Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit And Lying

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, February 6, 2017.)

Emeritus professor of philosophy at Princeton Harry Frankfurt‘s book, On Bullshit, was a surprise best seller a few years ago. Given the public musings of our recently installed President, I thought it time to revisit the main idea of the book.

Frankfurt begins by jumping right in: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.” This is a truism, but it provides small comfort to those of us who listen to so much of what is said by politicians, generals, clergy, and uninformed citizens. No pain is too severe for them to inflict on those of us with relatively well-ordered minds.

But what is bullshitting and in what ways it is similar to, and different from, lying? Here are the basics as Frankfurt sees them:

Main Similarities

1) Both liars and bullshitters (bsers) want you to believe that they are telling the truth.
2) And both want to get away with something.

Major Differences

Liars – 

1) Liars engage in a conscious act of deception.
2) Liars know the truth, but attempt to hide it.
3) Liars spread untruths, but they still accept the distinction between the truth and false.


1) Bsers do not consciously deceive.
2) Bsers just don’t know or care about the truth.
3) Bsers ignore or reject the distinction between truth and falsity altogether.

(Note that what the liar says is necessarily false. If I know that Jupiter is a gaseous planet and claim otherwise, then what I’m saying is false. But if don’t know anything about Jupiter and then make some claim about it, my bullshit might turn out to be correct.)

To reiterate the main point. Liars know the truth and try to hide it; bsers don’t know or care about the truth and try to hide their lack of commitment to it. Thus bullshitting is more like bluffing or faking. Surprisingly, Frankfurt thinks bullshit is more dangerous than lies because it erodes the possibility of the truth existing and being found. As he puts it:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth … Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off … He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are.

As to the cause of so much bullshit, Frankfurt argues:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.

Brief reflections – I accept the basic distinction between knowing the truth and lying about it, and not knowing or caring about the truth, and then trying to impress people by talking about things I know nothing about.

I’m less convinced that bullshitting is worse than lying. To clarify, consider the following:

1) I am scientifically literate. Therefore I know that biological evolution is true beyond any reasonable doubt. If I lie about this—say because I think that will  make you more likely to contribute to my political or religious cause—then I subvert the truth.

2) I am scientifically illiterate. Thus I don’t know if evolutionary theory is true or false. If I bullshit about this—say because I want you to think that I know what I’m talking about—then I ignore the truth.

In these two cases I think lying is worse than bullshitting because the liar always subverts the truth whereas the bser might inadvertently tell the truth.

But if the bser not only doesn’t know or care about the truth but rejects the very distinction between the two, if the bullshitter believes that there is no truth, then bullshitting is worse. A world that denies the existence of truth is a far worse than one that still accepts the difference between truth and falsity.

What I think is more important than the distinction between lying and bullshitting is the one between truth and falsity. As Frankfurt states in his follow-up book, On Truth: “How could a society which cared too little for truth make sufficiently well-informed decisions concerning the most suitable disposition of its public business?” I think this is correct, but I think there’s a lot more to it.

In my next post, I will further explore why truth matters.

1 thought on “Harry Frankfurt on Bullshit And Lying

  1. That’s certainly an interesting distinction between lies and bullshit. I am torn as to which is more corrosive to social harmony. My own experience is that bullshit is almost ubiquitous. For example, Mr. Trump has been adjudged to have told falsehoods far more often than he spoke truth, yet the American citizenry seemed undisturbed by his freshet of falsehoods. I do not believe that Mr. Trump was consciously aware of his falsehoods; instead, it appears that his notion of truth is determined by his emotions.

    For example, consider the recent brouhaha over his ridiculous claims that his inauguration was the most heavily viewed inauguration in history. He was outraged that the press pointed out how small the crowd was, so his towering vanity simply fabricated the “facts” that he found more comforting.

    This tendency seems to be sweeping over the American electorate. Other examples include the claims by the far left that Mr. Sanders would have defeated Mr. Trump, and the sudden reversal of Ms. Clinton’s image. She went from being the most admired woman in America for eight straight years to being an untrustworthy and corrupt politician. And it was all because of a vicious smear campaign against her.

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