On Bullshit: the Philosophy of Nonsense

The Dangerous of Bullshit

According to Harry Frankfurt, one of the striking features of human culture is bullshit. Bullshit is so prevalent; most people don’t care. In On Bullshit, Frankfurt tries to appreciate the word bullshit by giving it a theory. In conclusion, he said that bullshit is more dangerous than lying. Frankfurt’s philosophical analysis of bullshit originally appeared as an essay in the journal Raritan Quarterly Review in 1986.

In 2005, Princeton University Press published the essay in book form of the same name. The book topped the weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list. In the book, Frankfurt tries to give a philosophical analysis of the word bullshit. According to his words, he wants to appreciate bullshit by distinguishing it from what is not bullshit. He also tried to articulate the structure of his concept.

He wants to give the word a kind of theoretical framework. In polite language, bullshit means nonsense. The word is a combination of bull and shit, even though bull and bullshit both mean untrue writing or talk, or stupid. In other dictionaries, the word is synonymous with proficient. Frankfurt himself became professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, United States.

He of course discusses bullshit in English, and not in any other language. As usual a philosopher, he started his discussion by treading in the footsteps of another philosopher, namely Max Black. The main figure of analytic philosophy from England once reviewed the word humbug in the essay The Prevalence of Humbug. It means deceptive or false behavior or talk. Frankfurt said that bullshit and humbug have no important difference.

It’s just a sense of language, that makes both words different. People will be more comfortable saying humbug than bullshit.


In addition to trying to define bullshit boundaries, Frankfurt seeks to understand how the word operates to produce meaning. Therefore, the book tries to drain the mind. It is because it involves a discussion of the philosophy of semiotics and language. Back in Black’s thinking, he defines humbug as “a deceptive misrepresentation, a kind of lying, especially with pretended actions or words, about a person’s attitudes, feelings, and thoughts.”

Before developing the characteristics of bullshit, Frankfurt commented on the elements of Black’s definition of humbug. The elements include deceptive misrepresentations, such as lying, particularly with pretended words or deeds, and depictions of a person’s attitudes, feelings, and thoughts. From the deceptive misrepresentation, Frankfurt understands that humbug was intended by the speaker to deceive.

In such a case, the misrepresentation is not accidental but intended. According to Frankfurt, the important characteristic of humbug lies in the mind of the speaker. It’s not in his statement. In other words, the perpetrator realized that his statement was wrong. The perpetrator intended to say that for the sake of deceiving. In the element, humbug characteristics are similar to lying. Frankfurt even said that lying can happen even if a statement is true.

As an exception, a statement is true as long as the speaker believes the statement to be false and says it is to deceive. According to Frankfurt, some kind of lying evokes the idea that there is some kind of chain. Lying can occupy a certain point, as long as humbug is exclusively at the earlier point.

The Anecdotes of Wittgenstein

The humbug elements that Black formulated were very important for Frankfurt. He can distinguish bullshit from what is not bullshit with Black elements. In other cases, it is Saussure’s basic semiotic formula for understanding the meaning of a word. It is knowing the meaning other than the word. However, before developing his theory of bullshit, Frankfurt again treads the trail of other thoughts.

The other thought, namely Wittgenstein’s theory of nonsense, is placed as a synonym for bullshit. He judged that what Wittgenstein put forward more accurately described the central characteristics of bullshit. For example, an individual lies that he did not commit murder. The victim of a lie will cheat twice. At first, he was fooled that the liar didn’t kill. However, he gains a false belief about what is in the mind of the liar.

From this, the most central concept for lying is the fact that it is false. The difference between bullshit and humbug and lying is one. What is essential about bullshit is not error but falsification. However, liars deliberately spread and create mistakes. Bullshit is not necessarily wrong. Apart from being made without attention to the truth, it may not be wrong but it is fake. The review of Wittgenstein’s anecdotes is a little tiring.

However, Frankfurt reviews an anecdote related to Pascal about Wittgenstein. However, the point is that Wittgenstein considers nonsense to be unrelated to attention to the truth.

Conveying Bullshit

Bullshit has nothing to do with conveying reality. His statement can be true, it doesn’t mean the bullshit is making a false statement. However, the problem is that he has never sincerely tried to convey such a statement in an accurate depiction of reality. Bullshit doesn’t care whether it’s right or wrong, it’s what Frankfurt thinks is the essence of bullshit. A belief that it is wrong or right is not based on nonsense statements.

An individual can design a lie based on the objective boundaries that truth implies. Therefore, a liar still values the truth. According to Frankfurt, the liar designed it with the conditions of truth in mind. People cannot invent lies without knowing what is true. For him, it requires skill. Interestingly, Frankfurt also says that the fake is an exact copy of the real thing. Apart from the issue of authenticity, falsehood does not have to be seen by people as inferior to the real.

On the other hand, Baudrillard said that the simulation of reality is difficult for people to distinguish from reality. It is because the first ones were fabricated in such a way that it has elements of reality itself. It is at first glance similar to Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality. Therefore, bullshit is different from lying when it comes to describing what is on the offender’s mind.

Neither about the facts nor about what he thinks, the perpetrator does not deceive people. However, he deceived people about how exactly the fact he spoke of came to be.

Plotting Bullshit

On the other hand, bullshits do not concern themselves with plotting mistakes. What he did was fake the context as far as possible. However, the truth didn’t limit him either. In this case, bullshit actors have more freedom when compared to liars. In essence, lying requires skill. However, Frankfurt disagrees with the notion that bullshit is easier for people to do than a lie. Therefore, it is not necessarily bullshit that does not require “expertise” as lying.

For Frankfurt, he rejects the vocabulary definition of the bull session as just empty talk but idle or informal talk. While lying requires meticulous and strict skills because it is in opposition to the truth, bullshit requires more improvisation and imagination because it is more independent but free. Instead of skill, bullshit requires art. In short, liars and honest people play in the same field, namely truth.

However, bullshits have no interest in right or wrong. If the second is subject to the limits of truth, then the first is against it. He picks up or makes statements only for his own sake regardless of whether the statement does not describe reality or does. His interests are only himself, and not what he thinks or says. In essence, he could get away with what he was saying. According to Frankfurt, nonsense does not appear to attack or hurt people.

It is because people are just more docile or comfortable with bullshit than lies. It is precise because of this that bullshit is more dangerous than lying.


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