Saturday, March 02, 2013

A Theory of Bull

On Bull: Art/Truth/Lying 

a lecture by Michaelangelo Allocca

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bull..." was the beginning of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's seminal 1986 essay. He then observed that while most people feel they can recognize it, there was no theory on it, and attempted to remedy that lack. We will explore the ways that this category occupies a conceptual middle ground between truth and lying, and its overlap with similar borderline categories such as "art," "literature," and "rhetoric." (from the description of the Lecture at The Basic Program web site)

In 1986 the philosopher Harry Frankfurt,  professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, wrote an essay, "On Bullshit".   Originally published in the journal Raritan, the essay was republished as a separate volume in 2005 and became a nonfiction bestseller, spending twenty-seven weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list.   Yesterday Michaelangelo Allocca, Instructor and Chair of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, gave a lecture on this topic.
The topic was introduced as a question of language:  Is Bullshit merely vulgar or indecent or more.  More important is the question raised in the prefatory comments for the lecture: what is the relationship between truth, lying, and bullshit?  There seems to be a cultural standard for the meaning for bullshit (or bull as it is abbreviated for the squeamish).  Most people recognize what is being referred to when somebody announces that "such and such" is bullshit, even if they may not choose to use the term themselves.  According to Professor Frankfurt the meaning of the term bullshit exists in a middle ground somewhere between truth and lying.  Bullshit is certainly not the truth, but its use conveys something that is not quite lying either.
Mr. Allocca referenced an earlier philosopher, Max Black (1909-1988).  Black, a British-American philosopher, was a leading influential figure in analytic philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century. He made contributions to the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mathematics and science, and the philosophy of art.  In one of his essays, "The Prevalence of Humbug", he concludes a rather thorough investigation of the use of the word with this definition:
"HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes."
This seems to be somewhat similar to what is referred to by many as bullshit.  Interestingly, pairs Max Black's essay Collection, The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays with Harry Frankfurt's essay as two books which are "frequently bought together".
The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes bullshit with a definition that states it is fakery  rather than falsity, with an emphasis on bluffing by talking nonsense.  That definition rings true since it seems reasonable to substitute nonsense for bullshit when describing such instances, especially if one prefers discretion as the better part of valor in the use of the English language.
When considering works of art the realm of bullshit seems to exist when the art is a fake.  Literary fakes and other phony artistic representations would seem also to warrant the designation as bullshit.  Art itself may be considered as inhabiting the middle ground between the truth and lying; one would hope on  higher aesthetic ground than mere bullshit.
The lecture also considered the philosophical aspects of bullshit.  The argument was presented that ethically bullshit is worse than lying.  This is because the liar is concerned with the truth, choosing falsehood instead;  forming an intention to not tell the truth is certainly dependent on knowing what the truth is.  The bullshit "artist", on the other hand, is completely unconcerned with the truth.  However, literature has has a tough time with the philosophers, starting with Plato in his dialogue on The Republic.  Though people would study the arts in Plato's Republic, he did not have much respect for the arts. Art was a copy of reality, which in turn is a pale representation of the exalted Forms. He believed that art did not belong in an ideal state. “No Artists Beyond this Point” would be prominently displayed at the gates of Plato's Republic.  Poetry would be banned as well. It speaks of the heart and inflames emotions, things that further entrench people in the material world. And the objective of the citizenry is to strive for the Ideal and avoid the animal passions that enslave people to this seriously flawed reality. Plato did not see art and poetry as inspiring and uplifting the human spirit. He viewed them as corrupting influences.  Poetry may not tell the truth, but it does not necessarily lie either.  Ethical philosophy may sometimes have a higher standard as in Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals where he puts forward the maxim that right action must be universally true for all. A will is good, Kant says, not because of what it achieves. It is good solely because of its willing. In other words, it must be “good in itself” without regard for consequences.  The truth must be adhered to no matter what the consequences.
What would a good discussion of bullshit be without some reference to political discourse.  Thus there were references to recent political campaigns of which the term malarkey reared it's head--quite appropriately, I believe.  One would hope that most bullshit is harmless, just as those little white lies may be harmless (although Kant would disagree).  The presentation by Mr. Allocca was alternately enlightening and humorous, with enough theoretical weight to lift it above and beyond any realm that inhabits the middle ground between the truth and lying.

On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. Princeton University Press, 2005.
The Prevalence of Humbug and Other Essays by Max Black. Cornell University Press, 1985.


Parrish Lantern said...

This reminds me of a book I read a good few years ago called Language, Thought and Falsehood in Ancient Greek Philosophy by Nicholas Denyer, which explores the idea of how can one say something that is false and thus not there to be said or thought

James said...

Thanks for the reference to Denyer's book. It sounds like it is worth looking into.

Parrish Lantern said...

Was an interesting read, and introduced me to the term "counterfactuality" when describing falsehood.