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on bullshit and truth

I like to think of Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s last film, as an extremely elaborate setup for the delivery of its last line. Nicole Kidman’s spectacular, many-layered declamation of one word partially redeems an otherwise inane, middle-aged male fantasy/anxiety dream.

I thought of that when I read “sincerity itself is bullshit,” the last line of On Bullshit (Harry G Frankfurt). Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University and generally a big shot. His relatively small, 1986 paper tries to “give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not.” If this strikes you as funny, it should. The fact that this paper was republished in 2005 as a literally very small book is amusing enough as far as it goes and the language he employs adds to the humor. On the prevalence of bullshit: “the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean.” Get out your dictionary. Later, among other things, he analyzes the difference between “bullshit” and “humbug” and he carries it all forward with fine sense of the pun (which I consider among the highest forms of humor): “The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain.” Perhaps we ought to consider a laxative—or at least some strong coffee. And, almost, but not quite, like death and taxes, “[b]ullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he [sic] is talking about.”

Despite the campy feeling, Frankfurt tries to make some serious points. For instance, he claims that an essential quality of bullshit is that it is “produced without concern with the truth, [but] it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he [or she] gets them wrong.” Further, “there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.” (It is possible that through his use of the male pronoun Frankfurt here is making a point about men having a harder time knowing themselves than women, but I doubt it. On the contrary, the constant use of the male, and only male, pronoun throughout the book leads me to think he’s chosen to represent all people as male.) Frankfurt’s point about self-knowledge is well-taken and it is this idea, that leads to his final claim. If talking with out knowing what one is talking about is bullshit and if we don’t know ourselves, then any claim to know truly what we are thinking or feeling is bullshit; that is, sincerity is bullshit.

If Frankfurt had left it at that, it would have been fun and somewhat thoughtful. However, he followed up On Bullshit with On Truth (2006), an explanation/defense of why truth is important and “why we should especially care about it.” His argument has several facets. He discusses the “practical utility” of truth—after all, if one doesn’t know the truth about the weather, one can be pretty uncomfortable (e.g., too hot or too cold or very wet). He also uses the work of Baruch Spinoza, the seventeenth century philosopher, in relation to truth:

Spinoza concluded that nearly everyone—everyone who values and who cares about his own life—does, whether knowingly or not, love truth. As far as I can see, Spinoza was on the whole correct about this. Practically all of us do love truth, whether or not we are aware that we do so. And, to the extent that we recognize what dealing effectively with the problems of life entails, we cannot help loving truth.

This is partly due to Spinoza’s idea that joy “is a feeling of the enlargement of one’s power to live, and to continue living, in accord with one’s most authentic nature.” In order to live in accord with one’s most authentic nature, one must know that nature; therefore, we must love truth. That this argument contradicts the ending claim of On Bullshit doesn’t appear to bother Frankfurt—I suppose we’re supposed to take that last line for rhetorical effect more than for its truth value; he is propagating bullshit on bullshit, so to speak.

The reason for the contradictions becomes clear when Frankfurt reveals why he has taken it upon himself to become truth’s apologist:

When I was a child, I often felt oppressed by the chaotic jumble of implausible notions and beliefs that I felt various adults were attempting to foist on me. My own dedication to truth originated, so far as I am able to recall, in the liberating conviction that once I grasped the truth, I would no longer be distracted or disturbed by anyone’s (including my own) speculations, hunches, or hopes.

Frankfurt wants some stable ground on which to stand. He feels unsettled and unbalanced without some truth onto which he can hold. And he wants his truth to be firm and unchanging and it disturbs him that there might not be such truth. Anyone who thinks that the whole idea of truth is questionable comes in for ridicule, even scorn: “These shameless antagonists of common sense—members of a certain emblematic subgroup of them call themselves ‘postmodernists’—rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all.” For Frankfurt, the idea that truth might be contextual, individual, personal, socially-constructed, and impermanent threatens the foundations of civilized society, a disaster of mythopoetic proportion—it is, at the very least, offensive.

I’m sympathetic to Frankfurt. In some ways it would be nice if we knew the truth and we could count on it forever. But, while I believe there is truth, I also believe it is impossible for us to know it as such, even when it smacks us in the face. People who claim to know the truth, by whatever method, are usually, if not always, looking to confirm a set of preconceived ideas or trying to convince someone else of the same. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (which I’m currently reading) details some of the overt and subtle ways that science—the great modern arbiter of truth—has been used erroneously to rank human beings. The findings were preordained; the data made to fit the preconceptions. We are all at least susceptible to this problem and so truth, no matter how much we love it, will forever elude us, will forever be possible but uncertain.

What started as a fun exercise in semi-philosophical humor, became a serious pursuit of something that, no matter how much we want it or how scarred our childhood, is impossible. Frankfurt is accessible and interesting and fun and loses his way chasing a childhood fantasy.

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