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.

2 Responses 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?

  2. Awesome Post!

    It’s thought provoking and I am not clear on my opinions myself, so although I’m not sure I agree with you but if anything, I love that it points to how you’re playing the same epistemic game and on the right side of it, rather than a bullshitter :) I hope to give it some more thought at a later point and re read it, but for now:

    I think a key notion from Frankfurt is the game analogy:
    The important distinctions discussed aren’t about falsity, truths, or bullshit in themselves in some essentialist fashion, but rather about how we are to move towards truthful modes of being in the sociocultural ecosystem, from individual to collective and all the levels in between. The person and the performative context is to be judged, not the utterance itself.
    But even this perspective cannot be evaluated solely in a limited context in isolation of the greater ecosystem of people and communication. We are playing games – behaving under context-sensitive rules, norms, and value functions – and these interact with each other in its generation of emergent games and processes.

    This means that the symphony of games and all the activities central, peripheral, and coincidentally flowing from that, should pursue an alignment with each other, if we value the collective well-being that obtains upon such an alignment in the epistemic domains.
    What resonated greatly for me, and hoped he elaborated upon more, is the multitude of ways by which bullshitting attitudes can influence the contexts in which it manifests. We must not underestimate how effectively the games’ parameters, even if implicit, are signaled to each other and involved in our continuous process of understanding the world, ourselves, and how to behave and think.

    Acknowledging the significant effects of our behaviors in terms of games, norms, rules, and value functions, underlines something that I’d like to call epistemic responsibility: Any agent and system contingent upon processes specific to sentience can be viewed through a lens of active inference. To not dwell on the details of active inference too much, lets just emphasize the distinction between the epistemic and pragmatic – between the epistemic structures and information (beliefs, internal models, whatever you want to call them) that are to represent the world with a certain fidelity, and the pragmatic structures and information (instruments, effectors etc) by which we leverage these structures to act upon the world.
    Crucially, the inferential imperatives are difficult to pursue, and the sociocultural ecosystem is a major source of resources to become efficacious agents aligned with the overall ecosystem. The key dilemma here is that it is not only the resources that percolate throughout these strange loopy relations, but also the value functions and imperatives that are communicated both explicitly and implicitly – where I want to emphasize that implicit does not mean to suggest they are any less significant in their causal contribution, in fact I suspect the opposite.

    At the moment, I suspect that this is a key divergence between your and my take on what you so nicely posed here:

    “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.”

    Truth is too loaded in my opinion. I did not read Frankfurt’s essay on truth, but On Bullshit was so great to me because it focused not on some metaphysical notion of Truth, but the performativity that follows from the epistemic processes we engage in individually and collectively. With performativity I do not mean only the way we express and behave in our communication – or rather, our engagement with knowledge production – but also the processes by which the expressions affect each other both directly and indirectly. We can side-step the impossible questions on Truth, and instead focus on the much more important question of truthful behaviour, which can be evaluated much more readily by our understanding of for example psychology, cogneuro, communication, and social learning.

    For example, when one would proclaim that we are too immersed in bullshit, it is not an immersion in static ideas that are deemed incongruent with truth or the pursuit of it. It is also the normalization of attitudes that facilitate the generation of Bullshittery – an attenuation of our value functions with respect to the value of truth and knowledge. For example, take this quote by Frankfurt:

    “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstance require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”

    How does such a circumstance come about? How do the participants and observers to such a circumstance perceive it? It is easy to imagine that if we require people to talk about a topic of importance, that all participants believe it is in pursuit of truth and knowledge, but it is in my view – that I think follows from Frankfurt’s essay – a game that inevitably will mostly produce bullshit on average.
    Crucially, such a circumstance need not to be judged by the utterances. It is, statistically speaking, far more probable that such important topics require a great deal of knowledge and competence to produce a movement towards truth when speaking about it. Without this acknowledgement, contributions to the collective processes of knowledge production and sense-making become stuck in modes driven by non-epistemic values, such as affective value. To compound this, the majority of people will be unable to see how this is the case, and perceive the situation as a legitimate vehicle, source, or facilitation of truthful sense-making. If this normalizes, we effectively are contributing to the development of a culture imbalanced in its epistemic-pragmatic value functions. Notions such as rational empathy, hermeneutics, and epistemic humility, are some examples of tools to ameliorate this.

