Posted by eGZact on October 10, 2007
A philosophy professor says it’s a process, not a product.
“We live in an era of unprecedented bullshit production,” observes Laura Penny, author of the forthcoming (and wittily titled) Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit. But what is bullshit, exactly? By which I mean: What are its defining characteristics? What is its Platonic essence? How does bullshit differ from such precursors as humbug, poppycock, tommyrot, hooey, twaddle, balderdash, claptrap, palaver, hogwash, buncombe (or “bunk”), hokum, drivel, flapdoodle, bullpucky, and all the other pejoratives favored by H.L. Mencken and his many imitators? The scholar who answers the question, “What is bullshit?” bids boldly to define the spirit of the present age.
Enter Harry G. Frankfurt. In the fall 1986 issue of Raritan, Frankfurt, a retired professor of philosophy at Princeton, took a whack at it in an essay titled “On Bullshit.” Frankfurt reprinted the essay two years later in his book The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Last month he republished it a second time as a very small book. Frankfurt’s conclusion, which I caught up with in its latest repackaging, is that bullshit is defined not so much by the end product as by the process by which it is created.
Eureka! Frankfurt’s definition is one of those not-at-all-obvious insights that become blindingly obvious the moment they are expressed. Although Frankfurt doesn’t point this out, it immediately occurred to me upon closing his book that the word “bullshit” is both noun and verb, and that this duality distinguishes bullshit not only from the aforementioned Menckenesque antecedents, but also from its contemporary near-relative, horseshit. It is possible to bullshit somebody, but it is not possible to poppycock, or to twaddle, or to horseshit anyone. When we speak of bullshit, then, we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the bullshit into being: Somebody bullshitted. In this respect the word “bullshit” is identical to the word “lie,” for when we speak of a lie we speak, implicitly, of the action that brought the lie into being: Somebody lied.
By Timothy Noah