[Paleopsych] New Yorker: Jim Holt: Say Anything: Three books find truth under cultural and conceptual assault.

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Jim Holt: Say Anything: Three books find truth under cultural and conceptual 
     Issue of 2005-08-22
     Posted 2005-08-15

     People have been talking bull, denying that they were talking bull,
     and accusing others of talking bull for ages. "Dumbe Speaker! that's a
     Bull," a character in a seventeenth-century English play says. "It is
     no Bull, to speak of a common Peace, in the place of War," a statesman
     from the same era declares. The word "bull," used to characterize
     discourse, is of uncertain origin. One venerable conjecture was that
     it began as a contemptuous reference to papal edicts known as bulls
     (from the bulla, or seal, appended to the document). Another linked it
     to the famously nonsensical Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer in London
     during the reign of Henry VII. It was only in the twentieth century
     that the use of "bull" to mean pretentious, deceitful, jejune language
     became semantically attached to the male of the bovine species--or,
     more particularly, to the excrement therefrom. Today, it is generally,
     albeit erroneously, thought to have arisen as a euphemistic shortening
     of "bullshit," a term that came into currency, dictionaries tell us,
     around 1915.

     If "bullshit," as opposed to "bull," is a distinctively modern
     linguistic innovation, that could have something to do with other
     distinctively modern things, like advertising, public relations,
     political propaganda, and schools of education. "One of the most
     salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit,"
     Harry G. Frankfurt, a distinguished moral philosopher who is professor
     emeritus at Princeton, says. The ubiquity of bullshit, he notes, is
     something that we have come to take for granted. Most of us are pretty
     confident of our ability to detect it, so we may not regard it as
     being all that harmful. We tend to take a more benign view of someone
     caught bullshitting than of someone caught lying. ("Never tell a lie
     when you can bullshit your way through," a father counsels his son in
     an Eric Ambler novel.) All of this worries Frankfurt. We cannot really
     know the effect that bullshit has on us, he thinks, until we have a
     clearer understanding of what it is. That is why we need a theory of

     Frankfurt's own effort along these lines was contained in a paper that
     he presented two decades ago at a faculty seminar at Yale. Later, that
     paper appeared in a journal, and then in a collection of Frankfurt's
     writings; all the while, photocopies of it passed from fan to fan.
     Earlier this year, it was published as "On Bullshit" (Princeton;
     $9.95), a tiny book of sixty-seven spaciously printed pages that has
     gone on to become an improbable best-seller.

     Philosophers have a vocational bent for trying to divine the essences
     of things that most people never suspected had an essence, and
     bullshit is a case in point. Could there really be some property that
     all instances of bullshit possess and all non-instances lack? The
     question might sound ludicrous, but it is, at least in form, no
     different from one that philosophers ask about truth. Among the most
     divisive issues in philosophy today is whether there is anything
     important to be said about the essential nature of truth. Bullshit, by
     contrast, might seem to be a mere bagatelle. Yet there are parallels
     between the two which lead to the same perplexities.

     Where do you start if you are an academic philosopher in search of the
     quiddity of bullshit? "So far as I am aware," Frankfurt dryly
     observes, "very little work has been done on this subject." He did
     find an earlier philosopher's attempt to analyze a similar concept
     under a more genteel name: humbug. Humbug, that philosopher decided,
     was a pretentious bit of misrepresentation that fell short of lying.
     (A politician talking about the importance of his religious faith
     comes to mind.) Frankfurt was not entirely happy with this definition.
     The difference between lies and bullshit, it seemed to him, was more
     than a matter of degree. To push the analysis in a new direction, he
     considers a rather peculiar anecdote about the philosopher Ludwig
     Wittgenstein. It was the nineteen-thirties, and Wittgenstein had gone
     to the hospital to visit a friend whose tonsils had just been taken
     out. She croaked to Wittgenstein, "I feel just like a dog that has
     been run over." Wittgenstein (the friend recalled) was disgusted to
     hear her say this. "You don't know what a dog that has been run over
     feels like," he snapped. Of course, Wittgenstein might simply have
     been joking. But Frankfurt suspects that his severity was real, not
     feigned. This was, after all, a man who devoted his life to combatting
     what he considered to be pernicious forms of nonsense. What
     Wittgenstein found offensive in his friend's simile, Frankfurt
     guesses, was its mindlessness: "Her fault is not that she fails to get
     things right, but that she is not even trying."

