The Varieties of Bullshit

If we want a good theory of bullshit, it will help if we consider a broader class of examples and expressions that are thought to be synonymous with bullshit.

In a classic essay entitled “On Bullshit,” the Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt argued that the bullshitter is different (maybe worse) than the traditional liar because the bullshitter does not bother keeping an eye on the truth. Frankfurt’s essay has subsequently had uptake in the broader culture and has fueled much contemporary analysis of political discourse and models of propaganda. It has, for example, been applied religiously to analyses of the political discourse of Donald Trump.

I think that Frankfurt is right about some cases of bullshit, but I maintain that there is more bullshit out there than Frankfurt seems to recognize, and this leads him to construct a theory of bullshit that is too narrow. If we want a reliable theory of bullshit we need to consider these additional cases. And ultimately, it will be necessary to revisit some of those propaganda models that are built on Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Is Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit itself an example of bullshit? Or is it merely bullshit for us to continue to embrace that theory? Let’s see!

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