The Varieties of Bullshit

By Peter Ludlow

In a classic essay entitled “On Bullshit,” the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt argued that the bullshitter is different (maybe worse) than the traditional liar because the bullshitter does not bother keeping an eye on the truth. Frankfurt’s essay has subsequently had uptake in the broader culture and has fueled much contemporary analysis of political discourse and models of propaganda. It has, for example, been applied religiously to analyses of the political discourse of Donald Trump.[1]

I think that Frankfurt is right about some cases of bullshit, but I maintain that there is more bullshit out there than Frankfurt seems to recognize, and this leads him to construct a theory of bullshit that is too narrow. If we want a reliable theory of bullshit we need to consider these additional cases. And ultimately, it will be necessary to revisit some of those propaganda models that are built on Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Is Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit itself an example of bullshit? Or is it merely bullshit for us to continue to embrace that theory? Let’s see!

Harry Franfurt

Frankfurt begins his essay by referencing an earlier paper by Max Black entitled, “On the Prevalence of Humbug.” If you are like me maybe your only experience with the word “humbug” is limited to the character Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken’s Christmas Carol, opining about Christmas: “Bah! Humbug!” But what exactly is humbug?

Black offers a series of synonyms: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery. Black’s examples may seem archaic, but some of them are more familiar than they appear. You probably know the expression “buncombe” under its contemporary renditions as “bunkum,” and “bunk.” The expression also has an interesting history that we will return to later in this essay.

By some accounts, the first appearance of “humbug” was in a 1750 issue of The Student, or the Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany, where it was described as “a word very much in vogue with the people of taste and fashion, which … has not even the penumbra of a meaning.”

This is not a very satisfying definition. But fortunately, by the time Black got around to using the term, the OED defined it as “a hoax; a jesting or befooling trick,” and very importantly, a “thing which is not really what it pretends to be.”

Black, after philosophical reflection, ultimately defines “humbug” as a “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.”

The first point of interest here is the “short of lying” part. His idea is that humbug (what we nowadays call bullshit) is a phenomenon wherein we often call bullshit on some things that are, strictly speaking, true. Bill Clinton earned a reputation for being a bullshit artist because he often said things that were strictly speaking true, but which were badly misleading. (We will return to his case.) Black takes a dim view of the idea that this is less evil than an outright lie. He labels such kinds of bullshit/humbug as “virtual lies,” and remarks that “such cases cannot properly be regarded as cases of outright lying but are all the more pernicious for that reason.”

Bonus wisdom from Max Black

I think Black is also right that often we bullshit not about the world so much as about our attitudes. That is to say that sometimes the bullshit is about the general character of the bullshitter.

Trump is a great example of this case. Contemporary writers have seen Trump as the ideal version of Frankfurt’s bullshitter — totally uninterested in the facts, however they might fall. But Black was onto something deeper. Trump was not merely a bullshitter because he spewed claims with little concern for their veracity. He also had a vice-grip lock on certain propositions which he thought others should believe — principally propositions about himself and how awesome he was.

This point is illustrated by Marco Jacquemet, in a paper entitled “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.”

But we don’t need to look at Trump to find examples of the kind of bullshit (humbug) that Black had in mind. We often encounter bullshitters trying to convince us that they have a noble character. They engage in virtue signaling or engage in superficial acts of charity and good deeds in order to convey that they are praiseworthy when they actually are not. The bullshit does not resolve to individual lies — in fact there need be no individual lies — but to a more general attempt to spin up a story about the person’s character. Carefully curated truths can paint a very misleading picture of a person’s character.

Black definitely has a handle on an important kind of bullshit (formerly humbug) but Frankfurt has a very different story about bullshit. As I noted earlier, Frankfurt’s big idea is that bullshitting is unlike lying in that the bullshitter is indifferent to the truth in a way that a liar is not. The liar keeps one eye on the truth and the bullshitter doesn’t give a fuck if what they are saying is true or not. Donald Trump is a good exemplar of Black’s concept of humbug, but he is the virtual Platonic form of the bullshitter on Frankfurt’s theory. And there is no doubt that Trump is a bullshitter — perhaps even the greatest of all time; who am I to say he isn’t? But the problem is that there are many other varieties of bullshitters, and it must be emphasized again that Bill Clinton was also bullshitter, and a very different one in that he always had his eye on the literal truth; he found ways to be literally truthful yet mislead. Thus, when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” what he said was true by the dictionary definition of “sexual relations.” You can’t consummate a sexual relation with a cigar by the dictionary definition. More importantly, though, you can bullshit people even while you are being very meticulous about telling the literal truth. Commentators at the time called it “parsing,” and took note of his defense against perjury in a legal deposition, where he defended his earlier answer to a question by saying, “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

So I think Frankfurt is wrong about the no-eye-on-the-truth business. I think Frankfurt is also wrong when he wants to say that bullshitters have, as it were, more degrees of freedom than the liar. Here is the passage from Frankfurt that concerns me.

I believe that Frankfurt has lost the handle on the nature of bullshit artists here. To see this, let’s turn to a discussion that took place in a blog called The Truth about Guns, in a discussion of claims about a gun silencer that were made by one Jesse James.[2] The discussion included the following comment from a reader named Stinkeye, about Mr. James.

Stinkeye’s taxonomy is helpful. On his taxonomy, Bill Clinton would be the bullshit artist and Trump more of a bullshit factory.

