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Precis: ​On Bullshit​ by Harry Frankfurt

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Bullshit abounds in culture and in society as a whole. There is plenty of it today but not necessarily more than in the past. The understanding and function of bullshit is fuzzy within society, even though it is so ubiquitous. The word is used by individuals in many different situations, but few have really delved into the true meaning behind the concept. Therefore, I would like to explore what bullshit is and how it differs from lying and truth-telling. Essentially, using sources such as the ​Oxford English Dictionary​, ​The Prevalence of Humbug​ by Max Black, and more, I will display the criteria for what bullshit is and thus what it is not. For one, bullshitting and lying, although similar in the sense that they both deal with trying to get away with something, differ in that bullshitting is a lack of concern for the truth, whereas lying is more of a conscious effort to display untruth while still cognizant of the real truth. Bullshitting shows carelessness, even though what is being bullshitted may turn out to be correct; or it could of course be incorrect as well. On the other hand, lying is conscious falsehood. Basically, in order to lie, one must believe that what he or she is saying is not true, and in order to tell the truth, one must believe that the statement being made is indeed true.

In both instances, in lying and in truth-telling, the person believes to know what the truth is.  That is what would make it lying or truth-telling. It is impossible to do one or the other otherwise. One who is bullshitting, however, does not know or care about the truth and thus may not know the untruth. In other words, bullshit is neither presumed by the one making the statement to be true nor false. That is what makes it bullshit. Bullshitting is often performed by individuals in situations where they are trying to talk about a subject of which they do not know anything or much at all about. This is virtually unavoidable, though, because people are often dragged or forced into discussing and making opinions about such matters. When bullshitting, the bullshitter has plenty of freedom and does not have limitations. There are no truths constraining or stopping him or her from stating something in whatever way he or she wants. Even faking the context of the entire situation is plausible. Whereas, when lying, it is crucial for the liar to frame the lie in a way that is guided by the truth. The lie has to be carefully crafted since it is concerned with and guided by the truth, and so the liar is more constrained than the bullshitter.

Bullshitting is more so like improvisation with imagination whereas lying is more so like a deliberate and careful craft. An example of an act of bullshitting would be using a phrase or an expression of which the one saying it does not know the true meaning. For example, a little kid says: “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Let’s say that this kid does not know that for it to be “raining cats and dogs,” that means it is raining really hard. This would be bullshitting because the kid is unaware and unconcerned with the idea that the expression being used has a real meaning. It could also be bullshitting if he or she is unaware and unconcerned with whether or not it is actually raining hard outside. Maybe he or she is just using the expression because it sounds funny, not because he or she knows it to be true or false. Whereas, if the kid knew the meaning behind the expression and knew that it was indeed raining hard outside, he or she would be telling the truth. On the contrary, if the kid knew the meaning of the expression and knew that it was not raining hard outside but still used the expression, that would be lying. Again, bullshitting embodies a lack of commitment and dedication to getting the facts right and to being truthful.

This is a dangerous concept, even more dangerous than lying. At least when we are lying or telling the truth, we are aware of it. If we do not know that a statement is factually true or that it is certainly false, then what do we make of it? It is sort of just gibberish and pure insignificance in a way. Bullshitting is more like bluffing with an incorporation of a lack of genuineness than it is lying. This means that bluffing and thus bullshitting is more about faking and being phony than lying, which are two, subtly different ideas. Lying or truth-telling would constitute being concerned with sounding sincere and genuine, whereas bullshitting lacks those qualities. Facts hold no place in the framing of a statement for the bullshitter, unlike for the liar and the truth-teller. Both bullshitting and lying misrepresent themselves by falsely making it seem like the truth is trying to be conveyed.

Though, the liar hides that he or she is consciously trying to steer whom he or she is telling something to in a direction that is away from reality. Oppositely, the bullshitter hides that the truth actually has no value to him or her and that there is no such intention when stating whatever bullshit it is. Neither bullshitting nor lying is necessarily a more effective tactic than the other, but they do indeed serve purposes which is why people utilize them. Society seems to be more tolerant of bullshit than it is of lies, however. For some reason, bullshit tends to not bother us as much as lies. This concept is difficult to reconcile, considering bullshit does not even take truth into consideration and does not care about stating things as they are whatsoever. At least lying is guided by the truth and consists of a recognition and conscience of reality. Because of this idea, bullshit is more of an enemy to the truth than lies are.

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