     The essence of bullshit, Frankfurt decides, is that it is produced
     without any concern for the truth. Bullshit needn't be false: "The
     bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he
     necessarily gets them wrong." The bullshitter's fakery consists not in
     misrepresenting a state of affairs but in concealing his own
     indifference to the truth of what he says. The liar, by contrast, is
     concerned with the truth, in a perverse sort of fashion: he wants to
     lead us away from it. As Frankfurt sees it, the liar and the
     truthteller are playing on opposite sides of the same game, a game
     defined by the authority of truth. The bullshitter opts out of this
     game altogether. Unlike the liar and the truthteller, he is not guided
     in what he says by his beliefs about the way things are. And that,
     Frankfurt says, is what makes bullshit so dangerous: it unfits a
     person for telling the truth.

     Frankfurt's account of bullshit is doubly remarkable. Not only does he
     define it in a novel way that distinguishes it from lying; he also
     uses this definition to establish a powerful claim: "Bullshit is a
     greater enemy of truth than lies are." If this is true, we ought to be
     tougher on someone caught bullshitting than we are on someone caught
     lying. Unlike the bullshitter, the liar at least cares about the
     truth. But isn't this account a little too flattering to the liar? In
     theory, of course, there could be liars who are motivated by sheer
     love of deception. This type was identified by St. Augustine in his
     treatise "On Lying." Someone who tells a lie as a means to some other
     goal tells it "unwillingly," Augustine says. The pure liar, by
     contrast, "takes delight in lying, rejoicing in the falsehood itself."
     But such liars are exceedingly rare, as Frankfurt concedes. Not even
     Iago had that purity of heart. Ordinary tellers of lies simply aren't
     principled adversaries of the truth. Suppose an unscrupulous used-car
     salesman is showing you a car. He tells you that it was owned by a
     little old lady who drove it only on Sundays. The engine's in great
     shape, he says, and it runs beautifully. Now, if he knows all this to
     be false, he's a liar. But is his goal to get you to believe the
     opposite of the truth? No, it's to get you to buy the car. If the
     things he was saying happened to be true, he'd still say them. He'd
     say them even if he had no idea who the car's previous owner was or
     what condition the engine was in.

     Frankfurt would say that this used-car salesman is a liar only by
     accident. Even if he happens to know the truth, he decides what he's
     going to say without caring what it is. But then surely almost every
     liar is, at heart, a bullshitter. Both the liar and the bullshitter
     typically have a goal. It may be to sell a product, to get votes, to
     keep a spouse from walking out of a marriage in the wake of
     embarrassing revelations, to make someone feel good about himself, to
     mislead Nazis who are looking for Jews. The alliance the liar strikes
     with untruth is one of convenience, to be abandoned the moment it
     ceases to serve this goal.

     The porousness of Frankfurt's theoretical boundary between lies and
     bullshit is apparent in Laura Penny's "Your Call Is Important to Us:
     The Truth About Bullshit" (Crown; $21.95). The author, a young
     Canadian college teacher and former union organizer, begins by
     saluting Frankfurt's "subtle and useful" distinction: "The liar still
     cares about the truth. The bullshitter is unburdened by such
     concerns." She then proceeds to apply the term "bullshit" to every
     kind of trickery by which powerful, moneyed interests attempt to gull
     the public. "Most of what passes for news," Penny submits, "is
     bullshit"; so is the language employed by lawyers and insurance men;
     so is the use of rock songs in ads. She even stretches the rubric to
     apply to things as well as to words: "The new product that will change
     your life is probably just more cheap, plastic bullshit," she writes.
     At times, despite her nod to Frankfurt, Penny appears to equate
     bullshit with deliberate deceit: "Never in the history of mankind have
     so many people uttered statements they know to be untrue." But then
     she says that George W. Bush ("a world-historical bullshitter") and
     his circle "distinguish themselves by believing their own bullshit,"
     which suggests that they themselves are deluded.