Alleged bullshit factory, Jesse James

So far, we have looked at two theories of bullshit. On Black’s theory, bullshit involves telling truths while spinning up a false story about your inner self. On Frankfurt’s theory, bullshit involves not giving a fuck about the truth. My view is that both of these analyses are partly correct — or rather, they give us a partial picture of what counts as bullshit. As it were, Black has a handle on the trunk of the elephant, and Frankfurt has a handle on the tail of the elephant, but there is a lot more elephant to talk about.

If we want a good theory of bullshit, it will help if we consider a broader class of examples and expressions that are thought to be synonymous with bullshit. And indeed, synonyms for bullshit and humbug are found in a very broad range of examples. Here are a few synonyms for “bullshit” from the online Urban Thesaurus. I’m not asking you to read this entire list…unless you want to, of course.

So… it seems there are lots of ways to say bullshit, deploying those expressions in different parts of speech. Sometimes we are speaking of actions and events being bullshit, and other times we are speaking about the products of those actions and events being bullshit.[3] But beyond this, what the hell are we doing when we use “bullshit” and its synonyms in these ways?

As the title of this essay suggests I think there are varieties of bullshit, but this doesn’t mean there is no unifying principle to bullshit. I also think that Marco Jacquemet is on point in his “45 as a Bullshit Artist” article, when he suggests that a lot of bullshit can be traced to violating the philosopher Paul Grice’s “Cooperative Principle.” What is that?

There are actually two ideas from Grice that we can make use of. One idea is Grice’s distinction between what is literally said and what the person is attempting to communicate. In Grice’s terminology, there is a difference between the proposition expressed and the proposition meant. So, for example, Bill Clinton often literally said something true while attempting to communicate something quite false.

This opens the door to us better understanding the difference between a lie and something that is bullshit. It also allows us to come to grips with the broader range of cases of bullshit that interested Max Black. Sometimes people say things that are literally true, but badly misleading. What do we do when that happens? We call bullshit![4]

Paul Grice

This distinction between what is said and what is communicated is helpful to understanding certain kinds of bullshit, but it is still not the entire story. To get the rest of the story we need to take a deeper dive into Grice’s “Cooperative Principle.” For Grice, it is not enough to just communicate true things. Communicating with others in a reliable and helpful way requires that we obey the Cooperative Principle and this in turn requires that we typically follow certain maxims of communication. Here they are.

  • The maxim of quality: Say (communicate) what you believe to be true, and what you have evidence for.
  • The maxim of quantity: Don’t say more or less than is necessary for the communicative purpose at hand.
  • The maxim of relation: Don’t talk about things that are not relevant, at that time, given our interests.
  • Maxim of manner: Be orderly.

My view (and I believe Jacquemet’s view) is that each of these maxims, when violated, lead to their own brand of bullshit. So far, I have been concerned with bullshit as it relates to truth-telling/communicating (the maxim of quality), but lots of bullshit is not about deception at all. It really has to do with violating the other three maxims. For example, in the online Urban Dictionary, one of the popular definitions of “bullshit,” proffered by one Swags McGee, gives the following examples.

Note that this has nothing to do with his Algebra II textbook being somehow untrue. The point being made by Swags McGee is that Algebra II is not relevant — at least not relevant to his life (or so he thinks). It is thus, on Swag’s view, bullshit. Notice too, that it might be algebra itself that he thinks is bullshit. We will return to this kind of possibility.

Violating the maxim of relevance is actually a pretty common form of bullshitting. The result is bullshit not merely because it isn’t relevant to our lives, but because it introduces noise into the communication channel. It crowds out the information that you are actually looking for. The point is driven home, I believe, in this video news story published by The Onion.

One important point here is that the maxim of relation has a lot to do with timing. Something might be appropriately said at one time, but not at another. There is a time to air your grievances (Festivus,[5] perhaps), but if you air them at a child’s birthday party that is some bullshit.

Bullshit can be generated by violating the other maxims as well. Sometimes we create bullshit by flouting the maxim of manner. Why is this a problem? It imposes a cognitive tax on others and makes the enterprise of mutual understanding that much more difficult. Sometimes you go to lecture and it is a bullshit lecture just because it is just too disorganized and is too much work to sort out.

Sometimes unclear bullshit is not merely temporarily unclear, but it is inherently unclear. This is the sort of bullshit that troubles G. A. Cohen. In his (2002) paper “Deeper into Bullshit,” he notes that bullshit does not merely involve seeking to more or less intentionally “mislead with respect to reality.” He argues that sometimes the content being produced has “unclarifiable unclarity” and Cohen wants to say that this is a key component of bullshit. On his view, bullshit statements are “not only obscure but cannot be rendered unobscured.” This is of course the sort of bullshit that was outed by the Sokol hoax and subsequently catalogued in the book Fashionable Nonsense, by Sokol and Bricmont. I agree that such bullshit exists, but by now it should be clear that this is but one type of bullshit, among many others.

Certain philosophers sometimes get called out for violating the maxim of manner, and some have been accused of deliberately making their work difficult to understand (perhaps even deploying unclarifiable unclarity). I’m not going to take sides here, in part because the optimal manner of presentation depends a lot on your intended audience. For example, some people think that Wittgenstein is a clear expositor. Others think he is an obscurantist bullshit artist. Let’s take a famous example, from the last section in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicas.

