Friday, October 25, 2013

Some varieties of bullsh*t

Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay “On Bullshit” first appeared back in 1986 and was republished a few years ago in book form.  Though it has surely attracted too much attention from people who get an adolescent thrill out of the idea that they can do philosophy in a way that involves repeatedly saying the word “bullshit,” Frankfurt’s thesis is serious and important.  Bullshitting, Frankfurt argues, is not the same thing as lying.  The liar, like the truth-teller, cares about what is true.  The difference is that the truth-teller conveys it while the liar wants to cover it up.  The bullshitter, by contrast, doesn’t really care one way or the other about the truth.  He isn’t using his communicative faculties for the sake of conveying either truth or falsehood, but rather for some other end, such as promoting himself.

Frankfurt writes:

The bullshitter 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 bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it.

End quote.  Frankfurt discusses the example of someone who gives a pompous patriotic speech, every word of which the speaker may well believe to be true.  The reason the speech is bullshit is that the reason for the speech is not what the speaker pretends it to be.  The real aim is not to impress upon the listeners the virtues of their country, but to impress upon them the virtue of the speaker himself.  What he wants them to walk away thinking is not “How wonderful our country is!” but “How wonderful he is for describing our country that way!”

Bullshit of this sort is comparable to sentimentality as Roger Scruton understands it.  On Scruton’s analysis (which I discussed in an earlier post), in sentimentality an emotional state becomes an end in itself rather than something tending to get one to act appropriately in response to the situation that prompted the emotion.  For instance, someone who constantly chats up the plight of the homeless, but without any real interest in finding out why people become homeless or what ways of helping them are really effective, might plausibly be described as merely sentimental.  “How awful things are for the homeless!” is not really the thought that moves him.  What really moves him is the thought: “How wonderful I am to think of how awful things are for the homeless!”

Bullshit, or at least some bullshit, is like this.  It is speech pointing back at the speaker rather than at the world, just like sentimentality is emotion pointing back at the one feeling it rather than at the situation that prompted it.  Also like sentimentality, bullshit can serve the ends of a group or a cause rather than an individual.  We can luxuriate in the thought of how wonderful we are for collectively feeling compassionate (or outraged, or patriotic, or loyal, or whatever) just as much as I can luxuriate in the thought of how wonderful I am for feeling that way.  Similarly, bullshit can be directed at getting people to think well of some group, institution, or cause just as much as at promoting oneself.


Here’s one genre of literature that smells to me suspiciously like bullshit: the books aping Frankfurt’s essay, with “bullshit” or other vulgarities or obscenities in their titles, which have appeared since the book version of “On Bullshit” became a bestseller in 2005.  (For some examples, click through the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section on Amazon’s page for Frankfurt’s book.)  Ostensibly, such books are meant to put forward serious philosophical or cultural analyses of the phenomena named by this or that dirty word. 

Could it be, though, that the motivating thought is not: “This is an important phenomenon that demands a book-length analysis,” but rather: “Maybe I can make myself look like an excitingly transgressive thinker, and earn a few bucks along the way, by spouting some pseudo-philosophical pretentious bullshit about cuss words like ‘bullshit’”?

Just askin’.  If the answer is Yes, we might call this bullshit about bullshit -- meta-bullshit. 

(I just know someone out there is about to jump straight to the combox to label this blog post “meta-meta-bullshit.”  Sorry, just beat you to it.) 

Another kind of meta-bullshit is common in discussions of politics.  That politicians trade in bullshit has, needless to say, become a cliché.  Indeed, it has become such a cliché that one suspects that the “All politicians are bullshitters” meme is itself a kind of bullshit.  It is often intended to call our attention, not to political reality so much as to the putative moral superiority and sophistication of the speaker.  Many a comedian has built a career on such a pose of knowing cynicism.  Think of George Carlin (who was, to be sure, often very funny), or Bill Maher (not so much) -- people often as “full of it” as the politicians they ridicule. 

This brand of meta-bullshit is especially risible coming from people who profess to be lovers of democracy.  For as any reader of Plato’s critique of democracy in The Republic knows, the democratic ethos -- with its pretence that all the views and ways of life prevalent in a pluralistic society be regarded as worthy of equal respect -- inevitably tends toward bullshit.  A politician who spoke with complete frankness -- who said exactly what he thought about those views and ways of life among his fellow citizens that he didn’t share, which is bound to be most of them -- would never get elected, and would no doubt tick off most of those people who claim they want politicians to speak frankly.

