Why I have taken a shot at bullshit

February 18, 2005

Bullshit is one of the most salient features of our culture. Every day we are confronted by politicians, pundits and others who talk from a position of partial or total ignorance.

They engage in bullshit readily - one US senator was recently recorded saying that global warming was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people. We know that is bullshit, yet we tend to take the situation for granted.

But, as a professional philosopher, I am dismayed and disturbed by this indifference to the truth.

The prevalence of bullshit in universities is especially pernicious. Universities are supposed to be devoted to the truth. So if they become tolerant of bullshit, they are betraying their sacred mission.

Nevertheless, the small world of the academy is particularly fertile ground for the production of bullshit. Egos abound and there are many self-aggrandising, boastful individuals in academe who constantly seek to sell themselves. Anybody determined to hold status, as many academics are, is prone to a tremendous effusion of bullshit.

One of the distinctive marks of bullshitters is that they are, above all, concerned about representing themselves in a certain way.

Moreover, when ideological goals take over from scholarly goals, and ambition moves professors in this new direction, they tend to neglect the distinction between true and false.

This sort of thing goes on in universities all the time. There is, to begin with, an enormous, self-congratulatory tendency: the president of the university standing up and talking about how wonderful we all are and how important we are to society and what a terrific job we do and how terrific our students are. It is very tiresome.

I am not saying that universities are not wonderful institutions - they are. But this mode of communication encapsulates a concern for itself, rather than for the truth; and this is one of the most distinctive characteristics of bullshit.

Another consideration is that academics are supposed to be authorities in their fields, which is why they are appointed, protected and encouraged. It is therefore important for them to present themselves as authoritative. Quite frequently, however, they do not know what they are talking about.

Yet it is difficult for them to acknowledge their ignorance because that would be to deny the legitimacy of their positions and of their claims to special respect and attention.

In addition, there is the growing politicisation of the university. The moral goal of the university is to enable and encourage students to accept the discipline of respecting truth. Any other goal is extraneous.

Once a university has adopted the reduction of social inequities as one of its goals, it is bound to go astray. This endeavour encourages a proliferation of ideologically motivated sub-disciplines such as Afro-American studies and women's studies, and the central scholarly ideal of the university is in danger of getting lost in a cacophony of bullshit.

Sadly, the prevalence and persistence of bullshit are so deeply ingrained that combating them may be a losing battle.

In my view, the best way - in fact the only way - to combat bullshit is to make it clear that you recognise it and then to ridicule it.

Make the bullshitter feel humiliated, not simply because of his failure to hoodwink you but also because of the silliness of what he says. We might not be able to stamp it out altogether, but we would certainly be able to reduce the stench.

On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt is published next week by Princeton University Press (£6.50).

Interview by Helen Davies

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