     Frankfurt concedes that in popular usage "bullshit" is employed as a
     "generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning." What
     he wanted to do, he says, was to get to the essence of the thing in
     question. But does bullshit have a single essence? In a paper
     published a few years ago, "Deeper Into Bullshit," G. A. Cohen, a
     fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, protested that Frankfurt excludes
     an entire category of bullshit: the kind that appears in academic
     works. If the bullshit of ordinary life arises from indifference to
     truth, Cohen says, the bullshit of the academy arises from
     indifference to meaning. It may be perfectly sincere, but it is
     nevertheless nonsensical. Cohen, a specialist in Marxism, complains of
     having been grossly victimized by this kind of bullshit as a young man
     back in the nineteen-sixties, when he did a lot of reading in the
     French school of Marxism inspired by Louis Althusser. So traumatized
     was he by his struggle to make some sense of these defiantly obscure
     texts that he went on to found, at the end of the nineteen-seventies,
     a Marxist discussion group that took as its motto Marxismus sine
     stercore tauri--"Marxism without the shit of the bull."

     Anyone familiar with the varieties of "theory" that have made their
     way from the Left Bank of Paris into American English departments will
     be able to multiply examples of the higher bullshit ad libitum. A few
     years ago, the physicist Alan Sokal concocted a deliberately
     meaningless parody under the title "Transgressing the Boundaries:
     Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," and then got
     it accepted as a serious contribution to the journal Social Text. It
     would, of course, be hasty to dismiss all unclear discourse as
     bullshit. Cohen adduces a more precise criterion: the discourse must
     be not only unclear but unclarifiable. That is, bullshit is the
     obscure that cannot be rendered unobscure. How would one defend
     philosophers like Hegel or Heidegger from the charge that their
     writings are bullshit? Not, Cohen says, by showing that they cared
     about the truth (which would be enough to get them off the hook if
     they were charged with being bullshitters under Frankfurt's
     definition). Rather, one would try to show that their writings
     actually made some sense. And how could one prove the opposite: that a
     given statement is hopelessly unclear, and hence bullshit? One
     proposed test is to add a "not" to the statement and see if that makes
     any difference to its plausibility. If it doesn't, that statement is
     bullshit. As it happens, Heidegger once came very close to doing this
     himself. In the fourth edition of his treatise "What Is Metaphysics?"
     (1943), he asserted, "Being can indeed be without beings." In the
     fifth edition (1949), this sentence became "Being never is without

     Frankfurt acknowledges the higher bullshit as a distinctive variety,
     but he doesn't think it's very dangerous compared with the sort of
     bullshit that he is concerned about. While genuinely meaningless
     discourse may be "infuriating," he says, it is unlikely to be taken
     seriously for long, even in the academic world. The sort of bullshit
     that involves indifference to veracity is far more insidious,
     Frankfurt claims, since the "conduct of civilized life, and the
     vitality of the institutions that are indispensable to it, depend very
     fundamentally on respect for the distinction between the true and the

     How evil is the bullshitter? That depends on how valuable truthfulness
     is. When Frankfurt observes that truthfulness is crucial in
     maintaining the sense of trust on which social coöperation depends,
     he's appealing to truth's instrumental value. Whether it has any value
     in itself, however, is a separate question. To take an analogy,
     suppose a well-functioning society depends on the belief in God,
     whether or not God actually exists. Someone of subversive inclinations
     might question the existence of God without worrying too much about
     the effect that might have on public morals. And the same attitude is
     possible toward truth. As the philosopher Bernard Williams observed in
     a book published in 2002, not long before his death, a suspicion of
     truth has been a prominent current in modern thought. It was something
     that Williams found lamentable. "If you do not really believe in the
     existence of truth," he asked, "what is the passion for truthfulness a
     passion for?"

