception history. Published as a short essay in 1986 in The Raritan Quarterly, and then part of his collection of articles The Importance of What We Care About in 1988, Frankfurt’s editor at Princeton University Press suggested in 2005 that “On Bullshit” be published in stand-alone book format. It became an unexpected hit. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for 27 weeks, and even earned Frankfurt a short spot on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. It is rare indeed for a philosopher to get that kind of exposure, and rarer still not to see it go to his head and tempt him into being a “thought leader” or intellectual huckster. Deep praise, then, to Prof. Frankfurt.

As is often the case when an academic talking-point hits the airwaves, On Bullshit acquired an extended half-life, and provided a framework for all manner of political analyses. Brexit, Trumpism, televised debates, were understood to be events that fed on bullshit as if it were ambrosia, the food of the gods. Bullshit was everywhere as an explanatory device. Whenever this happens it is advisable and often fruitful to ask oneself whether such an omnipresent phenomenon is all it is cracked up to be. This goes double for philosophers. As J.L. Austin is said to have observed, overgeneralization would be the occupational hazard of philosophers, if it wasn’t their occupation.

2

The gist of Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit has, I think, two key components, and two key consequences. Its components are:

1 — — Bullshitting is not to be confused with lying. A liar has a sharp focus: to persuade one’s interlocutor to believe what is false to advance the liar’s own interests. The liar, knowing p to be true, asserts ⌐p to convince the listener that ⌐p is the case; this works in some way to the liar’s advantage.

The liar thus deceives about two things: what is the case, and what the liar’s own intention is. In contrast the bullshitter does not care whether what they say is the case or not: they merely want their interlocutors to believe that the bullshitter believes it is the case. The bullshitter may, in fact, be correct in their bullshit assertions: they might assert p, not caring whether p or ⌐p is the case, while p is in fact the case. But the bullshitter wouldn’t care if it was false that p is the case as long as their audience believes and asserts p whether it is true or not, or whether their audience thinks the bullshitter believes p is true. It’s not that the bullshitter rejects the authority of truth and truth-telling: that would make the bullshitter a liar. It is that truth and falsity play no role in their assertions. They aren’t part of the bullshitter’s cognitive universe.

A corollary of this is that the bullshitter does not know what they assert or affirm to be the case and does not care — they don’t care either way — because knowledge implies, at the very least, justified beliefs one takes to be true. (I will bracket “the Gettier problem” here because it would take us too far afield: whether there are counterexamples to the definition of knowledge as justified true belief, they probably do not scuttle the tight, probably unbreakable connection between justified belief and taking that belief to be true when one claims knowledge.)

2 — — The intention of the liar is to persuade through deception; the intention of the bullshitter is not so much to deceive as to persuade without regard to whether the bullshitter actually believes what they are asserting. Bullshitters want their audiences to buy the propositions they are asserting and to assume that the bullshitter takes them to be true, when the bullshitter couldn’t care less either way.

The corollaries are:

1 — — The reason there is so much bullshit in the contemporary world is that “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. (p. 63).” We are expected to have an opinion on everything, and being what we are, we comply.

2 — — Bullshitting is a greater offense against truth than lying. “The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” (p. 61).

2

Since there is so much bullshit in the contemporary world (cf. corollary 1 above), one might be tempted to successfully employ the bullshit-framework to get a bead on contemporary politics — Trump, QAnon and other conspiracy theories, Brexit, Bolsonaro, and so on. In fact, Frankfurt himself chimed in on this matter himself in an article published in Time magazine just before Trump’s election in 2016:

The memory-brag is typical of Trump, but relatively trivial. Frankfurt cites Trump’s campaign promise to deport millions of illegal aliens to be an example of bullshitting with serious consequences:

In making this claim, Frankfurt reveals the limitations of bullshit as a category of political analysis. Trump, with the help of Stephen Miller, followed through on his promise to drastically curtail immigration, both illegal and legal, more or less successfully. It seems that he did have a serious intention to deport illegal aliens, by transforming ICE from a government agency to a political arm of his nationalist-nativist regime. But the problem here is with ascertaining the seeming intentions of one who seems likely to be a malignant narcissist. At the time Trump made his “America first” promises he may or not have formed the intention to ramp up deportment; what he did have was a blueprint for ingratiating himself with his base. The intentions of con men are fungible, swapped in and out as the emerging situation demands. And it is clear that for Trump, the truth or falsity of his claims about immigrants, and his intentions in dealing with them, were afterthoughts: what mattered was doing what he could to advance his political — and financial — fortunes. He was selling not the steak, but the sizzle.