There are a lot of ways to take this. Some will tell you that it is Wittgenstein’s admission that he just bullshat you for the entire book. Others will say that the quoted passage itself is obscurantist nonsense and thus bullshit. And still others will say that the paragraph is perfectly clear, but it is just Wittgenstein trying to claim that an obvious bug in his system is actually a feature of the system. This too might be characterized as a form of bullshit — a bullshit deed of problem-dodging.[6] Others love the passage and say they understand it when they don’t (they are thus bullshitting). Still others think it is a clear and honest recognition of an internal inconsistency within his theory — a recognition that his theory cannibalized itself — a problem that would lead him to his later work. And finally, there are those that think it is a portal into some sort of wisdom.

I am not taking sides here on whether Wittgenstein was a bullshit artist. My only point here is that when obfuscation occurs, it is a form of bullshit.[7]

The maxim that we haven’t addressed thus far is the maxim of quantity. Sometimes people say too much or too little. Is this a form of bullshit? Clearly it can be. If someone on the telephone asks you where you are and you say “planet Earth” that is a bullshit answer unless you are involved in space travel or astral projection. What you said was true, but it was not informative. Similarly, if someone asks how much money you have and you say “more than a dollar,” this too is typically a bullshit answer. The flip side of this can also be bullshit. If you ask someone where they are, wanting to know for example if they are in town, and they proceed to tell you what corner of their bed they are nesting in, barring some sentimental interest, this too is probably a bullshit answer, because it is TMI[8] and it is filling the communication channel with a bunch of useless noise and likely getting in the way of more important things.

It is interesting to see where the Frankfurt account of bullshit falls in our taxonomy, for it seems that he is focused on a very narrow part of the full tapestry of bullshit. He doesn’t seem to be concerned with Clinton-type bullshitters, nor with bullshitters that violate the maxim of manner or maxim of relevance or maxim of quantity — he is just concerned with whether one has their eye on the truth, whatever that means. Marta Dynel thinks it means he has focused his attention of the second half of the Maxim of Quality — the part about “don’t say that for which you lack evidence.” Trump may believe a lot of things he says, but the problem is that he doesn’t seem to be concerned with collecting evidence for those claims before he makes them. If that is what “no eye on the truth” comes to, then it very much is a very small piece of our taxonomy of bullshit.

With our maxim-related kinds of bullshit in hand, I want to return to the example of “buncombe” (aka “bunk”) that was mentioned by Max Black. “Buncombe” (and its contemporary descendants) are expressions that have their roots in an 1820 US Congressional speech by Felix Walker, whose district included Buncombe County, North Carolina. The topic of the speech was the question of whether to admit Missouri into the Union as a free or slave state (Walker was on the wrong side). He reportedly insisted on delivering a long, bullshit-laden speech in which he claimed he was speaking to his constituents in Buncombe county. He was subsequently shouted down by his colleagues and thus “buncombe” and now “bunk” became sedimented into the English language. Here is one of the highlights (i.e. lowlights) from his speech.

You might think that Walker’s talk about slaves being both friends and property (while enjoying the circle of life) was enough to classify the speech as bullshit/bunk/etc., and indeed it was, but when he gave the speech in 1820 it seems that the speech was bullshit for even more reasons. Hugh Rawson in American Heritage Magazine describes the event this way.

In other words, the Buncombe speech was 4 out of 4 in missing Grice’s Maxims. It was clearly loaded up with falsehoods about the joys of being a slave and thus violated the maxim of quality, but it also violated the maxims of quantity (too long), manner (rambling), and relation (irrelevant and badly timed).

There are also some Trump classics in this vein. The following is a widely referenced excerpt from a 2015 Trump campaign speech that pretty much touches all four bases in violating the Cooperative Principle.

You didn’t ask, but here is a transcript:

Trump and Representative Walker may have been unintentional in their violations of the maxim of manner, relation, quantity, and quality, but other figures have seen that such violations can be weaponized to clog up the arena of political discourse and render it dysfunctional. Thus we have Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon’s call, in an interview with Michael Lewis, to “flood the zone with shit.”[10]

Steve Bannon: Flood the zone!

Violating maxims is a good predictor of what we might find to be bullshit, but can this work in the opposite direction as well? Can we use judgments of bullshit to possibly discover new maxims for the Cooperative Principle? Maybe so!

Consider, for example, the case of “sharpiegate,” in which Trump redrew hurricane Dorian’s projected path to include Alabama in order to conform to something he had earlier said. Perhaps you remember this photo.

I think that one of the things that makes this bullshit is that his doctored hurricane path is not merely false, but is straight up an insult to the intelligence of his audience.[11] The evidence is right there in front of us! [12]

This type of bullshit is not limited to shady politicians. It happens all the time — even in academic settings. One case involves a former (many years ago) colleague of mine who was trying to spin up a story about other members of our philosophy department being non-collegial. When the department held a “book bash” to celebrate faculty that had published new books during the academic year the unhappy faculty member wrote to the Provost, complaining that his colleagues had, as evidence of their non-collegiality, engaged in a “bashing party.” It was a pretty brazen lie, given that there were posters all over the department saying “Book Bash”, and they were illustrated with images of books and balloons and confetti. What made it bullshit, or perhaps super bullshit, was that he persisted in the lie in spite of all the obvious evidence that it was false. It was as though he was saying “you are too stupid to look at the posters, so I am going to persist in my claim.”[13]

There are of course, all kinds of ways to disrespect people when we speak, and I believe that all of those cases can give rise to bullshit, and it can intensify pre-existing bullshit. If a lecturer is disrespectful to the audience or to some group, I think we are entitled to say “that was some bullshit,” and that the talk itself can be bullshit for having those acts of disrespect contained in it. And there is no shortage of examples in Twitterspace of people calling bullshit for actions or words that are disrespectful. Here is an example.

