Analytic Bullshit, Ben Kotzee
The publication as a small book last year of Harry Frankfurt’s (1986) paper “On Bullshit” ignited great popular interest in “bullshit”: what is it “to bullshit someone” and why is there so much bullshit about these days? Prime examples of bullshit mentioned in the many popular contributions to the subject post-Frankfurt (just google for it) are found in “business-speak”, in advertising and in politics. What people enjoy about Frankfurt’s book, it seems, is that having a theory of bullshit available makes it possible now to do with a straight face what you previously had to hide in a cough: say that someone is talking bullshit. (We might say that, after Frankfurt, “bullshit” is a technical term.)
As far as I can tell, the theory of bullshit is in its infancy and I’m afraid that I don’t have much to add. Frankfurt distinguishes between honest assertion, lying and bullshitting as follows: In making an honest assertion (in telling the truth) one aims to say what is true and in lying, one aims to say what is not true… both in honest saying and lying one is guided by the aim of truth. In bullshitting, however, the speaker is unconcerned with the truth of what he says; the bullshitter pretends to make an honest assertion whereas he really is just mouthing off. As such, bullshitting is a faking of assertion: the bullshitter pretends to make an assertion, but actually asserts nothing. To people who know me, it will be quite clear why I’m interested in this: I work on the relation between truth, believing and assertion and think Frankfurt makes a very good point about the nature of assertion: honest saying and lying, as species of asserting, involve a concern with the truth of what one says. This comes into sharper focus when we consider the case of the bullshitter who pretends to assert, but, not caring about the truth of what he says, really ends up saying nothing (ends up not really asserting at all).
Be that as it may, Frankfurt thinks that bullshitting is a kind of dishonesty: whenever one speaks dishonestly in this way, what comes out one’s mouth is bullshit. Jerry Cohen disagrees with this characterisation of the relation between bullshitting intent and the shittiness of what one says. He holds that it is possible to talk bullshit without dishonest intent and mentions as an example the stuff emanating from French departments of philosophy and departments of literature in the English-speaking world overly occupied with French theory. (Holding up an example of bullshit, Cohen refers to Althusserian Marxism; he also mentions the writings on science of French theorists from Latour to Kristeva that Sokal criticises.) Cohen holds that there need not be any dishonesty on the part of these people: the problem is not that they are unconcerned with whether what they are saying is true, it is that there is a deficiency in the concepts and language that is deployed by people who “do theory”. What is wrong with much of French philosophy, Cohen thinks, is that it is unclarifiable nonsense and this he wants to distinghuish as a sort of bullshit in its own right. He provides a test for being unclarifiable nonsense that involves adding a negation-sign: if adding a negation-sign to what one is saying makes no difference to its intuitive plausibility, it is bullshit of the “unclarifiable nonsense” kind.
What Cohen calls bullshit, it is clear, is that kind of philosophy perpetrated by people whose names sound continental, that is obscure, a little bit avant garde and generally down on mathematics, science, logic and technology. Recently, I criticised Cohen’s “unclarifiable nonsense” account of bullshit, but offered the following (qualified) support for his views on French philosophy. I held that “postmodernism” is bullshit for the following reason: Assume that the central tenet of postmodernism is that there is no such thing as truth or that the word “true” is no more than a clever cover for whatever beliefs or attitudes are generally accepted in some culture (and that is accepted due to concealed coercion). The problem is this: If there is really no fact of the matter as to what is true and someone may become conscious of this, then there can be no honest speech and no lying; this is because, as Frankfurt holds, assertion and lying is characterised by aiming to say what is true and aiming to say what is not true, respectively. Being fully aware that there is no truth either way, no-one can honestly assert anything (or lie) at all; without truth, assertion looses its goal. All that can remain of speech, if there is no truth, is bullshit or pretending to assert (although just pretending to assert would require at least the idea of truth and truthful assertion to remain, itself a tension in the postmodernist’s position on truth).
My argument invited the accusation of tu quoque from an editor. Analytic philosophers, he suggested, shouldn’t cast stones. Bullshit is not confined to the continent and, in any case, I wouldn’t take it as alright if a “postmodern philosopher” made a blanket attack on analytic philosophy in the same manner as I did. He had me wrong – I am perfectly willing to consider any reasonable argument that there is something systematically wrong with the presuppositions and method of analytic philosophy, its just that I haven’t heard one, despite listening. (By the way, I’m not complaining about the editor, who liked the rest of the piece and accepted it.)
In the interest of fairness, though, my question to the blog is this: do analytic philosophers ever bullshit? Nothing suggests that an analytic philosohper can’t talk Frankfurt bullshit – that is, pretend to care about the truth of what they say when they do not: of course any analytic philosopher is just as capable of this form of dishonesty, psychologically speaking. What’s less clear is that an analytic philosopher can talk Cohen-bullshit. I would suggest that the true analytic philosopher cannot. This is because analytic philosophy is characterised by its reliance on the method provided by formal logic: by formalising the contentious parts of our work, we make absolutely clear what we mean. At least when we formalise our philosophy, we can of course be wrong, but not “unclarifiably unclear”. Precisely the ideal of analytic philosophy is to be clear.
Bearing in mind these two points, does anyone want to offer examples of analytic philosophers talking bullshit (of the Frankfurt or Cohen variety)? Specifically, I’m interested in the role that formalisation in the language of logic plays in making our work clear or unclear. To some – that is people who’ve never taken a first level course in logic – much analytic philosophy looks absurdly complicated and technical. I’m interested in this. Does the method provided by formal logic ever obscure rather than clarify, or is this just a matter of not being able to read the logic? Even assuming that everyone should be capable of following it (and why should they?), can someone think of an example where formalising a point or argument renders something that is clear obscure? Would people write to me with their nominations for the prize “most gratuitous formalisation in the language of logic of something that’s perfectly clear in English”?