Bullshit Happens

One man's B.S. is another man's Bible. But what would Jon Stewart say?

Instead of subjecting bullshit to any rigorous a priori pressure, Frankfurt culls instances of the word from literature at large (especially poetry), making questionable claims based on a series of OED etymologies and arriving at his definition quite haphazardly—more the stuff of half-baked, last-minute seminar papers than definitive inquiries. In fact, Frankfurt openly admits, "I have not undertaken a survey of the literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it."

Other times Frankfurt's clearly toying with us, as in his lengthy comparison of bullshitting to blowing hot air:

Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement is a representation of death that we ourselves produce and that, indeed, we cannot help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive.

Read bull: Princeton's Harry Frankfurt
photo: Princeton University Press
Read bull: Princeton's Harry Frankfurt

And too perfectly, the crux of Frankfurt's definition rests on the essay's best irony. Setting up the truth/lie distinction, Frankfurt recalls fellow bullshit caller Ludwig Wittgenstein's 1930s reaction to Fania Pascal explaining her latest bout of sickness: "I felt just like a dog that has been run over." With motives perfectly unclear, Wittgenstein responded, "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like." Frankfurt then spends several playful pages justifying his use of the anecdote as evidence, asking first rhetorically, "Now who knows what really happened?" then writing defensively of Fania's account, "She knew him, and she knew what to expect from him; she knew how he made her feel."

This—like Frankfurt's essay as a whole—is great slop, its true worth revealed only to those who struggle with its fraudulence. We need bullshit, precisely to expose it as such—or maybe I'm just being defensive.

Nick Sylvester is an associate editor at Pitchforkmedia.

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