     The idea of questioning the existence of truth might seem bizarre. No
     sane person doubts that the distinction between true and false is
     sharp enough when it comes to statements like "Saddam had W.M.D.s" or
     "The cat is on the mat." But when it comes to more interesting
     propositions-assertions of right and wrong, judgments of beauty, grand
     historical narratives, talk about possibilities, scientific statements
     about unobservable entities--the objectivity of truth becomes harder
     to defend. "Deniers" of truth (as Williams called them) insist that
     each of us is trapped in his own point of view; we make up stories
     about the world and, in an exercise of power, try to impose them on

     The battle lines between deniers and defenders of absolute truth are
     strangely drawn. On the pro-truth side, one finds Pope Benedict XVI,
     who knows that moral truths correspond to divine commands and rails
     against what he calls the "dictatorship of relativism." On the
     "anything goes" side, one finds the member of the Bush Administration
     who mocked the idea of objective evidence by declaring, "We're an
     empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality." Among
     philosophers, Continental poststructuralists like Bruno Latour, Jean
     Baudrillard, and the late Jacques Derrida tend to be arrayed on the
     anti-truth side. One might expect their hardheaded counterparts in
     Britain and the United States--practitioners of what is called
     analytical philosophy--to be firmly in the pro-truth camp. And yet, as
     Simon Blackburn observes in "Truth: A Guide" (Oxford; $25), the
     "brand-name" Anglophone philosophers of the past fifty
     years--Wittgenstein, W. V. Quine, Thomas Kuhn, Donald Davidson,
     Richard Rorty--have developed powerful arguments that seem to
     undermine the commonsense notion of truth as agreement with reality.
     Indeed, Blackburn says, "almost all the trends in the last generation
     of serious philosophy lent aid and comfort to the 'anything goes'
     climate"--the very climate that, Harry Frankfurt argued, has
     encouraged the proliferation of bullshit.

     Blackburn, who is himself a professor of philosophy at Cambridge
     University, wants to rally the pro-truth forces. But he is also
     concerned to give the other side its due. In "Truth," he scrupulously
     considers the many forms that the case against truth has taken, going
     back as far as the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, whose famous
     saying "Man is the measure of all things" was seized upon by Socrates
     as an expression of dangerous relativism. In its simplest form,
     relativism is easy to refute. Take the version of it that Richard
     Rorty, a philosopher who teaches at Stanford, once lightheartedly
     offered: "Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with."
     The problem is that contemporary Americans and Europeans won't let you
     get away with that characterization of truth; so, by its own standard,
     it cannot be true. (The late Sidney Morgenbesser's gripe about
     pragmatism--which, broadly speaking, equates truth with
     usefulness--was in the same spirit: "The trouble with pragmatism is
     that it's completely useless.") Then, there is the often heard
     complaint that the whole truth will always elude us. Fair enough,
     Blackburn says, but partial truths can still be perfectly objective.
     He quotes Clemenceau's riposte to skeptics who asked what future
     historians would say about the First World War: "They will not say
     that Belgium invaded Germany."

     If relativism needed a bumper-sticker slogan, it would be Nietzsche's
     dictum "There are no facts, only interpretations." Nietzsche was
     inclined to write as if truth were manufactured rather than
     discovered, a matter of manipulating others into sharing our beliefs
     rather than getting those beliefs to "agree with reality." In another
     of his formulations, "Truths are illusions that we have forgotten are
     illusions." If that's the case, then it is hard to regard the
     bullshitter, who does not care about truth, as all that villainous.
     Perhaps, to paraphrase Nietzsche, truth is merely bullshit that has
     lost its stench. Blackburn has ambivalent feelings about Nietzsche,
     who, were it not for his "extraordinary acuteness," would qualify as
     "the pub bore of philosophy." Yet, he observes, at the moment
     Nietzsche is the most influential of the great philosophers, not to
     mention the "patron saint of postmodernism," so he must be grappled
     with. One of Nietzsche's more notorious doctrines is perspectivism-the
     idea that we are condemned to see the world from a partial and
     distorted perspective, one defined by our interests and values.
     Whether this doctrine led Nietzsche to a denial of truth is debatable:
     in his mature writings, at least, his scorn is directed at the idea of
     metaphysical truth, not at the scientific and historical varieties.
     Nevertheless, Blackburn accuses Nietzsche of sloppy thinking. There is
     no reason, he says, to assume that we are forever trapped in a single
     perspective, or that different perspectives cannot be ranked according
     to accuracy. And, if we can move from one perspective to another, what
     is to prevent us from conjoining our partial views into a reasonably
     objective picture of the world?