Jason Stanley and Quassim Cassam have both argued, in a similar vein, that while contemporary politics is plagued by dishonesty, “bullshit” does not adequately describe what’s wrong. The proper category is propaganda, which is to big to be mere lying, and too focused to be mere bullshitting. Cassam observes that lying, unlike bullshitting, is both focused and of great significance. To call the larger agenda of the Brexiteers and Trumpists “bullshitting” is to misdescribe something very serious as something ultimately trivial and easily dismissed, which, Cassam maintains, is a serious blind spot in the critiques of Liberals and Leftists of their radical nationalist opponents. It assimilates Trumpist rhetoric to advertising, a guild that thrives on bullshit and an indifference to truth and falsity. As Stanley says,

Lying, bullshitting, and propagandizing are all forms of irrational social manipulation. They all exhibit a disrespect for honesty and truth-telling. But they are also distinct forms. Propaganda shares with bullshitting an indifference to the truth, and with lying an attempt to infect the public mind with a narrative that contains blatant falsehoods and half-truths half-understood, in order to promote an authoritarian, even totalitarian political end. Mere liars do not wish to define reality: they wish to deceive others about what is real. Mere bullshitters do not wish to define reality either: they wish to get others to believe what may or may not be the case, because it suits the bullshitter. Propagandists have a grander, more sinister ambition:

3

I believe that Stanley and Cassam are generally correct in their poor estimate of “bullshitting” as an explanans of the current political miasma. I would like to conclude, however, by examining a feature of bullshitting that does illuminate something about our contemporary predicament: the reality of people “believing their own bullshit”, or lies, or propaganda, and why this is both paradoxical and widespread.

What would it mean to “believe one’s own bullshit”? It’s a common expression, but it conceals a paradox if one begins with Frankfurt’s understanding of bullshit. For Frankfurt, the bullshitter is utterly unconcerned with the truth or falsity of their assertions. They only care about the effect of getting people to listen and, perchance, agree. And, as a corollary (see above), they are indifferent to whether they actually know what they are talking about. If knowledge is — at least in general and for the most part — justified true belief, knowledge is irrelevant to the bullshitter. Don Draper of Mad Men, a master bullshitter, would not care if Coke will teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. He only cares to sell the product. Knowledge of the proposition “Coke promotes peace” is beside the point. Remember: not the steak, but the sizzle.

It would seem, then, that “believing one’s own bullshit” is self-contradictory. If I utter the bullshit proposition “p”, I do not affirm that “p is true” or “p is the case”. I simply do not care. But beliefs are, minimally, propositional attitudes — “the belief/hope/wish that p.” The propositional attitude of the bullshitter would then be something like “the hope that others believe that p.” Were the bullshitter to believe his own bullshit, the propositional attitude above would have to become the propositional attitude “the belief that p”, hence “the belief that “p” asserts what is the case”, and then “the belief that “p” is true”. At which point, so it would seem, that the bullshitter believes his own bullshit, at the price of no longer being a bullshitter. For “the belief that p” implies that “p is the case”, which in turn implies “proposition p is true.” Which seems to be a straightforward contradiction.

Is it a logical contradiction? I do not think so. The bullshitter prior to believing their own bullshit is not asserting p and p. But neither is the bullshitter asserting p or p. The bullshitter is not asserting anything. But if the bullshitter believes their own bullshit, it looks as if they are either no longer bullshitting (since they are now asserting, and their assertions imply a claim to a truth-value for what is uttered) or are engaged in a performative contradiction. They do not performatively care about the truth of their statements, yet at the same time are performatively committed to their affirmations as beliefs, hence as assertions of what is the case, hence to truth-conditions. To believe in your own bullshit, you would have to both believe it and, because you are a bullshitter, not believe it. The contradiction is in the performance, rather than in the formal quality of inference.

