Why is there so much bullshit in politics? Does a particular kind of bullshit flourish in French philosophy?
These are questions which have excited lots of academics in recent years, partly because they are fascinating and important questions – but mainly because it allows us to swear in public.
Academics discuss two key ideas of bullshit. (I’m working on a third, but it’s not ready yet.) The first and most famous comes from Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay On Bullshit. The essence of bullshit, for Frankfurt, ‘is not that it is false but that it is phony.’ The bullshitter may or may not deceive us, or intend to deceive us, about the alleged facts. ‘What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.’ In short, the essence of Frankfurt-bullshit is phoniness, indifference to truth.
Frankfurt’s essay is great fun, but quite frustrating, not least because of the woeful lack of useful examples. The example Frankfurt discusses at greatest length, a comment by Wittgenstein, is not obviously bullshit, even for Frankfurt. He could have mentioned politicians who evade questions. ‘That’s not the real issue, the real issue is why my opponents are doing such-and-such.’
Apparently Jim Harbaugh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, often bullshits like this. For example, when asked whether two players would be fit for a game, and wanting to keep his opponents guessing, he replied ‘I know what you just asked, but I was so mesmerized and dazzled by your voice right there. You have got a great voice. I lost my train of thought.’
I used to bullshit when I started teaching and didn’t want to admit that I hadn’t understood a question. ‘It’s interesting you should ask that, because Aristotle says something similar …’, I might say. Then I could talk for a minute in the vain hope that my students would not spot my phoniness and my inability to answer their question.
The second idea of bullshit comes from Jerry Cohen, whose essay ‘Deeper Into Bullshit‘ defines bullshit as ‘unclarifiable unclarity’. Whereas Frankfurt-bullshit focuses on the mental state of the bullshitter, Cohen-bullshit focuses on the bullshitter’s output. Someone may be entirely sincere in what she says, but may still come out with something which is unclear and cannot be made clear.
Staggeringly, even Cohen doesn’t give useful examples. His only specific example, by Etienne Balibar, is probably not bullshit: it actually does make some sense, as Frankfurt himself points out in his response to Cohen in the book Contours of Agency.
Worse, Cohen feels free to make airy accusations about bullshit flourishing in French philosophy: ‘what I have read of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva leads me to think that there is a great deal of bullshit in their work’. Yet Cohen gives no references. Perhaps he was intending to do so before his untimely death. If not, I’m afraid we should not hesitate to describe Cohen’s comment as lazy and unscholarly. If he has read enough of these writers to see ‘a great deal of bullshit in their work’, then he should give us some examples. A claim as important and critical as this needs to be backed up.
Given Frankfurt’s and Cohen’s notions of bullshit, is Derrida full of bullshit? I will answer this in Part 2.