     Today, Richard Rorty is probably the most prominent "truth-denier" in
     the academy. What makes him so formidable is the clarity and eloquence
     of his case against truth and, by implication, against the Western
     philosophical tradition. Our minds do not "mirror" the world, he says.
     The idea that we could somehow stand outside our own skins and survey
     the relationship between our thoughts and reality is a delusion.
     Language is an adaptation, and the words we use are tools. There are
     many competing vocabularies for talking about the world, some more
     useful than others, given human needs and interests. None of them,
     however, correspond to the Way Things Really Are. Inquiry is a process
     of reaching a consensus on the best way of coping with the world, and
     "truth" is just a compliment we pay to the result. Rorty is fond of
     quoting the American pragmatist John Dewey to the effect that the
     search for truth is merely part of the search for happiness. He also
     likes to cite Nietzsche's observation that truth is a surrogate for
     God. Asking of someone, "Does he love the truth?," Rorty thinks, is
     like asking, "Is he saved?" In our moral reasoning, he says, we no
     longer worry about whether our conclusions correspond to the divine
     will; so in the rest of our inquiry we ought to stop worrying about
     whether our conclusions correspond to a mind-independent reality.

     Do Rorty's arguments offer aid and comfort to bullshitters? Blackburn
     thinks so. Creating a consensus among their peers is something that
     hardworking laboratory scientists try to do. But it is also what
     creationists and Holocaust deniers do. Rorty insists that, even though
     the distinction between truth and consensus is untenable, we can
     distinguish between "frivolous" and "serious." Some people are
     "serious, decent, and trustworthy"; others are "unconversable,
     incurious, and self-absorbed." Blackburn thinks that the only way to
     make this distinction is by reference to the truth: serious people
     care about it, whereas frivolous people do not. Yet there is another
     possibility that can be extrapolated from Rorty's writings: serious
     people care not only about producing agreement but also about
     justifying their methods for producing agreement. (This is, for
     example, something that astronomists do but astrologers don't.) That,
     and not an allegiance to some transcendental notion of truth, is the
     Rortian criterion that distinguishes serious inquirers from

     Pragmatists and perspectivists are not the only enemies Blackburn
     considers, though, and much of his book is taken up with contemporary
     arguments turning on subversive-sounding expressions like "holism,"
     "incommensurability," and the "Myth of the Given." Take the last of
     these. Our knowledge of the world, it seems reasonable to suppose, is
     founded on causal interactions between us and the things in it. The
     molecules and photons impinging on our bodies produce sensations;
     these sensations give rise to basic beliefs--like "I am seeing red
     now"--which serve as evidence for higher-level propositions about the
     world. The tricky part of this scheme is the connection between
     sensation and belief. As William James wrote, "A sensation is rather
     like a client who has given his case to a lawyer and then has
     passively to listen in the courtroom to whatever account of his
     affairs, pleasant or unpleasant, the lawyer finds it most expedient to
     give." The idea that a sensation can enter directly into the process
     of reasoning has become known as the Myth of the Given. The late
     philosopher Donald Davidson, whose influence in the Anglophone
     philosophical world was unsurpassed, put the point succinctly:
     "Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another