Here is a working hypothesis for a fifth maxim.

  • The maxim of respect: Be respectful to your conversational partners, do not insult their intelligence or otherwise offend them directly or indirectly

How does this maxim work with the Cooperative Principle? Lack of respect in a conversation puts a cognitive tax on conversational participants and it gets in the way of effectively communicating ideas.

Perhaps we can even extend this idea to the Maxims of Politeness articulated by Geoffry Leech: tact, generosity, approbation, modesty, agreement, and sympathy. Consider tact. If someone interrupts you, is that not a bullshit thing to do? Or if someone boasts incessantly about the many translations of their book is that not ipso facto bullshit? And if someone fails to show sympathy for your medical condition that is that not some bullshit too?

Given our maxims, and our ability to violate them, we have quite a few ways to generate bullshit. It must be observed, however, that failing to follow a maxim is not always bullshit. Sometimes, as philosophers and linguists say, you are merely “flouting” the maxim with no intent to create bullshit, but rather with the goal of implicating something else. So, for example, if someone says, “it is noisy outside” and it is quite obviously noisy outside, they are not saying this to inform you of something new. They are flouting a maxim as a way of very politely asking you to close the window. Similarly, if someone asks, “can you reach the salt,” when you obviously can, they are not asking you because they literally want to know about your arm length. By flouting the maxim in this way, they are politely asking you to pass the salt. We similarly flout maxims as devices of humor, etc.

I have no hard and fast rules to tell you when the failure to follow a maxim is bullshit and when it is simply a device to communicate a request in a nonaggressive way or an attempt at humor, but as a general rule of thumb, cases of bullshit are those cases where there is an attempt to undermine the Cooperative Principle. That is to say, sometimes we flout maxims in obvious ways to be funny and in other cases we do it to misinform others or otherwise flood the communication channel with irrelevant and unnecessary bullshit. This is the great challenge to fellow spectrumites[14] everywhere: determining when people are flouting the Cooperative Principle to say something of value and when they are doing it to bullshit us.

This leads me to the story about Wittgenstein that is recounted by Frankfurt. I think Frankfurt just wanted to shoehorn the story into his essay because he thought it was interesting, but it will turn out to be useful for us. The story is that Wittgenstein telephoned his friend and Russian teacher, Fania Pascal, who just had her tonsils removed. Wittgenstein asked Pascal how she was doing, and she reportedly said (this is her report, by the way) that she felt “like a dog that’s been run over.” According to Pascal, Wittgenstein then replied testily, “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.”

OK, what to do with this. Is it even true? What does it mean? Zach (last name unknown), in an essay entitled “Don’t Read Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’,” had thoughts about this section of Frankfurt’s book.

The issue is that whatever the merits of Frankfurt using the example (possibly none) and whatever Wittgenstein may have thought, this isn’t what bullshit looks like. Indeed, one might say that Wittgenstein’s response was itself a bullshit thing to say. If the maxim of sympathy is a thing, Wittgenstein clearly violated it.

Fania Pascal. Possibly.

Anyway, Frankfurt thinks that Wittgenstein thinks that Pascal is bullshitting him (Wittgenstein). But why? Here is Frankfurt’s “irritatingly pedantic analysis.”

Like Zach, I am not buying this. It seems to me that Pascal had no intention to communicate something about the phenomenology of being a run-over dog, and pretty clearly she was engaged in hyperbole to humorously express the kind of pain she was in.[15]

I bring up all this business about Pascal’s tonsils not to dump on Wittgenstein (again), but to make a point about bullshit. Sometimes we flaut maxims as ways of expressing hyperbole, humor and/or combinations thereof. And herein lay Wittgenstein’s problem (one of them). If you are enough of an autist — or out far enough on the Asberger’s spectrum as me and most of my philosophy of language friends are — then quite often you simply cannot tell when normies are being literal and when they are bullshitting. This is the great secret to why autist philosophers flock into the work of Grice. He seems to have the keys to understanding normie speak.

Grice again

But this leads to a kind of deeper point about Wittgenstein. It seems he simply could not sort out the difference between what was being said and what was being communicated, and while that may have made him an unpleasant sickbed interlocutor, it also infected the core of his later philosophical project. I can illustrate with an example.

In On Certainty, Wittgenstein observed that when we say “I am certain that…” we typically are talking about things that are not at all certain. Doctors never say “I am certain that you have a head” but they may say things like “I am certain that you have tonsillitis.” To Wittgenstein this meant that philosophers had the grammar of “certain” all wrong, but Griceans tell a different story. On their view, doctors don’t say “I am certain you have a head,” even though they are quite certain you do, because that is a completely bullshit thing to say to your patient. It violates the cooperative principle to be flooding the information channel with something that is too obvious to remark.