Frankfurt calls attention himself to one way in which democracy breeds bullshit:

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. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

End quote.  Frankfurt also regards skepticism and “’anti-realist’ doctrines” as sources of bullshit -- and skepticism and anti-realist doctrines like relativism are, as every reader of Plato also knows, fostered by democracy.    Where confidence in our ability to know objective truth wanes, what replaces it, Frankfurt observes, is “an alternative ideal of sincerity.”  Here, as with bullshit and sentimentalism, we see attention turned inward, to the subject and his attitudes toward the world rather than to the world itself.  Sincerity in the expression of one’s views, rather than their correctness or rational justifiability, becomes the watchword.  Thus are we led to a situation in which, as Frankfurt says, “sincerity itself is bullshit.”

To complain, Ross Perot-style, that democracy would be great if only it weren’t for the bullshit of politicians, is like saying that pornography would be great if it weren’t for all the nudity.  You want pornography, you’re going to get nudity.  You want democracy, you’re going to gets lots of bullshit.  That doesn’t mean Churchill wasn’t right that bad as democracy is, everything else is even worse.  But if he was right, it is foolish -- and often just bullshit -- to pretend it could be much better, or that politicians are especially at fault for its being as bad as it is.

Philosophical bullshit

I was trained in analytic philosophy, which, despite the regrettable tendency of some (though by no means all) of its practitioners toward scientism, is not a bad preparation for Scholastic philosophy.  For analytic philosophers, like Scholastics, value conceptual precision, rigorous argumentation, and clarity of expression.  Accordingly, analytic philosophers often regard modern continental philosophers -- the sort who write and argue like Hegel, or Heidegger, or even worse -- as bullshit-peddlers, sometimes with good reason.  

But the methods of analytic philosophy can lend themselves to a different kind of bullshit.  One should at least suspect its presence in an author when symbolism and other formal techniques that could easily be dispensed with without loss of rigor and with a great gain in readability are used anyway; or when paragraph after paragraph is devoted to the tedious examination of variations on variations of implausible views that no one, including the author, actually holds or is ever likely to hold.  One wonders of at least some philosophers who write like this whether they are less interested in facilitating philosophical understanding than in demonstrating their own cleverness or trying to give a banal piece of work the appearance of gravitas. 

I’ll give one example, because it’s someone I otherwise admire.  Plus he’s dead.  Robert Nozick was undeniably brilliant and often very interesting even when he was wrong.  I wrote my first book about him, and while I no longer accept the libertarianism I defended therein, the arguments he gave for that position are serious and worthy of philosophical attention.  So too is much of his other work.  He had a well-known tendency, though, to explore ideas just for the sake of exploring them, even when he was not inclined to take them too seriously.  While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, the result could sometimes be page after tedious page of explorations of various riffs on ideas that were just non-starters.  The chapter in Philosophical Explorations on why there is something rather than nothing, which I discussed in a post some time back, is like that.  (“Nothingness force” anyone?)  So too, in my view, is the chapter in Invariances discussing various ways a relativist might try to make his position coherent.  One is sometimes tempted to say: “Nozick, I admire your intellect, your breadth of knowledge, your wit.  But come on -- you know this is bullshit!” 


Crude said...

Interesting take on what separates lies from bullshit. That seems like a very apt way of describing some of it, and I never really thought about it from that angle before. Well done.

Edward Feser said...

I knew a guy named Crude would like a post about bullshit.

Crude said...


The original Mr. X said...

"(I just know someone out there is about to jump straight to the combox to label this blog post “meta-meta-bullshit.” Sorry, just beat you to it.)"

I call meta-meta-meta bullshit on this.

(Sorry, couldn't resist. Great post, especially the part about sincerity replacing objective truth. I suppose this explains why so many people nowadays seem to want to follow their desires without wondering whether these desires ought to be followed, because not following them would entail "living a lie" or some nonsense like that.)

Untenured said...

I'm surprised that, in your discussion of "analytic" bullshit, you didn't call attention to a particular strain within naturalist philosophy.

There is a tendency for some naturalists to make a pretense of addressing a philosophical question while, at the same time, either waving the question away or changing the subject. And, all the while, gesturing towards some arguably relevant but non-question-answering empirical data.

This form of bullshit is on full display in most of Dennett's central writings, and I am afraid that even the estimable Quine wasn't above it. And, of course, contemporary philosophy of mind is rife with this sort of thing as is the transparent fraud known as "experimental" philosophy.

Michael G. Murad said...

The point about sincerity seems particularly apt. Reminds me of this: "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you've got it made."

Curio said...

Wow, great post. Sounding less like your usual self and more like The Last Psychiatrist, another insightful blogger.

You briefly allude to the attitudes Scholastics and analytic philosophers share toward continental bull****. Any chance you'd be willing to do a whole post on this?

Alan Aversa said...

So, "bullshitter" is the modern term for sophist?

thelastshallbefirst said...

I think the sophist - bullshitter relation is a good one, and when I've taught this book, it was to ease students into the mindset where they could get as much as possible from The Apology.

