“Why is there so much bullshit?” asks Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt. He doesn’t ask plaintively, but rather in the formal manner of a rigorous philosophical inquiry. He defines bullshit, more or less, not as lying, but as talking about something without knowing about it and without caring whether you know. You could be right, you could be wrong, but you don’t know it. All you know is your agenda. That’s propaganda in a nutshell. A reckless disregard for truth, and subordination of truth to an agenda that is more important than the truth. Commentary on cable news channels is complete bullshit. The commentators don’t care about facts, they care about ratings, or perhaps about some political goal, like taxes or terrorism or defeating their ideological enemies at the polls, and they’re content to say anything to get the desired end-result. It’s a serpentine Machiavellianism in regard to fact.
On the other hand, as Frankfurt is well aware, the academy is full of bullshit (according to him Yale, where he used to teach, is the bullshit capital of the world–probably because of Paul de Man), precisely because over the last half-century the academy has succumbed to an entrenched skepticism of truth and reality as “constructions.”
“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about,” Frankfurt says. Because so many academics have profound doubts about the existence of truth and fact (yes, it makes no sense…), they are obligated to bullshit or to shut up, and unfortunately they have chosen the former.
The word bullshit, when applied to a fitting object, is pleasurable to say and to read. It is a highly specific word–it names a species of dishonesty that differs from lying, as Frankfurt clearly shows–and therefore it’s highly descriptive, honest, truthful, useful. In short it’s the opposite of what it names with fitting scorn. It is honorable. It is the shibboleth of all those who care about what is true and what is …