'On Bullsh*t' - Notes

The following are a select group of quotations and notes taken from the work 'On Bullshit' by the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt.[1] In a so-called ‘post-truth’ world (perhaps), where mis- and dis- information roam wild, my inclination is that being able to distinguish between: (a) The political liar, (b) the political troll, and (c) the political bullshit-artist - is a concerning matter of instrumental and conceptual understanding for navigational urgency. All three are particularly difficult to differentiate. This being said, perhaps Frankfurt can help us in this regard, assisting us in teasing out how we can understand what makes the bullshit artist themselves – by clarifying what the mechanisation and operationalisation of bullshit implies.

Pages 33-34

“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of Bullshit.”


“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.”


“This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern for the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”


“The consequences of being caught are generally less severe for the bullshitter than for the liar. In fact, people do tend to be more tolerant of bullshit than of lies, perhaps because we are less inclined to take the former as a personal affront.”


“It [bullshit] involves a program of producing bullshit to whatever extent the circumstances require.”


“The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true.”


“On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as is required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, colour and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art” – Trump and the art of dealing in bullshit?


“He [the bullshitter] [is] more strongly drawn to this mode of creativity, regardless of its relative merit or effectiveness, than he was to the more austere and rigorous demand of lying.”

“What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs.”


“The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be.”

“What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”


“But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.”


“It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction.”


“His [the bullshitter’s] eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.”


“[Bullshitting] involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost.”


“The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.” However, there is a contradiction here, no? As Frankfurt already exclaimed that BS can overlap with truth as coincidence. In this case, is a coincidental truth uttered by a bullshitter still a truth or the manifestation of bullshit still?


“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.” Why Plato argues for philosophical kings? The relationship between doxa and bullshit?


“The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These ‘antirealist’ doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry.” The equal and opposite, or absorptive perhaps, effect of postmodernism and ‘antirealism’ on agents and the proliferation of bullshit – Trump as a postmodern figure and the alt-right as a postmodern far right? Can this relate to Angela Nagle and her claim that identitarianism is the mirrored inversion of identity politics?[2]

[1] Harry G. Frankfurt (2005) On Bullshit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

[2] Angela Nagle (2017) Kill all Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump. Winchester: Zero Books.