On Bullshit at the Bertrand Russell Society Meeting

I headed to The Bertrand Russell Society at Verb Café meeting at Writers and Books (740 University Ave.) for Ted Lechman's discussion of Harry G. Frankfurt's On Bullshit. [Got it?]

The tie-in to Russell was a short pamphlet he wrote in 1943 titled An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish: A Hilarious Catalogue of Organized and Individual Stupidity. Frankfurt's book was written in 2005 and professed to provide a philosophical definition of bullshit (also known as rubbish, malarkey, hokum, and humbug). Lechman generally spoke from Frankfurt's point of view, adding his own views where necessary.

The colloquial definition sets bullshit on the true-false spectrum — that bullshitting is a form of lying. Lechman argued that this is a flawed definition: that bullshit is much more anchored in motive than in truthfulness. My analogy is that fitting bullshit into the true-false spectrum is as valid as fitting apathy into the love-hate spectrum.

I think a linguistic flaw is the concept of opposites: for you can argue that love is the opposite of hate, and (in my opinion more strongly) that apathy is the opposite of love. Yet apathy is also the opposite of hate — and now we've got a triangle of opposites which is logically impossible. As the old joke goes, "two wrongs don't make a right but three lefts do." [Which I credit to 2NU in their song, "This is Ponderous", but I'm sure it's older than that.]

Anyway, Lechman was trying to suggest that bullshit comes from a motive of misdirection, not of deception. Thus, lying is the deliberate act of deceiving — of knowing the truth but professing something else. Bullshit is the deliberate act of misdirecting attention — of not caring about the truth of a statement, but stating it anyway to draw attention to someone else.

I think his perfectly constructed example was of one who states, "America is the greatest country in the world" to other Americans. It's a statement that has no provable truth, for there are statistics that favor America and those that don't. The purpose of making such a statement, though, is to suggest that oneself is great — that by complimenting the country and therefore its people, the people then express praise in complementary appreciation.

However, I deviate from Lechman's and Frankfurt's definition there. I think that bullshit can be as simple as assuming logical fallacy is more valid than logical argument. To me, this definition allows for a more innocent form of bullshit, where the bullshitter actually does have truthfulness in mind, but is ill-equipped to make an argument.

So in the end, I guess I support Lechman's (and presumably Frankfurt's) definition that one form of bullshit requires an apathy toward the truthfulness of a statement and an ulterior motive. However, I feel there is also another form of bullshit which is simply using logical fallacy as if it is superior to logical argument.