On Frankfurt’s Truth and Bullshit

In 2015 and 2016, as part of my new year reflections on the year prior, I wrote a post about the ‘year in books’. The first was about philosophy, psychology and political economy and it was unreasonably long and sprawling as post. The second time, I decided to divide into several posts, but only wrote the first one on cancer: Neanderthals to the National Cancer Act to now. In this post, I want to return two of the books that were supposed to be in the second post for that year: Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit and On Truth.

Reading these two books in 2015 might have been an unfortunate preminission for the post-2016 world. And I wonder if a lot of people have picked up Frankfurt’s essays since. But with a shortage of thoughts for this week, I thought it’s better late than never to share my impressions.

In this post I want to briefly summarize my reading of Frankfurt’s position. And then I’ll focus on a particular shortcoming: I don’t think Frankfurt focuses enough on how and what for Truth is used in practice. From the perspective of their relationship to investigation and inquiry, Truth and Bullshit start to seem much less distinct than Frankfurt makes them. And both start to look like the negative force — although in the case of Truth: sometimes a necessary negative.

First, I am not sure if these two works should really count as books; they are basically 20 page essays reformatted with big font, wide margins, and small pages to make cute booklets. However, since I picked them up at Barnes & Nobles as books, I thought that I would classify them as such. The former was originally published as an essay in 1986 and after its repackaging as a book it reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. This motivated the latter as a follow up.

Frankfurt observes that our life is full of bullshit, and sets out to provide an analysis and definition of the phenomena. He summarizes his finding at the start of the second book: “bullshitters, although they represent themselves as being engaged simply in conveying information, are not engaged in that enterprise at all.” In this deception, they have a commonality with liars, but “[w]hat they care about primarily … is whether what they say is effective in accomplishing this manipulation. Correspondingly, they are more or less indifferent to whether what they say is true or whether it is false.” This indifference is not shared by the liar who must keep an eye on the truth in order to mislead you. As such, Frankfurt believes that the bullshitter is more dangerous to society than the liar. He closes the first book with a strong denouncement of (what he considers to be) the postmodern bend:

One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. … Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. … refraining from making any assertions about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.

In the first book, Frankfurt holds the importance of truth as self-evident and leaves it to the second book to answers the questions of:

Is truth something that in fact we do — and should — especially care about? Or is the love of truth, as professed by so many distinguished thinkers and writers, itself merely another example of bullshit?

He avoids pinning down exactly what he means by truth, suggesting that the common sense notion — by which, at my most generous reading, I assume he means something like Sellars’ manifest image — will do. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t only see truth as important but follows Spinoza to the conclusion that anybody who values their life must also (maybe unknowingly) love truth. Frankfurt extends the importance of truth from the individual to society with the historical claim that:

Civilizations have never gotten along healthily, and cannot get along healthily, without large quantities of reliable factual information. They cannot flourish if they are beset with troublesome infections of mistaken beliefs. To establish and to sustain an advanced culture, we need to avoid being debilitated either by error or by ignorance.

The above statement is certainly effective in manipulating me to believe in the value of truth. However, it is also sufficiently vague as to make it impossible to test whether what Frankfurt says is true or whether it is false. Certainly the adaptive nature of positive illusions or our work on religion and the social interface theory might hint toward falsehood. But a sufficiently slippery definition of truth can hint truth.

The real issue is that Frankfurt presents a straw-man of people who deflate or question capital-T ‘Truth’ as an organizing principle. The whole point of pragmatic approaches to the question is to eliminate Truth as a category in favour of that with lets us avoid error and provide flourishing. As such, they can agree with Frankfurt’s claim above without attributing it to ‘Truth’. In fact, they might point to very useful and cohesion enhancing beliefs that would not be Truth for Frankfurt.

If we are to think about Truth then I think we need to think about how Truth is used in practice. In the real world.

From my experience, it isn’t static Truth that enables advances or lets us escape error and ignorance. Rather, it is dynamic Investigation. Truth’s job, instead, is to end investigation and inquiry. To say “this case is done, let’s move on”.