Non-philosophers-of-language don’t know it, but the late Wittgenstein project was superseded by Grice and developments in linguistic theory and cognitive science since Wittgenstein’s passing. We have learned a lot about language acquisition, and it turns out that logical behaviorism was not true. Who knew? We have also learned a lot about how language use works, and we have learned that it isn’t a lot of spooky anything-goes stuff and requests for slabs. We have theories of language use that combine robust theories of meaning with robust theories of pragmatics and they do a good job of explaining how we are successful in using language in many novel ways. This isn’t necessarily to say that Wittgenstein was engaged in a lot of bullshit. At the time, his observations about the use of language were very insightful. The issue, however, is that we have a responsibility to move on from obsolete philosophical projects (Wittgenstein would certainly agree), or at least try to repair them, and if we don’t do that, we are arguably engaged in some bullshit right there.

This line of thinking also applies to Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Like Black’s essay on humbug, Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit,” was, at the time and in spite of what Zach (last name unknown) thinks, a fine piece of philosophical analysis. But on reflection, in view of other clear uses of “bullshit,” perhaps we can do better than Frankfurt’s theory. And if we can do better, doesn’t that mean it is bullshit to cling to that theory and deploy it in our theories of propaganda?

You’ve noticed that the sort of bullshit I am talking about now is not bullshit speech. It is bullshit something else (bullshit action or bullshit lack of action). So, an observation can be made that some things get classified as bullshit that have nothing to do with language at all. A sports referee can make a “bullshit call” (or bullshit non-call). A case in point from Twitter:

A journal editor can make a “bullshit decision,” etc. One can even do a bullshit job of crafting a cabinet. Notice that this is different than doing a shit job. There are lots of reasons you might do a shit job at something — maybe you were ill or had time constraints. A bullshit job of making a cabinet, on the other hand, suggests some form of carelessness or lack of effort or delivering less than promised or less than expected under the circumstances. (There is another sense of “bullshit job” that I will get to in a minute.)

I believe that in these cases the declaration of bullshit in its most general form is triggered by the failure to follow certain norms.[16] In the linguistic cases, the norms flow from failing to conform to Grice’s maxims and the Cooperative Principle. In the physical cabinet case, the bullshit stems from failing to follow the norms of good craftsmanship for cabinets. In the case of the journal editor, it is not just that the editor made a bad decision, but a decision that makes one suspect that the norms of good editing were not being followed. And finally, in the sports context, a claim that the referee’s decision was “bullshit” stems not from the decision merely being wrong, but that it was wrong in a way that would not happen for someone following the norms of good refereeing.

Note that the norms being violated here are not universal norms like “don’t murder.” They are norms that apply to a thing of its kind. So a bullshit call by a referee violates the norm for refereeing, a bullshit job of cabinet making violates the norm of cabinet making, etc.

Extending this observation, it is also important to see that not all bullshit involves human failings. We do experience bullshit weather, for example. But bullshit weather is not the same as bad weather — bullshit weather is weather that falls outside of the norm for weather, in a way that conflicts with our interests. So, for example, if there is an ice storm in Toronto in February, that sucks, but it isn’t exactly bullshit. What is bullshit (certainly more bullshit) is when you get an ice storm in May.[17]

In fact, bullshit weather doesn’t even have to be bad weather. It can be pleasant weather that falls outside of the norm for weather, in away that conflicts with our interests.

Note that if @mohicks wasn’t pining for cooler weather this abnormal weather would not be bullshit.

More generally, if something falls the outside the norms for a thing of its kind, it is not therefore a bullshit thing of its kind. A river might be extraordinarily fast and dangerous, but we don’t call it “bullshit” until we want to navigate it. This is also certainly true in the linguistic case. Bullshit speech does not merely violate the maxims, but it also, by violating the maxims, is in conflict with our interests in the effective communication of information.

A similar thought applies to David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. The issue with bullshit jobs (in the sense of occupations) is not that they are miserable or sad, or even boring. What makes a job bullshit is that it violates a societal norm that work should be for some necessary purpose. It should not be mere busy work. Moreover, as he chronicles in his book, bullshit jobs work against our broader social interests.

This finally brings us back to Scrooge and his exclamation “Bah! Humbug!” What made Christmas humbug (bullshit) was that the holiday was not a proper use of human time and attention. It violated a norm — what Scrooge thought was a norm — that time was properly spent being industrious and earning money. But beyond that it was also a deceptive holiday, asking us to pretend that all was joyful when, according to Scrooge, it was not. But of course on top of it all was the fact that it got in the way of Scrooge’s interest: making money.

Ebenezer Scrooge

We’ve covered a lot of cases of bullshit, and you may be starting to wonder if “bullshit,” like the meaning of “humbug” in the 18th century, now “has not even the penumbra of a meaning.” But I don’t think so.

In the end, in its most general form, bullshit is some action or event or product thereof that fails to follow the applicable norms for something of its kind, in a way that conflicts with someone’s interests.[18] In the linguistic case this means that the Cooperative Principle is being violated to various ends and that a pact has been violated — a kind of social pact that we endeavor to be helpful, cooperative partners in our discourse. The act of violating that pact is bullshit, as is the product of that act.