4

As such, this is not perplexing: people engage in performative contradictions all the time. (Viz. Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”) And understanding it is not a matter for logic but psychology: it is a form of self-deception, of the motivated use of reason for irrational ends. But I think in the present political context it is ominous. And it rehabilitates some limited aspects of Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit as an analytical tool.

When Trump railed on and on about the Obama administration wiretapping him (without evidence), or how mail-in ballots are fraudulent (without evidence), or that windmills cause cancer, that masks are unnecessary, and COVID “like magic, will go away” (again, without evidence), or that he did more for black people than any President except maybe Abraham Lincoln (contrary to all evidence), I think it’s safe to say he was bullshitting. Whether evidence existed or not was immaterial to Trump — he was verbally riffing to ingratiate himself with his base and thus secure his advantage. Did he believe his own bullshit? The jury might still be out, but it isn’t implausible to suggest that he does actually now believe at least some of his bullshit: that he was wiretapped by Obama and that mail-in ballots are inherently fraudulent, at least when they are for the Biden/Harris ticket. This fits in well with his paranoid tendencies, rooted as they are in his incessant narcissism and apparent sociopathy. “Believing your own bullshit” is a process: you start off being a bullshitter, and then, when you actually believe your own bullshit, you then become deluded and self-deceived.

This becomes especially problematic when your bullshit in integrated into a propaganda campaign. As Stanley pointed out, the propagandist may be insensitive to reality and truth, but they are not carelessly insensitive. Trump’s bullshit episodes are component parts of a larger, cohesive propagandistic strategy. The bullshit disappears when you actually believe it, and becomes something far, far more sinister.

Consider the conspiracy theories, cults, and domestic terror groups running rampant nowadays — Q-Anon, NXIVM, Sandy Hook False Flag theories, Proud Boys, etc. In their infancy they may have been the work of bullshit artists, intended for an audience that was bullshit-hungry. There is something almost perversely brilliant, for example, in cooking up something so absurd as Q-Anon, with its dogma that Democrats are part of a ring of pedophiles and cannibals, that Donald Trump is a kind of James Bond archetype who, with the aid of the not-so-late John Kennedy Jr., is planning to overthrow the “Deep State” and expose its perfidy. I find it hard to believe that its original authors actually believed it: their main motivation was to stir emotions to support the far-right despotism they favored. But that was then. I think it’s reasonable to believe that now Q-Anon has morphed into something far different. Its advocates and adherents have come to believe their own bullshit, and it has evolved into the “big lie” of propaganda. It is collective self-delusion in pursuit of political domination.

Human history has testified to the ways in which delusion has destroyed individuals and societies alike. But when that delusion, which starts with “believing your own bullshit”, starts to colonize every facet of politics, politics itself starts to decay. Stanley quotes Hannah Arendt’s The Origin of Totalitarianism to illustrate something like the ultimate transformation of bullshit into authoritarian propaganda:

Citizens of Liberal Democratic Republics are not “masses” — or at least they shouldn’t be. Democratic citizens are suspicious of official and unofficial “systems” and see the need to subject them to the debate and free discussion constituting political society. To the extent that consistent ideological systems, disjoined from truth, originating in bullshit and morphing into propaganda, override a shared world of particular facts and civic virtues, they turn citizens into symbolic ciphers manipulable at will at the beckoning of the powerful. Citizens then become “masses” embracing their own empty fantasies.

Bullshit may not be the summum malum of politics, but it breeds this kind of oblivion of political reality. That is what is at stake in The United States of America. If we believe our own bullshit, we will in time be able to believe anything at all. Which is morally equivalent to believing nothing.

Please vote. And make sure your bullshit meters are set to high-sensitivity. There is a lot of it coming our way. Thank you.

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store