Sometimes this is an important thing to do. Not everything needs to be debated. Not everything needs to be investigated. And not everything needs to be questioned. There have to be priorities. And in this regard Truth can be useful.

I think this also lets us better understand bullshit. One of the practical uses of bullshit is usually the same as the practical use of Truth: stop investigation and inquiry. Except whereas in using Truth as our stop requires some due diligence and wondering about if the point in question is a reasonable place to stop. And sometime even gives us a means to potentially resume investigation later. Bullshit lets us avoid this.

But both end investigation.

A tempting dissimilarity between Truth and Bullshit’s relationship to Investigation might be their role in motivating investigation. A common position for Truth, and one that Frankfurt takes throughout, is that a desire for Truth can motivate us to investigate. So from my anti-Frankfurt perspective: even if Truth itself is a — at times desirable and necessary — negative, it’s motivation role is a positive.

But I don’t think this is that different from Bullshit. At least from the garden-hose of misinformation kind of bullshit. From the merchants of doubt kind of bullshit. One of the safety mechanisms built into our notion of Truth is that if we get two conflicting ‘truths’ then we should restart investigation to resolve the contradiction. This is what bullshit can capitalize on if instead of stopping investigation, it wants to start it. By throwing enough disinformation at us, it becomes difficult to know what to believe. This can prompt us to investigate. However, since we are so conditioned on truth and mostly bad at actually carrying out investigations, this often ends up with us just arbitrarily picking the most comfortable — or most repeated or easily accessible — set of propositions as our static set.

In the end, I don’t think the line between Bullshit and Truth is nearly as clear cut as Frankfurt makes it. In particular, if we focus on the uses to which we put both concepts. And without focusing on this practical aspect, I think that Frankfurt fails to engage with the more interesting challenges to capital-T ‘Truth’.

But these are my recollections from a pair of books I read 4 years ago. So I might have forgotten some of the nuance of Frankfurt’s position. I am eager to hear from you, dear reader, on the points that I missed.


About Artem Kaznatcheev
From the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and Department of Translational Hematology & Oncology Research at Cleveland Clinic, I marvel at the world through algorithmic lenses. My mind is drawn to evolutionary dynamics, theoretical computer science, mathematical oncology, computational learning theory, and philosophy of science. Previously I was at the Department of Integrated Mathematical Oncology at Moffitt Cancer Center, and the School of Computer Science and Department of Psychology at McGill University. In a past life, I worried about quantum queries at the Institute for Quantum Computing and Department of Combinatorics & Optimization at University of Waterloo and as a visitor to the Centre for Quantum Technologies at National University of Singapore. Meander with me on Google+ and Twitter.

One Response to On Frankfurt’s Truth and Bullshit

  1. Boris Borcic says:

    Hello, Artem Kaznatcheev, long time no see;) I haven’t read either essay, although I try to take the thesis of the first one for granted when using the word “bullshit”.

    My understanding of the matter, relates it to congenital conditions. I portray first language learning as the uttering of improvised heartfelt bullshit, under the charitable gaze of a family environment that’s (1) assumed effectively omniscient, immune to being misled by mistaken bullshit (2) ready to marvel should the bullshit convey surprising insight.

    At that age, sincerity and truthfulness aren’t differentiated… then comes the “theory of mind” development stage, and the tangle of considerations explodes. To cut through the chase, I’d suggest that the prevalence of bullshit in adult society, obtains explanation as an exploit of Hanlon’s Razor. Bullshit I’d define as forwarding for a fact what’s just a self-indulgent opportunistic bet. Hanlon’s Razor advises that failing bets are stupid but not malicious.

    I’ve a vague feeling your drift gets close to an idea I already toyed with. Get rid of Truth. Set out to discern a hierarchy of bullshit qualities. Isn’t Popper’s epistemology the idea that bullshit should be screened, and special attention provided to bullshit that survives all tests?

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