This also means that the world is full of bullshit, since there are lots of things that don’t follow the norms for things of their kind and thus fail to serve our interests. Have I overgenerated cases of bullshit? Why aren’t we calling bullshit all day long? The answer of course, is that most bullshit is not worth remarking, and if we did remark on it we would typically be violating some maxim of relevance or quantity or perhaps politeness. It would be bullshit to constantly call out all the bullshit. Only people like Holden Caulfield get away with that.

Now, it is interesting that Frankfurt’s essay has become important in contemporary analyses of propaganda, and it has certainly been applied to our understanding of the propaganda that came out of the Trump administration. As noted earlier, Trump is a perfect example of the bullshitter on Frankfurt’s theory (honestly, on every theory).

Consequently, all the recent talk of bullshit within the Frankfurt model has provided grist for the anti-Trump mill, including an article by Matthew Yglesias entitled “The Bullshitter-in-Chief,” and more poignantly, subtitled “Donald Trump’s disregard for the truth is something more sinister than ordinary lying” — an article in which Yglesias refers to Frankfurt no less than 10 times.

The problem is that Trump is far from the only bullshit artist (or even the only bullshit factory) operating in the political realm, and there are many bullshit artists and craftsmen that are engaged in deceptions that very much pay attention to the details of the truth, and who are careful to not (strictly speaking) lie about anything. There are still others that dissemble, obfuscate, withhold important information, and clog the information channels with useless information. These actions too deserve to be called out for what they are: Bullshit.

And here is what I think is bullshit about recent applications of Frankfurt’s theory to propaganda models. We may want to believe that Trump-style bullshitters are worse than Bill Clinton-style bullshitters because Clinton-style bullshitters at least have their eye on the truth, but what possible value is found in this difference? Is the bullshit somehow less odious because in his heart of hearts Clinton at least knew what the truth was? An alternative story would be that Clinton’s bullshit was worse in that the bullshit was more cynical and at the end of the day it devalued truth-telling.

Black, as we noted, took a dim view of the idea that this is less evil than an outright lie.[19] He also drew on a few lines from William Blake (Auguries of Innocence) to drive home his point.

And I do not doubt that there are many Trumpistas who know full well that Trump is indifferent to the truth, but who are fed up with politicians and public relations experts that parse what is said in a way that is strictly speaking truthful, but which misleads by virtue of implicating falsehoods, or flooding the information channel with confusing, irrelevant claims. Under such circumstances an honestly dishonest person can be refreshing to someone that is overcome with bullshit fatigue.

If I am right, we are encountering a bullshit use of language whenever someone violates the Cooperative Principle. And this is not as benign as it might sound, because the Cooperative Principle is the principle that ensures that we are all collaborating in good faith to communicate with each other in a way that does not lead to confusion, obfuscation, and deception. It is, in point of fact, the principle that is necessary for us to carry on the business of being fellow humans.

One final thought. A colleague who read an earlier draft of this paper asked me who the intended audience was, and I said, “oh you know, drunk philosophers at the bar after they have given their talks and they just want to kick back and bullshit.” And this of course introduces a final and important example of bullshit — one of which this paper is an exemplar.

First, why is this paper an exemplar of a kind of bullshit? Well, it is too long, and much of it is not relevant to anything, and it isn’t organized all that well — I mean, it’s a paper about bullshit! Also, Frankfurt didn’t waste time organizing his, why should I waste time on mine? I am sure there are other reasons this is a bullshit paper.

But maybe it is ok if this paper is a kind of bullshit exemplar. Following communicative norms is hard work and there ought to be occasions in which you can bullshit penalty-free, or at least mix a little bullshit into the job. You give a tightly argued talk and answer hostile questions for a half hour and you go to the bar and just want to bullshit with your friends and not worry if you are violating maxims or flouting maxims or whatever, and sure you have serious and important things to say but you also want the freedom to bullshit with your friends a bit too. Or maybe you just published a 430 page book that took 20 years of brain-melting work and you want to have some fun with a fun topic like bullshit.

For example, maybe Fania Pascal was looking to bullshit with Wittgenstein for a bit. He obviously wasn’t down for that, but didn’t she deserve a few minutes of bullshit time after getting her tonsils extracted? I mean, she felt like a dog that had been run over, for fucks sake! So what if she was bullshitting?

There are obviously times when bullshitting is a bad thing. Presidential speeches and job interviews and hiring meetings and most of what we do in our everyday lives doesn’t have room for bullshit. But surely there can be room for down-time — moments when we can just dumb out, party, and bullshit, as the Notorious B.I.G. put it in “Party and Bullshit.”

And sometimes good things can come out of these moments of down-time bullshitting. After all, points do get made, and much bullshit contains truths and not a few good ideas, even if it is all poorly organized, etc.

To conclude: My propositions in this essay serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands them eventually recognizes them as bullshit, when they have used them — as steps — to climb up beyond them. (They must, so to speak, throw away the ladder of bullshit after they have climbed up it.)

Biggie

NOTES

[1]I am indebted to Julian Friedland, Ernie Lepore, Adam Sennet, and CTRL Key Pinkerton for comments on a previous draft. The title of this paper is a riff on Gareth Evans book The Varieties of Reference, which in some part was a response to Peter F. Strawson’s paper “On Referring.” Since writing this essay I have discovered a very interesting paper by the philosopher Adrian Bardon, entitled “Varieties of Bullsh*t.” As I understand Bardon’s paper, it is a survey of varieties of bullshit that can be found within Frankfurt’s framework, although I don’t believe that all of the cases he discusses fall neatly within the Frankfurt paradigm of bullshit. I predict further discussion about that.

