PHL101: Critical Thinking, "Beneath Reason": a collection of other concerns
- There are a number of factors that influence our reasoning,
and thus come to shape or influence whether we believe some claims,
but which are not directly actually claims. That is, there are
influences on us which are not themselves claims to fact, but something
more indirect. We will consider three now:
- Insinuated Inference
- Propoganda and emotional association
- Our concern will be just to discuss these issues with the interest
that being aware of these influences can reduce the negative influence
of such effects.
- Warning: we will not be able to say much that is
conclusive on these topics. We will in the case of bullshit
merely be seeking a clearer understanding of the phenomenon,
and in the case of these other issues we will just be raising
and considering a number of questions.
- We will use "bullshit" as a technical term, adopting
Harry Frankfurt's notion.
- Frankfurt attempts to analyze and determine a rich and
revealing notion for the common term bullshit. So, you need
to read him as relying on some common sense observations and
also some analysis of meaning to develop the rudiments of a
theory about the phenomenon of bullshit.
- Frankfurt begins by arguing that because bullshit is
ubiquitous, and because we tend to be (over)confidant that we
can recognize it, we have only a superficial understanding of
what it is.
- Frankfurt in part relies on defitions. Assuming "humbug"
is a synonym for "bullshit," one definition given by Max Black
Deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by
pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts,
feelings, or attitudes.
This suggests bullshit is:
- Intentionally misdirecting
- But in some sense not a lie -- how not? how does it differ?
- Need not but often is pretentious
- Misrepresents one's feelings
- A main feature of bullshit then is that is aims to
deceive others about the state of mind of the bullshitter,
but it does this without making any explicit claim about
the speaker's state of mind.
- Here's an example: imagine an orator at a Fourth of
July celebration who gives a speech praising
our great and blessed country, whose Founding
Fathers under divine guidance created a new
beginning for mankind.
This is not a lie because it is not the goal of the speaker to
encourage us to believe that the Founders were acting under
divine guidance. But the speaker does not think that it is
false that the Founders acted under divine guidance; the
speaker is instead not interested in this claim at all.
Rather, the speaker is bullshitting because the goal of the
speech is to make us believe things about the speaker: that he
is patriot with deep feelings about his nation, with a love
and respect for pious religion, etc.
- Frankfurt thinks that this account, which he has
extracted from Black, is not the whole story. Something
essential and important is missing.
- He takes as his inspiration these lines from Longfellow,
which the philosopher Wittgenstein took as a personal motto:
In the elder days of art
(For those interested, I put the poem
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part
For the Gods are everywhere.
- Claim: there is something analogous between shoddy
products and bullshit.
- Bullshit can be very carefully crafted; this is the
primary job of advertising and PR, after all. But there is
something sloppy in it. It is unconnected to a concern
with truth. The bullshitter says things not to lie
but with no concern for their accuracy.
- This, according to Frankfurt, is the essence
of bullshit: bullshit is spoken without any concern for
the truth. It can be true or false, but the speaker does
not really care.
- This may be reflected in some related terms. A bull
session appears to be a harmless discussion where people
without much seriousness discuss some issues. "Bull" has
sometimes meant empty rituals.
- Bullshit may also be like bluffing and phoniness, in this
regard. What is objectionable to phony things is how they
were made. The bullshitter is not concerned, in producing his
or her product, with ensuring it is made in the right way --
that is, made with attention to facts.
- One might prefer bullshit to lying becuase it is
more accepted -- there is no clear culpability.
- Still, though the bullshitter is indifferent to the truth
of what she is saying, she does tell one kind of lie: she
implicitly lies about what she is doing with her speech. She
misrepresents herself as, say, giving a speech about how great
the U.S. is, when what she really is doing is akin to saying,
"look at how pious and patriotic I am!"
- This is the thing most alike between liars and
bullshitters: they both seek to deceive us about themselves.
The liar seeks to make us believe that she believes her lie
(that is, she knows some claim P is false, asserts P, and in
so doing of course asserts that she believes P), and the
bullshitter seeks to make us believe that she is saying
something that she supposes is true (she makes claims like P
in her bullshit, and we so in a way asserts P and asserts that
she believes P, but in fact she does not care if P is true or
- But the liar believes she knows the truth, and then
asserts something inconsistent with it. The bullshitter need
not know the truth. She need not care.
- For most of us, if a statement is false, that is a reason
not to assert it. For the liar, one aims to assert a
falsehood. For the bullshitter, a statement being false is no
reason for or against asserting the statement.
- The bullshitter is a greater enemy of truth than the liar:
she undermines the concern for truth that the honest person and
the liar share.
- Frankfurt closes with the question "why is there so
much bullshit?" He offers a few thoughts:
- Bullshit is inevitable when someone speaks of
something about which they are ignorant. Perhaps
there are many such occasions arising from, for
example, the demand on public figures to speak on
everything, or from the notion had by some people that
we should have opinions on everything.
- Bullshit might be a product of a skepticism or
relativism that leads people to think that sincerity
is more important than any rigorous standards of
Some data: PIPA findings on Iraq opinion. Why
were these errors so common? Our discussion raised several important
Concerning the correlation with Fox News watching, the most common
hypothesis you raised was that people watch news programs that
reflect their prejudices, rather than that Fox News inculculcated
- Halo effect: do people draw inferences of their own to
make a consistent picture of the events around them?
- Insinuation: did many people insinuate these things
were true, even if they were not?
- Hopeful thinking: did many people infer these things
because they wanted to infer them?
Propoganda and Emotive Control
- As you watch Reifenstahl's Triumph of the Will, ask yourself:
- What messages does the film aim to convey?
- How does it do this?
- Try to distinguish explicit from implicit claims the
film may make.
- This film is perhaps not the most effective propoganda
film ever made -- it's unlikely it converted anyone to Nazism,
for example. But it is a clear early example of film
propoganda, and many of its techniques are common to much of
- One of the things that propoganda seems to do is to form
emotional and aesthetic associations. These associations are
not reliable, and yet we seem to be susceptible to them.
- Making the association into an explicit claim, and then
treating that claim with the tools of critical reasoning may
be our best defense against being misled by such associations.