The Essence Of Bullshit (Part 2)

If you wanted to find the antidote to bullshit, look not further than the fine craftsman. Each product designed by the craftsman is as it should be. At no point does he relax his thoughtful self-discipline, even for parts of his work that aren’t immediately visible. But he does not do this to impress others. It doesn’t matter to him whether they care or notice. He is only interested in appeasing his own conscience. On the contrary, the bullshitter makes no effort of that sort. The bullshitter is only interested in the reaction.

But that is not to say, that the craftsman and bullshitter can not merge and become one. Here, we have the emergence of a different species, the bullshit artist. In advertising and public relations, and politics, there is a rich tapestry of bullshit. And now, with advanced technology that polls opinions on a constant basis, sophisticated techniques of market research, and psychological testing, the bullshit artist of these areas is armed with a powerful arsenal of refined bullshit generation tools.

But Frankfurt observes that no matter how studiously the bullshitter proceeds, he is still trying to get away with something. And just like the untidy craftsman, there is some degree of laxity which evades attention. Then, we are given the example of Wittgenstein, the mathematician-philosopher, who devoted much of his time to fighting the war on “nonsense.”

Apparently, he was like that in his personal life too. A story related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridge in the 1930s, suggests this:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” He was disgusted: “You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like”

No one knows if this was a joke, or a real objection on the part of Wittgenstein. Maybe Pascal simply misread him when she said he was disgusted. But she knew him, and knew what to expect of him. So, you would expect that if it was a joke, she would have known. Frankfurt takes her testimony at face value, and uses it as an illustrative example.

Why would Wittgenstein be disgusted? Because Pascal could not possibly know what a run-over dog feels like. Even so, when she says she does, she is not lying. That is, she is not misrepresenting what she thinks she feels like. If she actually felt great and said she felt like a run-over dog, she would have been lying.

Wittgenstein is not accusing her of lying, but of a different type of misrepresentation. The problem with her statement is that it suggests something more than simply that she feels bad. It is too specific a feeling. It is not any kind of bad feeling, but the precise feeling of a dog after being run over. Now, to Wittgenstein, that’s just bullshit.

If Wittgenstein knew it was bullshit, why did he react that way? Because of Pascal’s blatant disregard for the truth. It seems to be something one picks up from other people without really understanding what it means, and mindlessly repeating it. That is what ‘disgusted’ Wittgenstein — that Pascal didn’t even concern herself with the accuracy of her statement. Thus, her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying. This is important to Wittgenstein, because he takes what she says seriously.

In this example, it would not be unwarranted to describe Wittgenstein’s behavior as robotic, anal, anti-social, unpleasant, overly literal, and somewhat idiotic. But all of this to only illustrate the following point: the bullshitter does not need to think (or know) that they are bullshitting, and the essence of bullshitting, according to Frankfurt, is the indifference to how things really are.

Originally published at