     This line of thought, as Blackburn observes, threatens to cut off all
     contact between knowledge and the world. If beliefs can be checked
     only against other beliefs, then the sole criterion for a set of
     beliefs' being true is that they form a coherent web: a picture of
     knowledge known as holism. And different people interacting with the
     causal flux that is the world might well find themselves with distinct
     but equally coherent webs of belief--a possibility known as
     incommensurability. In such circumstances, who is to say what is truth
     and what is bullshit? But Blackburn will have none of this. The slogan
     "Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another
     belief" can't be right, he claims. After all, if "John comes in and
     gets a good doggy whiff, he acquires a reason for believing that Rover
     is in the house. If Mary looks in the fridge and sees the butter, she
     acquires a reason for believing that there is butter in the fridge."
     Not so fast, a Davidsonian might reply. Sensations do not come
     labelled as "doggy whiffs" or "butter sighting"; such descriptions
     imply a good deal of prior concept formation. What gives John a reason
     to believe that Rover is in the house is indeed another belief: that
     what he is smelling falls under the category of "doggy whiff."
     Blackburn is obviously right in maintaining that such beliefs arise
     from causal interaction with the world, and not just from voices in
     our heads. But justifying those beliefs--determining whether we are
     doing well or badly in forming them--can be a matter only of squaring
     them with other beliefs. Derrida was not entirely bullshitting when he
     said, "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte" ("There is nothing outside the

     Although Blackburn concludes that objective truth can and must survive
     the assaults of its critics, he himself has been forced to diminish
     that which he would defend. He and his allies, one might think, should
     be willing to give some sort of answer to the question that "jesting
     Pilate" put to Jesus: What is truth? The most obvious answer, that
     truth is correspondence to the facts, founders on the difficulty of
     saying just what form this "correspondence" is supposed to take, and
     what "facts" could possibly be other than truths themselves. Indeed,
     about the only thing that everyone can agree on is that each statement
     supplies its own conditions for being true. The statement "Snow is
     white" is true if and only if snow is white; the statement "The death
     penalty is wrong" is true if and only if the death penalty is wrong;
     and so forth. As far as Blackburn is concerned, any attempt to go
     beyond this simple observation by trying to mount a general theory of
     what makes things true or false is wrongheaded. That makes him, to use
     his own term, a "minimalist" about truth. By reducing truth to
     something "small and modest," Blackburn hopes to induce its enemies to
     call off their siege.

     The problem with this strategy is that it leaves us with little to
     care about. If truth necessarily eludes our theoretical grasp, then
     how do we know that it has any value, let alone that it is an absolute
     good? Why should we worry about whether our beliefs deserve to be
     called "true"? Deep down, we might prefer to believe whatever helps us
     achieve our ends and enables us to flourish, regardless of whether it
     is true. We may be happier believing in God even if there is no God.
     We may be happier thinking that we are really good at what we do even
     if that is a delusion. (The people with the truest understanding of
     their own abilities, research suggests, tend to be depressives.)

     However one feels about the authority of truth, there is a separate
     reason for deploring bullshit; namely, that most bullshit is ugly.
     When it takes the form of political propaganda, management-speak, or
     P.R., it is riddled with euphemism, cliché, fake folksiness, and
     high-sounding abstractions. The aesthetic dimension of bullshit is
     largely ignored in Frankfurt's essay. Yet much of what we call poetry
     consists of trite or false ideas in sublime language. (Oscar Wilde, in
     his dialogue "The Decay of Lying," suggests that the proper aim of art
     is "the telling of beautiful untrue things.") Bullshitting can involve
     an element of artistry; it offers, as Frankfurt acknowledges,
     opportunities for "improvisation, color, and imaginative play." When
     the bullshitting is done from an ulterior motive, like the selling of
     a product or the manipulation of an electorate, the outcome is likely
     to be a ghastly abuse of language. When it is done for its own sake,
     however, something delightful just might result. The paradigm here is
     Falstaff, whose refusal to be enslaved by the authority of truth is
     central to his comic genius. Falstaff's merry mixture of philosophy
     and bullshit is what makes him such a clubbable man, far better
     company than the dour Wittgenstein. We should by all means be severe
     in dealing with bullshitters of the political, the commercial, and the
     academic varieties. But let's not banish plump Jack.

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