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Monday, August 06, 2012

Bullshit vs Lying

"I want you to find happiness and stop having fun." - Lorelei Lee

***

"In Eric Ambler’s novel Dirty Story, a character named Arthur Abdel Simpson recalls advice that he received as a child from his father:

Although I was only seven when my father was killed, I still remember him very well and some of the things he used to say. … One of the first things he taught me was, “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”

... What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentarional intent. The bulishitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bulishitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth- values of his statements are of no central interest ro him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bulishit 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 consider his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In his essay, “Lying,” St. Augustine distinguishes lies of eight types, which he classifies according to the characteristic intent or justification with which a lie is told. Lies of seven of these types are told only because they are supposed to be indispensable means to some end that is distinct from the sheer creation of false beliefs. It is not their falsity as such, in other words, that attracts the teller to them. Since they are told only on account of their supposed indispensability to a goal other than deception itself, St. Augustine regards them as being told unwillingly: what the person really wants is not to tell the lie but to attain the goal. They are therefore not real lies, in his view, and those who tell them are not in the strictest sense liars. It is only the remaining category that contains what he identifìes as “the lie which is told solely for the pleasure of lying and deceiving, that is, the real lie.” Lies in this category are not told as means to any end distinct from the propagation of falsehood. They are cold simply for their own sakes — i.e., purely out of a love of deceptions:

There is a distinction between a person who tells a Lie and a Liar. The former is one who tells a lie unwillingly, while the liar loves to lie and passes his time in the the joy of lying. . . . The latter takes delight in lying, rejoicing in the falsehood itself.

What Augustine calls “liars” and “real lies” are both rare and extraordinary. Everyone lies from time to cime, but there are very few people to whom it would often (or even ever) occur to lie exclusively from a love of falsity or of deception...

The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist” doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity.

Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate, and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions, while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know. Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."

--- ON BULLSHIT / Harry Frankfurt
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