On Bullshit

Post modern philosophers like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Lyotard and others consistently and vigorously fought against the monopoly of reason, scientism, objectivity , universality and modern thought.They denounced meaning, objects and rationality of life and subjects related to life.This movement of postmodern thinking dominated academic world for about thirty years showing cracks in it in the first decade of twenty first century.The talk of decline of postmodernism began because of at least two developments. First, with the onslaught of digitalisation,universality and objectivity again became important.Every type of knowledge was being digitalised and the difference between knowledge and ignorance was converted into knowledge(data which can be digitalised) and noise (the data which cannot be digitalised). Second, with no standard guide to distinguish true knowledge from ignorance or bad/inadequate /knowledge, the anarchical situation in determining knowledge gave rise to fake/phony claimants of knowledge and pushing us into a post truth era where ultimately the truth is the casualty.These and other developments question the longevity of postmodernism and many scholars started raising doubts about the viability, sustainability and morality of postmodernism in the changing scenario .This benighted state of postmodernism is being conceptualized by a few scholars.One of them is Harry Frankfurt, an American Philosopher who published an essay “On Bullshit” in a book form in 2005.It was an instant best seller in nonfiction category .

Harry Frankfurt began his essay with a general statement about an important feature of contemporary culture that is there is so much bullshit around.But what is bullshit or what is the theory of bullshit? The generic definition of bullshit is nonsense and is used in common parlance as a slang.Before discussing characteristics of bullshit, he analyses the meaning of humbug as manifested in Max Black’s essay”The Prevalence of Humbug” published in 1985.He concludes that humbug is a polite form of Bullshit. Frankfurt uses Wittgenstein’s indulgences in language.Bullshit is nonsense but it is neither a wrought nonsense nor a product of simple carelessness. One can derive certain specific characteristics of bullshit from Frankfurt’s analysis for making its distinct identity.

First characteristics of bullshit is that it is insidiously disruptive form of nonsense.That means it is not simply nonsense with no consequences .It has its negative impact. Second, mindlessness.A bullshitter is not concerned about the correctness of his statement, he is not bothered about the long term impact of his statement on the audience.He is not even conscious of his position and sadly not only failing in getting things right but not even trying.He is just floating without direction.He is concerned about his own survival. Third, bullshitter talks personal and emotional laden aspects of life even if he holds a public office or in a formal situation.He behaves as if he is participating in a bull session .A bull session, as per Frankfurt, is a gossiping session where, ‘the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without its being assumed that they are committed to what they say; it is understood by everyone …that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel.’This irresponsibility in speech is intrinsic in bullshitting.

Fourth, bullshitting is also characterized as ‘hot air.’It means that the speech is empty, without substance or content.It serves no purpose.There are similarities between hot air and excrement(as pointed out by Frankfurt)which makes hot air seem an especially suitable equivalent for bullshit. Fifth, it is closer to bluffing then to telling a lie. Both Lying and bluffing are meant to misrepresenting the fact.The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt tells us is not falsehood but that it is phony. A fake or phony like a counterfeit may be exactly like the genuine one.The distinction lies in the way it is made.Thus a bullshitter misrepresents his intentions.to quote Frankfurt,’ his statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are—that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.’A bullshitter is indifferent to truth, fact or reality.He has no faith in its truthfulness or otherwise .He just picks them out or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Frankfurt concludes his essay by pointing out the necessary condition for the growth of bullshit in contemporary culture which is made obvious day and night by media and now accelerated by social media. He says, ‘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 that topic.’

If we apply this theoretical construct on politicians today one can surely point out some obvious actors in the political field.

Any agreement on criterion to judge truthfulness of facts, opinions or judgments is not possible in postmodern era where everyone is turning to be a narcissus and self opinionated.This will lead to disaster and the regeneration in reason and human values is inevitable if humanity is to survive.

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