Another book that makes a similar point--language used for something other than its purpose of truth is dangerous--is Pieper's wonderful book "Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power."

BenYachov said...

Sophists/bullshiters are a waste of space.

They suck up all the oxygen for persons seriously concerned with learning & having informative discussions.

I hold such people(& I know a few of them) in absolute contempt.

The best you can do is mock them or correct their misinformation for the benefit of others.

But you can't actually talk to them since it is always a one sided deal.

Scott Scheule said...

I knew a Nozick reference was coming. But, though I will happily admit he had a tendency to ramble, I don't think it was with the intent of drawing attention to himself, as the bullshitter does. I imagine it was actually a sort of keen curiosity--Nozick could get fascinated by the small as well as the big and he liked to share it.

Perhaps this is most evident in The Examined Life (I think that's where it was, at least), where he attempts to solve the Euthyphro. Why should he attempt this? He's not a religious person. Is this just a way of saying look how clever I am?

I don't think so. I think he just found it interesting to think about certain topics, even when he didn't even accept the assumptions underlying the conflict.

Edward Feser said...

So far none of you have caught the really deep, hidden intellectual puzzle in this post.

Look at that picture of the Man-Bull. He refers to his "hooves." Yet as you can plainly see, he has no hooves, but just normal feet.

So, is he lying? Bullshitting? "Hoofing it" in the sense of walking or dancing, and thus not really lying or bullshitting at all?


(OK, I know that pointing this unforeseen puzzle out makes me seem very very clever indeed. So am I, as Mr. X suggests, just meta-meta-meta bullshitting? But wait, I've just called attention to that possibility, which means I'm being up-front, in which case it isn't really bullshit, much less meta-meta-meta bullshit. Except that pointing that out is an obvious attempt at being clever, in which case do we have meta-meta-meta-meta bullshit?

And does Metamucil get rid of meta-bullshit...?

Man, this is some really deep bullshit!)

Debilis said...

I loved the distinctions.

I have to say, I kept expecting one or more of the New Atheists to be mentioned under this topic.

At least, I think this is a great explanation for why they can continue to give asinine sound-bytes long after they've been refuted, publicly, on multiple occasions.

I don't think it's that they're insincere. Rather, they are far less interested in whether or not their statements are true than in how intelligent one feels when making them.

At least, that would explain a lot.

Scott said...

@Ed Feser:

"So far none of you have caught the really deep, hidden intellectual puzzle in this post.

Look at that picture of the Man-Bull. He refers to his 'hooves.' Yet as you can plainly see, he has no hooves, but just normal feet."

Heh, as a matter of fact I did notice that and almost remarked on it. But I never meta-bullshit I didn't like, so it behooved me to refrain from commenting.

Make Mine Marvel! 'Nuff said.

Glenn said...

Yo Bison-Head! Nice Hobbit Feet.

Glenn said...

Dare I? Oh well; in for a penny, in for a pound. Two more:

1. Final Jeopardy: When asked why he has feet rather than hooves, he replied, "When you have feet, you can't be behooved."

2. How the heck does the Man-Bull expect to rule the world? He can't even shave the right foot.

Anonymous said...

But our entire so called culture is based on bullshit. Bullshit religion and a "culture" based on the accumulation of bullshit which we horde as accumulated junk in the attic or in our bodies as a result of stuffing our cake-holes with packets of toxic chemicals in the form of processed so called foods.

To be a truly human being you must heighten the capacity to be an intentional eliminator. Strangely enough, grotesquely enough, and disgustingly enough, that is what you have to be, intentionally, efficiently, with great energy, great power, great interest! Isn't this amazing! Isnt this disgusting!

Our entire "culture" including its bullshit religion trains us to be neurotics. To retain things, to hide things. All neurotics support themselves with illusions, and are deluded not only psychically but also physically. The eating habits of neurotics tend to be associated with taking false food, food that really does not sustain the body or promote a sense of well-being and bodily equanimity, but that becomes toxins and obstructions in the energetic processes of the body. This is why there is so much junk food in USA society. Junk food is the equivalent of false psychic, psychological, and philosophical views. It is fake food, plastic, an illusion of food, just as conventional religion is an illusion of Truth. Obviously the primary religious illusion is that one is "saved" by Jesus.

There seems to be no shit around in USA society, at least nothing people would generally acknowledge to be shit. Yet there is nothing else BUT shit around, but it appears in the form of some consumer product, something ownable, something attractive. Everybody tries to look attractive, yet people are not eliminators. They turn all their shit into gold, into TV sets all of the other desirable things advertised on TV. They renounce nothing. There is no true freedom in them.