[2] Jesse James (who has no known relation to the famous Western outlaw, although he claims to be a relation) is famous for starting West Coast Choppers, but perhaps more famous for marrying adult entertainer Janine Lindemulder, and then marrying actress Sandra Bullock, and then getting engaged to tattoo artist Kat von D and then getting married to drag racer Alexis DeJoria and currently dating adult entertainer Bonnie Rotten.

[3] The linguist in me wants to point out that these examples show that “bullshit” can be used in different parts of speech. For example, “bitch please!,” a statement popularized by the comedian Dave Chappelle, is an expressive that gets tacked onto the end of a sentence, as in the following Twitter post. (In this example and those that follow I’m not posting tweets from linguistic “authorities” — whatever that might mean, but just, so far as I know, regular Twitter users.)

So, this is the equivalent to just responding to a statement with “Bullshit!”

On the other hand, as the following tweet shows, “bullshit,” like “horsecockery” is quite happily deployed as a noun.

Synonyms like “prejac” are equivalent to uses of “bullshit” as both a noun and verb. Here I turn to the Urban Dictionary.

And of course there are plenty of examples of “bullshit” and its synonyms being used as adjectives, as in the following tweet.

[4] This is a pretty standard test used by linguists to identify implicatures. You can’t say they are false, but you can reject them by calling bullshit on them. I believe this test was first brought to my attention by Tim Sundell.

[5] https://seinfeld.fandom.com/wiki/Festivus.

[6] His Vienna contemporaries, the Logical Positivists, had the same problem. Their verificationist criterion of meaning posed a problem in that anything they wrote about logical positivism, because not empirically verifiable, had to be meaningless. But to their credit they never claimed that this was some deep feature of logical positivism and at least some of them tried to solve the problem and when they gave up they explained they couldn’t solve the problem.

[7] Can something be packaged in a way that it is bullshit for one audience but clear to another? Well, most published academic work is not accessible to a general audience. How could it be, given the background knowledge that is assumed when addressing your audience? But it isn’t thereby bullshit even if people like Swags McGee may think it is. The problem arises if you are using technical material for the sole purpose of freezing people out or flexing your cred as a formal whiz. There is no inherent problem with technical exposition and formal rigor, but it can become bullshit when it is not serving to prove or make or help make your point for your audience. What your audience is or should be is another question.

[8] Too much information.

[9] There is some dispute about whether he actually gave the speech in its entirety. If the current version of the Wiktionary entry for “bunkum” is to be believed, he was shouted down, did not complete his oration, and subsequently published his speech in the City of Washington Gazette. In any case, I tried to make sense of the congressional minutes but could not do so, and the Gazette is where I drew the contents of his speech from. The speech, at least as it appears in the Gazette, has points of prescience, as Walker predicts the civil war and, for that matter, much of the US political discourse that persists to this day. Here is the speech: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Missouri_Question:_Speech_of_Mr._Walker,_of_N.C.

[10] https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-02-09/has-anyone-seen-the-president. Why did Bannon say “shit” and not “bullshit”? The former seems stronger somehow, and it suggests that he not only wants to flood the zone with content that violates the maxims, but with worse things. What worse things? There are lots of possibilities here, including content that is explicitly designed to insight anger, fear, and resentment. At some point, in providing such content, you are leaving bullshit behind and are on the way to inciting emotions directly.

[11] It can also be the case that Trump’s fans do not view the disrespect as being aimed at them, but rather at their political enemies. Maybe he is obviously lying, but he is doing it to “own the libs” as they say.

[12] Julian Friedland suggests that maybe this is an example of “bad faith,” in Sartre’s sense, by which I think he means that it involves an invitation to participate in an obvious act of self-deception. I do believe this is a thing. There are cases of consensual group self-deception, and that is definitely some bullshit. Maybe it is even bullshit squared. But it isn’t the core of bullshit. It is more like something you do to amplify the bullshit. It is also not entirely clear to me that cases like sharpie gate are serious invitations to self-deception. They are more along the lines of someone saying “fuck you, I am gonna lie to your face and there is nothing you can do about it.” Which is also bullshit squared.

[13] I had thought to include more examples, but decided I should let readers come up with their own.

[14] Person on the Asberger’s spectrum. See also, Autist.

[15] And yes, it is possible that she was bullshitting Wittgenstein, which is an idea we will return to later.

[16] You might be tempted to suggest here that the meaning of “bullshit” can only be understood in terms of family resemblances between things we call “bullshit.” As we will see, this does not appear to be the case.

[17] It can, however, be bullshit if you import norms from elsewhere. If you just moved to Toronto from Florida, then the ice storm probably is bullshit for you. Some people think they can call bullshit on the ice storm if the weather reporter predicted sunny skies. I wonder. Isn’t the true bullshit the bullshit forecast in this case? Unless you assume a model in which the weather is responsible for obeying weather forecasts it isn’t really the weather that is bullshit here.

[18] The question of whose interests is necessarily fluid here. It might be our interests, but not always. I may witness someone giving a tourist bad instructions, and tell the tourist, “that guy was bullshitting you.”

