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By Harry G. Frankfurt
(Princeton University Press, 67 pp., $9.95)  

WHEN I WAS A GRADUATE student at the Rockefeller University, Harry Frankfurt, who was then a professor there, came up to me one day and announced that he had devised the following principle: people naturally gravitate toward the study of that which does not come naturally to them. Thus people who work on ethics typically find it difficult to be good, logicians tend to be muddle- headed, and so on. And he had an explanation for his principle. It is precisely because the impulse to do a good deed seems so odd to a person, Frankfurt claimed, that he finds it fascinating. “Why would anybody in their right mind want to share? Hey, I think I’ll write a book about it!” Though he believed that the principle had universal validity, he claimed to have derived it by reflection on a single case: a person who worked on the theory of responsibility.

Frankfurt’s principle has since become legendary in philosophy circles. If it is true, then Frankfurt is someone to whom bullshit does not come easily. For while it may be an exaggeration—bullshit?—to say that he has devoted an entire book to the subject—this volume is an old essay that has been re- published as a very short book—he has found the phenomenon worthy of reflection. This is how he begins:

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, nor 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.

Frankfurt’s theory is easy to state. Both the truth-teller and the liar have it in common that they care about the truth. The person who aims at the truth tries to figure out what the world is like and to communicate that to others; the liar attempts to deceive. But by his very attempt to mislead others, the liar betrays his own concern, however perverse, with how things are. As Frankfurt puts it, the truth-teller and the liar are playing opposite sides of the same game.

The bullshitter is in a different game altogether. He simply does not care about the truth or falsity of what he is saying. “The essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” Consider this classic from ancient history: “I didn’t inhale.” I think the utterance was true, but it was bullshit nonetheless. If it had been false, the utterer would have said the same thing. For this reason, those who do not believe the statement also do not get to the heart of the matter when they say that the speaker is lying. In both cases, if what he said was true and if what he said was false, the president was bullshitting—for in neither case would the truth or the falsity of what he was saying have mattered to him. Frankfurt is correct to insist that it is a “fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit” that “although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.” 

Actually, on Frankfurt’s account, the bullshitter does turn out to be a liar after all—but at the meta-level. He needs to mask his own indifference. The bullshitter need not deceive us about the facts, but “what he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.” As Frankfurt explains, “The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides ... is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.” 

Consider, in this context, the recent Democratic campaign for president. Whatever else one might say about Howard Dean, Richard Gephardt, and Joseph Lieberman, they each had clear and sincere views about how to go forward. One was for the war in Iraq, another was against it; one wanted to protect the unions; another wanted to try out school vouchers. The early and tightly spaced primaries served to eliminate them all. The candidate who emerged was someone whose actual views no one could figure out, but at every stage—whether the task was to fix things, or to do things right, or to stay until we get the job done, or to bring our boys home, or not to let “them” get away with it again— his opaque claims were made with apparent sincerity and real indignation. Precisely because the candidate did want to win, he had to look as though he cared about the truth of what he was saying. And with all the post-election hand-wringing about why John Kerry lost, one overwhelmingly plausible explanation was overlooked: Kerry was not very good at bullshitting.

ON THE SUBJECT OF SPEAKING one’s mind, the current commotion at Harvard has already been analyzed from every angle, except that of the theory of bullshit. From this angle, the problem begins not with the actual content of Lawrence Summers’s speculation about the incidence of women in mathematics and the sciences, but with his claim that it represented “my best guess.” There’s the bullshit. Those three little words indicate that—at least at the time of utterance—the issue did not really matter that much to him.

If the issue were something that, say, put the American economy at risk, would Summers be satisfied with the same amount of research as the basis for his best guess? This fits very well with Frankfurt’s diagnosis of one of the prevalent sources of bullshit:

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 exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to the topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled— whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

But Frankfurt does not prepare us for what comes next, for the dialectic of bullshit. Having gotten into trouble, what is the president of Harvard to do: admit that at the time of speaking he was, if you’ll pardon the expression, shooting from the hip? That would be to admit that such a serious subject had not really mattered to him. So what does he do instead? He calls Bill Clinton! The New York Times reports that Summers consulted Clinton and the “political counselor” David Gergen to help him with “damage control.” The Times seemed willing to go along for the ride: “He is reading tomes about leadership. He also recently took his children to see Hitch, a new movie, as it happens, about men who are trying to improve their social skills. At the age of 50, Lawrence H. Summers ... finds himself trying to become a new kind of man.” Deep in the article Gergen tells us that “it’s a good thing when a male demonstrates vulnerability.” Note that the issue here is not whether the male is vulnerable; it is whether he gives the appearance of being vulnerable. This is a page straight out of the Clinton playbook. After a politically correct mea culpa, we can all move on. It would be unfortunate if Summers’s “journey” goes from politically incorrect bullshit to politically correct bullshit.

But the richest moment came when Gergen said of Summers, “He takes a very Socratic approach.” Anyone who has spent more than fifteen minutes with a Platonic dialogue would know that Summers looks much more like one of Socrates’s interlocutors: a brash, honor-loving person like Thrasymachus who is willing to put forward an idea that he hasn’t really thought through. Socrates is the one who exposes the pretense. But of course the truth of the analogy does not matter to Gergen; he is un-Socratically concerned with the creation of an image. In order to succeed, he at least must go through the motions of appearing sincere. Polite society calls this “damage control.” 

