What is Bulls–t?
Perhaps you begin with the perception “What a bullshit topic!” But this paper argues that the variety of types of bullshit are distinguishable morally, emotionally and spiritually.
Bullshit is not batshit, nor is it apeshit, nor is it horseshit. For the purposes of this discussion let us interpret ‘horseshit’ as a statement that is simply wrong, most probably factually wrong; let us interpret ‘batshit’ as a statement that is not only wrong, but daft as well; let us interpret apeshit as behaviour of an extreme nature, which might or might not involve language. These scatological distinctions should probably not be examined too closely, especially with any of the senses.
Intentionality, or the lack of it, will be a significant part of this discussion. Some bullshit may be uttered or written with the intention of confusing the issue, or at least prevent it from becoming clear. But even if that is the intention, such an intention may not be intended as hurtful or depriving someone of their rights: a diplomatic remark may indeed be bullshit but quite possibly for a benevolent purpose; some creative ambiguity in a negotiated accord may allow that (imperfect) accord to take place. But other bullshit is unintentional: perhaps a form of cocktail party glossolalia, or the murmur of sweet nothings.
Lying vs Bullshit
Can we make a workable distinction between bullshit and lying? Frankfurt suggests that a liar intentionally makes a false statement, whereas a bullshitter does not care whether the statement is true or not. “Not to care” may or may not be intentional like a lie: one could know that there is a truth (or falsehood) value to a statement and not care that that is the case, or one could be careless in the sense of not paying attention to matters of truth or falsehood as in, just babbling. In either case, the bullshitter has made a fabricated statement which may or may not be true (usually not). The fabricated statement element is shared with a lie. Typically, there is less moral disapprobation for bullshit than a lie; the ‘why’ of this is a subject for subsequent discussion.
Can what we call confabulation be considered bullshit? By the standard of intention, perhaps not. The confabulator actually thinks his or her utterances are true.
What are the most common types of bullshit? Penny offers the following list: “exaggeration, obfuscation, omission, stock phrases, pretentious jargon, faux folksiness, feigned ignorance and sloganeering homilies”. We may be able to add others to this list; a suggested addition from other authors follows. But first we might consider whether there are differences between the types of bullshit. Is one more egregious than another? An important assessment standard is intent. The faux folksiness bullshit presented in the introduction to a political speech – e.g., “to the people of this lovely city” (where am I?) – could be considered quite harmless, if tedious. But if that same political speech feigns ignorance of malfeasance that has taken place, it is not harmless at all, it is dangerous.
Formal Fallacies in Logic and Factual Errors
One can be wrong without bullshit. Factually incorrect statements and/or false conclusions are invalid, but are not necessarily uttered with the intent to deceive. Invalid statements probably qualify as horseshit. However, if they are uttered in the knowledge that they are invalid, the statements may also be bullshit.
The Penny list is incomplete, but some thought is required as to whether and in what circumstances certain other classes of statement are bullshit. Consider inductive fallacies, such as: attacking the proposition by attacking the person who presented it; arguing for a proposition by saying that most people agree with it; saying that correlation proves causation; as well as begging the question, Loki’s Wager and more. Some of these errors could have been created by ‘persons of low wattage but high output’, but many are offered with the intent to deceive or misdirect. These latter are probably bullshit.
Just as a pack of pick pockets will distract the target through conversation or collision, so a bullshitter can introduce extraneous information in an effort to distract the reader or listener from key elements of a situation or argument. Consider the efforts of defence counsel to impugn the character of the victim in sexual assault cases. The sexual morals of the victim have nothing to do with whether the victim did or did not consent to the sexual act. In such cases, the distraction is clearly an ad hominem (ad feminam?) argument, but it need not be such a direct inductive fallacy. The distraction could be, as another example, a reference to a greater good, sidestepping the original concern about the morality of an act.
Let us consider the language of what is – disparagingly but not necessarily deservedly – described as ‘Guru Talk” where, it is argued, people are prone “to judge profound what they have failed to grasp” (Sperber). Reading this quote reminds me of the first time I read Hegel; I was told it was profound but I completely failed to grasp it. Careful and painstaking re-readings of Hegel allowed me some comprehension, so ‘guru talk’ does not include statements that are merely difficult to understand. That said, I do suspect some writers of uttering statements that are difficult to understand because, once they are understood, those difficult statements will then be viewed as profound.
Even though we do not understand the words of the guru, let us be careful in a rush to judgement. What if the guru has in fact passed through the doors of perception, and has found that this is the language they speak on the other side: in other words, a private language which must be learned? Or what if such ineffable concepts of spirituality cannot be expressed in prose but must be stated in poetic metaphor and transcendent verse? The two Williams, Wordsworth and Blake, sought to inspire and inform rather than fudge and obscure. Even if we cannot make sense of the images or the metaphors, by the standard of intentionality they do not appear to be spouting bullshit.
However, good intentions are insufficient to avoid a description of bullshit. Frankfurt argues that the harshness of Wittgenstein’s remark is justified as Pascal does not know or care whether her statement is right or wrong. If one wishes to imply some precision through the use of a simile, then the implication creates an obligation to communicate information which can be assessed and evaluated.
The Tractatus notwithstanding, we can and do make meaningful statements, often highly insightful statements, through the use of metaphor. Aesthetic and spiritual ideas often cannot be expressed in logical propositions. Application of a more relaxed Wittgensteinian standard, to avoid a bullshit designation, would require that some effort and attention be made in the construction of metaphors, so that there is a clear intent to communicate some intelligible idea.
Although uttered without regard to their truth or falsity, some statements are not made to mislead or obscure, but to amuse. Readers of the statements know that they are not intended to communicate defensible propositions. As such we would not consider them to be bullshit. In other cases, where people get together to swap fictional (made-up) stories about themselves and to trade outlandish ideas and perspectives, once again there is no expectation of correspondence to facts or logic. In those cases, we do refer to the conversations as bullshit sessions. The two types of nonsense can perhaps be distinguished by assessing whether they are intended to be coherent: literary nonsense uses incoherence to make a point; bullshit sessions endeavour to create a bond of communications.
Words and Actions
Straightforward statements of unambiguous meaning can nonetheless be bullshit. If the actions which appear to be implied by the statement do not take place, the validity of the statement itself is called into question. Many would identify such statements as lies, but since there is only implied causality in the statement, bullshit seems a better description.
With the best will in the world to be straightforward and clear in our communications, we nonetheless can easily fall into bullshit. If we are called upon to discuss or give an opinion about a situation about which we are wholly or partially uninformed, there is a high probability that our response will be bullshit. In this case, the advice of Wittgenstein may be wise:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”