The qualifier about being a norm for “something of its kind” is important. For example, if a friend was murdered we would not say “that was a bullshit thing to do.” Saying that would be insulting. The murder was evil! However, there are circumstances where “bullshit” might be used. If the murder was carried out by some mobsters and the boss did not approve, he might well say “that was a bullshit hit job,” not to say it was evil but perhaps to say that the killers did not properly consider the repercussions. Alternatively, the boss might consider the job to be done sloppily (why did you waste so many bullets?) and say “that murder was bullshit.” What is going on here? In these cases, the mob boss is saying that the murder violated the norms for murders. Let’s take a deeper dive into the linguistics of that phenomenon.

In a (1989) paper I argued that certain adjectives — sometimes called attributive adjectives — carry comparison classes with them. So, for example, you can say “that elephant is small” but what you mean is that it is small for an elephant (elephants being the comparison class). You can say “that flea is large” but again, it is large relative to the comparison class of fleas. I believe that “bullshit”, when used as an adjective, introduces a comparison class. So something is bullshit when it is bullshit for something of its kind. So, a murder can be bullshit, but only when it is bullshit as far as murders go. It does not accord with the norms for murdering people.

There are even linguistic tests for attributive adjectives like this. There is a difference between saying “that glass of orange juice is large” and saying “that glass with orange juice in it is large”. In the former case you are saying it is large as far as glasses of juice go, but in the latter you are saying is large for a glass. Similarly, one can say “that glass of orange juice is bullshit” which might be something a restaurant customer might say, expecting more juice for their buck; on the other hand a glass blower might say “that glass with orange juice in it is bullshit,” taking a dim view of its craftsmanship.

As I write this note about attributive adjectives it occurs to me that what I said in my (1989) paper was some bullshit, because elephants are not large or small relative to the class of elephants. They are rather large or small relative to the norms for elephants. So if all living elephants were on tiny islands and subsequent generations of elephants became tiny dwarf elephant, they would still be small, but they would be small relative to the norm for elephants, not for the class of existing elephants. Thirty-three years of error corrected by studying bullshit! Why is this bullshit as opposed to simple error on my part? I think because it took so long for me to notice the error and correct it. The time-to-error-correction fell outside the norms of good scholarship.

[19] See also Jennifer Saul’s (2012) paper “You may as well lie,” which provides a detailed argument for the same point. If you are going to mislead people, you aren’t a better person for having avoided the overt lie.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bardon, Adrian. 2020. “Varieties of Bullsh*t.” Medium. https://medium.com/@bardona/varieties-of-bullsh-t-6fd1cfeb102f

Black, Max. 1983. “On the Prevalence of Humbug.” In On the Prevalence of Humbug, and other Essays. Cornell University Press.

Cohen, G. A. 2002. “Deeper into bullshit.” Contours of agency: Essays on themes from Harry Frankfurt. Bradford Books/MIT Press.

Dynel, Marta. 2011. “A web of deceit: A neo-Gricean view on types of verbal deception.” International Review of Pragmatics 3, 139–165.

Frankfurt, Harry G. 2005. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.

Graeber, David. 2018. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Simon & Schuster.

Grice, H. Paul. 1991. “Logic and Conversation.” In Studies in the Way of Words. Harvard University Press.

Jacquemet, Carlos. 2020. “45 as a Bullshit Artist: Straining for Charisma.” In McIntosh and Mendoza-Denton (eds.) Language in the Trump Era: Scandals and Emergencies.

Leech, Geoffry. 1983. Principles of pragmatics. London, New York: Longman Group Ltd.

Ludlow, Peter. 1989. “Implicit Comparison Classes.” Linguistics and Philosophy 12, 519–533.

Noah, Trevor. 2018. “Third Month Mania: Bracket of Bullshit.” The Daily Show. https://on.cc.com/2sC7jWL

Rawson, Hugh. 2006. “Why do We Say… Bunk.” American Heritage Magazine. http://www.americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/ah/2006/5/2006_5_9.shtml

Saul, Jennifer. 2012. “Just go ahead and lie.” Analysis 72, 3–9. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anr133

Sokol, Alan and Jean Bricmont. 2014. Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Picador.

Walker, Felix. 1820. “Missouri Question: Speech of Mr. Walker of N.C.” City of Washington Gazette; Date: 05–11–1820; Volume: V; Issue: 759; Page: [2]; Location: Washington (DC), District of Columbia. Online:https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Missouri_Question:_Speech_of_Mr._Walker,_of_N.C.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1961. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (trans.), New York: Humanities Press.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1969. On Certainty. Basil Blackwell.

Yglesias, Matthew. 2017. “The Bullshitter-in-Chief.” Vox, May 30, 2017. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/5/30/15631710/trump-bullshit

Zach. 2018. “Don’t Read Harry Frankfurt’s ‘On Bullshit’.” The Vim. https://thevimblog.com/2018/11/10/harry-frankfurts-on-bullshit/

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Writes about Philosophy, Crypto Anarchy, Cryptocurrencies, DeFi, Generative Linguistics. More info: https://sites.google.com/site/peterjludlow/

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EJ Spode

Writes about Philosophy, Crypto Anarchy, Cryptocurrencies, DeFi, Generative Linguistics. More info: https://sites.google.com/site/peterjludlow/