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Pedagogy 6.3 (2006) 553-558

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The Bullshit Revival

On Bullshit. By Harry G. Frankfurt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Since it first appeared in the quarterly journal Raritan two decades ago, Harry G. Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" has circulated widely among graduate students in Frankfurt's academic field of philosophy, where it gained the status of a minor modern classic. Republished in 2005 as a hardback volume slimmer than an empty wallet, On Bullshit suddenly became a campus bestseller whose runaway success generated considerable media attention, including profiles in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes. On its face, this republication is a simple repackaging: nothing in the book suggests that it even has a prior history, much less that the essay is twenty years old. So what is new? Buzz, for one thing. For students of rhetoric and communication, the second life of On Bullshit is a study in kairos and delivery. Yet aside from this, why should teachers outside philosophy—writing teachers like me, for example—pay attention? Of course, bullshit itself certainly holds interest as a rhetorical tactic, yet Frankfurt offers no help on this score, writing, "I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit" (2). Academics with an interest in rhetoric and composition, noting that Frankfurt has missed an opportunity, might be tempted to pass On Bullshit by.

Yet this would be a mistake, for On Bullshit wholly deserves its new, wider audience. Broadly relevant beyond philosophy, it touches disciplines [End Page 553] as diverse as cultural studies and political science, and it has the rare qualities of being both serious enough for the professional academic and interesting enough for the undergraduate. Rhetoric and composition teachers in particular will find On Bullshit useful even as we take issue with some of its arguments. There are at least three reasons why we should consider On Bullshit a book worthy of serious attention. First, Frankfurt's subject establishes bullshit as a significant term for the analysis of public discourse. Second, as writing, On Bullshit is pedagogically useful, a fine example of an essay at the stasis of definition that can be employed productively in composition classes. Third, it revisits old distinctions between philosophy and rhetoric in ways that, while not entirely convincing, illustrate the recent contexts of philosophy's historical suspicion of rhetoric.

The central distinction in On Bullshit is between bullshit and lies, which turns out to hinge on the question of truth. Seeking a reasonable definition of bullshit, Frankfurt locates an imperfect analogy in the word humbug as defined by the analytic philosopher Max Black. Like bullshit, humbug resembles lying but differs from it as well. Black's definition of humbug, quoted in On Bullshit, includes the notion of "deceptive misrepresentation" but also insists that humbug is "short of lying" (7). Frankfurt offers the case of a patriotic speaker droning on about American history. Yet such a speaker "is not trying to deceive anyone about American history. What he cares about is what people think of him" (18). As Frankfurt reads the distinction between lying and humbug, "those who perpetrate [humbug] misrepresent themselves in a certain way" rather than misrepresent the subject of their discourse (19). These two features of humbug—a statement short of lying that misrepresents the speaker rather than a state of affairs—are correct as far as they go. As a description of bullshit, however, Frankfurt finds Black's definition "significantly off the mark" (19).

To understand what distinguishes bullshit from both lying and humbug, Frankfurt examines a moment where Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose concern with the proper use of language was the stuff of legend, is reported to have overreacted to a casual statement from his friend Fania Pascal (24). In Frankfurt's reading of the episode, Wittgenstein reacts so severely—as though to say "this is just bullshit" (29)—because Pascal's statement is "unconnected to a concern with the truth" (30). Her statement amounts to bullshit neither because it is careless nor because it is inaccurate, but because its carelessness lies, as it were, at its core. This indifference...


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