ALL THIS RAISES THE QUESTION: is bullshitting bad? And, if so, why? We already have a fairly clear grasp of the moral worth of truth-telling and lying. In general, truth is good, lying is bad; for we value knowing what the world is like, and we value sincere relationships. We are offended when others try to dislodge us from reality. Yet we also recognize important exceptions: truth- telling can be used in order to embarrass others or in the service of other forms of cruelty; lying can be used compassionately to protect another person’s privacy. But what is the moral valence of bullshitting? Obviously, if the bullshitter is also not telling the truth, there are all the familiar problems with being misled. But, as Frankfurt points out, a bullshitter can be telling the truth and believe that he is telling the truth. “The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or what he takes the facts to be.” All that matters, on the Frankfurt analysis, is that the bullshitter does not really care about the truth that he is speaking—and that he hides that fact about himself. But why should the fact that he doesn’t care matter to us? I don’t think Frankfurt can answer this question, because he does not take his analysis of bullshit deep enough.

It is unusual for the author of a newly published book to express anything less than delight with it. “When I reread it recently,” Frankfurt told the Times, “I was sort of disappointed. It wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was. It was a fairly superficial and incomplete treatment of the subject.” This is not bullshit. And though Frankfurt’s discussion is everywhere illuminating, I think he misunderstands the crucially important concept of the bullshit artist.

Go back in your visual imagination to the image of Bill Clinton biting his lower lip. We do a disservice to his mastery if we think this is just a phony attempt to appear sincere. That would be ordinary bullshit. What takes Clinton to another level, I think, is that he expects us to recognize his gesture as bullshit and he expects to get away with it precisely because we do. His openness about his own bullshit is meant to be endearing. This is a level of bullshit that Frankfurt’s analysis cannot account for. Indeed, it runs counter to Frankfurt’s thesis that the bullshitter must hide his indifference.

The run-of-the-mill bullshitter goes through the motions of hiding his indifference to the truth or the falsity of what he is saying, but the bullshit artist revels in the fact that he can put his indifference on display. Since nothing is hidden—the bullshit has in effect been declared to be bullshit—the only thing that can sustain it is the bullshit itself. I am surprised that Frankfurt overlooked this phenomenon, since instances of it are not all that difficult to find in the academic world. Frankfurt reports that he originally wrote this essay to present at a humanities center. It begs credulity to think he was not trying to confront his colleagues with an exercise in collective self-criticism. But he seems to have blinked at the crucial moment.

THIS IS ALL THE MORE SURPRISING since Frankfurt gets right to the nub of the problem: “The contemporary proliferation of bullshit ... has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things really are.” Actually, skepticism is not the same thing as bullshit. There are genuine and deep ways of wondering about the reality and the possibility of objective truth. Skepticism can be an honorable calling. But in the contemporary world it often degenerates into a received attitude, a hip pose, a rhetorical ploy, a kind of academic party trick. Imagine such a skeptic coming to the humanities center: what kind of paper is he or she going to give? An earnest argument that there really is no such thing as truth? Of course not. Such a paper would lack “irony,” which is these days the great validator of intellectual authority. (I put “irony” in scare quotes because the current version has almost nothing in common with real irony.) So the paper will inevitably be an “ironic“ performance that the truth simply does not matter to the speaker. This is not skepticism, it is bad theater. And the point that the “ironists” are making is that in their bullshit-artistry they can get away with it. (It is not unusual for such speakers to draw attention to the fact that they have actually been paid to come and spread their bullshit.)

In this way, the bullshit artist raises a host of ethical problems that do not arise at the level of ordinary bullshit. For bullshit artistry demands our complicity. It is, in its own way, a demonstration of power. The bullshit artist in effect says, “This is bullshit, but you will accept it anyway. You may accept it as bullshit, but you will honor it anyway.” In this respect, the bullshit artist is a knight of decadence. Frankfurt ignores this example; indeed, his analysis of bullshit rules it out as impossible. And in this way he fails to confront the most interesting—and influential—style of bullshit in our time.

But the problem is even worse. For once we recognize that the bullshit artist flaunts his indifference, we have reason to go back to the ordinary bullshitter and ask whether it really is true, as Frankfurt asserts, that he must hide it. Think of Gergen’s claim that Summers reminds him of Socrates. I think that any intelligent reader would see through the claim at once. This is not artistry, this is spin. So I think that Frankfurt is wrong even about ordinary bullshit. It may be true that the ordinary bullshitter needs to go through the motions of pretending that the truth of what he says matters to him—but this itself is bullshit, and it may be easily recognizable as such to us all. In this way we are all drawn into a complacent and rundown theatricality. We all know that what we are reading is spin; we all know that the person quoted is not really committed to the truth of what he is saying; and yet we are all somehow willing to go along with what we instantly recognize to be ersatz news. This is the problem with bullshit: it is contagious. It invites us all to grow more detached from the real, to give up caring about what is true and what is false.

This article appeared in the March 21, 2005 issue of the magazine.