    If this is acknowledged, it becomes indefensible to neglect the question of how bullshit comes about, because it is such a powerful way to avoid epistemic traps and erosion as we can leverage our understanding of which modes of epistemic performativity are highly unlikely to be epistemically beneficial (i.e. most likely to produce bullshittery).

    What I also enjoyed though, is how Frankfurt does not take some radical stance that prescribes a perpetual commitment to truth-utterances without exception – as if we can only speak when we feel certain it is truthful. His passages on Bull Session:

    “What tends to go on in a bull session is that the participants try out various thoughts and attitudes in order to see how it feels to hear themselves saying such things and in order to discover how others respond, without it being assumed that they are committed to what they say: It is understood by everyone in a bull session that the statements people make do not necessarily reveal what they really believe or how they really feel. The main point is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or adventuresome approach to the subjects under discussion. Therefore provision is made for enjoying a certain irresponsibility, so that people will be encouraged to convey what is on their minds without too much anxiety that they will be held to it.”

    In other words, Bull Sessions are another type of language game, which as a place and role. I believe that the experimentation and explorative behaviour during bull sessions are important, and denying each other such freedom to discussion without being persecuted for each transgression beyond sociocultural restrictions is crucial to develop a nuanced and integrated understanding. Perhaps – and I say this very speculatively – it is a cultural inhospitability to games akin to bull sessions as well as the inability to discern these from sincere claims of authority and truth, that we are in the disinformation-plagued mess we are in now.

    Lets look at this key proposition again:
    “Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstance require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”.
    Now, I believe this holds truth, but I can understand if others are skeptical. So let me pose the following:

    For any given topic, there is a degree of knowledge or sophistication that corresponds to fidelity and facilitation of sense-making. Not just the points or claims on it as such, but also the (implicit) perspectives and values by which we are to engage with the topic.
    If one allows this claim, let us ask: How likely is it for a given topic of contemporary relevance, that the discourse on the topic will be on the whole producing sense of the non-bullshit kind? In the sociocultural milieu in which it almost seems a moral crime to not have an opinion, or even worse, an opinion that does not congrue with your interlocutors’ moral commitments when that is central, it seems inevitable that people are systemically incentivized to view the world in terms of what is perceived as good – in the socioculturally, normative, constructed sense – rather than true, where the sense of truth is substituted with a coherence of belief systems in themselves, rather than belief systems cohering with the states of affairs, through a truth-seeking epistemic lens.

    So, if youĺl indulge me, I offer my twist on your great passage emphasizing the importance of situating notions of truth in the real world:

    “If we are to think about Truth and Bullshit, then we need to think about the processes that constitute the production of, and engagement with, these – ultimately – abstract notions, and how they effect themselves upon the producers and infrastructures by which it obtains and percolates. In the real world.”

    This underlines the importance of understanding the role of Valence & Salience in sociocultural dynamics. That then leads me again to underline the importance of the line of research exemplified by “cultural affordances” and “thinking through other minds”.



    From those lenses, I’d posit that the danger is:

    The all too often, people can only afford bullshit behaviour in their contribution to our epistemic processes, in part due to an imbalance of salience and valence with respect to the relevant information and questions, and the imperatives that correspond to these epistemic games.

    And that all too much, we are immersed in other minds that all too easily are viewed as legitimate epistemic authorities on not only states of affairs, but also the appropriate modes of epistemic engagement. If one distinguish games that liars and truth-tellers play, from the games that bullshitters play, then we are at risk of losing the collective acknowledgement of one of the few things that are – in my honest opinion – truly sacred and divine: Truth (with others being Love and Aesthetics/Authenticity; notions undefinable, transcendent, but nevertheless of crucial importance to pursue).

    I have never got to talk to anyone about Frankfurt’s book so sorry if I threw too much at you or when it diverged from a comment on your post! I really enjoyed it, although I gotta read it again later to get more specific and clarify your points (which do ring true).

    I hope there was something of interest here, by all means let me know if you have comments/criticisms to share – and don’t hesitate to speak your mind as straightforwardly as you would like!

    Thanks for the opportunity to discuss this, and all the best!
    ~Neuropoetic, Your personal crackpot

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