A free person is someone who does not need illusions to live by, including all of the self-consoling illusions associated with "Jesus". The body is designed to be an eliminator. It wants to simply stand free in a state of equanimity. It cannot accumulate and stand free at the same time. As soon as the body starts accumulating, it becomes out of balance, and diseased, and its diseased state is manifested in every dimension of the being, psychological, psychic, and spiritual.

We are taught by TV and the advertising industry to think of ourselves as acquisitive characters, people who acquire things, the consumer always stuffing, filling and consoling itself. Conventional religion is just another consumer product for neurotics who cannot release and let go of things, and who, being in a self-toxified state physically, psychically, and altogether, need to console themselves with illusions. Conventional religion is a McDonald's hamburger for the mind. It is not real food. It is not Truth. It is just a support for beings who cannot stand free, who cannot release.

The ideal of USA "culture" is to accumulate as much as possible, the ideal of the millionaire every-person. Every man in his private castle. Having a castle and a dozen cars in the garage and gold plied high in the attic is the same as having a body full of fat and toxins, and being diseased and deluded and consoled by things that are not real or that do not last.

Then of course the USA HAS to be engaged in never-ending wars to protect their illusion based way of life. As someone once said - the American consumerist life-style is not negotiable!

Glenn said...


Lucky for you the accumulation of anger isn't toxic.

Greg Johnson said...

How do I respond to this:

"We can invent things that are coherent and have built into them a fixed concept that we can share. For example, we can invent new musical scales. I can invent a new scale with x number of notes that have an interval pattern that I choose. And I can share this scale with others. And they can see the coherence in my new scale idea. And what notes could be played in my scale in any key is objective fact. And you can't just add notes to my scale because you happen to believe that " Surely we can do whatever we like with what we invent" Because if you do that it would no longer be my invented scale but some other invention. Adding notes to my scale would be like adding another side to a triangle, it would turn it into something completely different.

If I did a good job creating my new scale I wouldn't be turning music into something completely different. I would be growing music.

And if there was such a thing as a perfect Form "music" like there is a perfect Form "triangle", as you suggest, then my new scale should be easy enough to compare to the Form music so we could determine if my scale conforms more to the perfect form than some other scale, like the Major scale. But the history of music shows this NOT to be true. What the actual history of music shows is that our "taste" of what is a pleasing form of Music changes over time. What sounded discordant to one generation, i.e. a bad form of music, can become very pleasing to another generation. And different cultures of the same generation can disagree on what the perfect Form of music is.

All of which demonstrates that there is no such thing as a perfect Form of music, or even notes for that matter, (with all due respect to Pythagoras). And it also demonstrates that that humans can invent new ideas which they are perfectly capable of sharing with other humans."

He also says that ideas about Harry Potter, a completely fictional place, can be shared, arguing for conceptualism.

Thanks for the help. NOTE this is not off topic, its a "variety of bullshit".


Timotheos said...

The word bullshit appeared exactly 42 times in Dr. Feser's article (including the title)


This obviously means that Dr. Feser is trying to get us to subconsciously associate the meaning of the universe with bullshit.

If that's the case, then obviously it's all part of his ultimate brainwashing plot to get us all to convert to Hinduism, since the bull that the droppings came from are greater than the bullshit.

All I can say is holy cow!

Speaking of bullshit...

Timotheos said...

Just realized I missed a perfect chance to say "Holy Cow Batman"

Anonymous said...

I loved Metamucil when I was a kid.

Scott said...

This seems appropriate somehow.

Glenn said...

This seems appropriate somehow.

"Hm. Jim Stafford used to sing Cow Patti."

"Uh-huh. Everybody knows that."

"Well, did you know that Old MacDonald was a really bad speller?"

Scott said...

I see Glenn has repaid me in kine . . .

Anonymous said...

The deep puzzle is why the Hulk is wearing his party hat. MPD / fantasising or visually bullshitting?

Scott said...

"The deep puzzle is why the Hulk is wearing his party hat."

Hulk smashed.

Debilis said...

@ Greg Johnson

I can't speak for Feser, but I'd say something like this:

To say that people and cultures have had different concepts of the perfect music can be explained in a number of ways.

To throw out a few:
- Some cultures see the truth about music more clearly than others
- The final truth of music is deeper than any of these cultures realizes (they only see the perfection in some types)
- There is growth in music appreciation, but only in those who actually study the history of music (the opinions of non-experts are just that)
- Or, that conceptualism is true

The fact that tastes change seems to be equally explained by all of these statements. I don't see that it is evidence in favor of any one of them.

However, I would say that the fact that there is a limit to how much music has changed between cultures (such as being expressible in relatively simple mathematics, involving repetition, keeping all instruments to a single time, etc) would be evidence that music is not purely conceptual, but is connected to a part of human nature that transcends culture.

The same would go for Harry Potter (or any other form of art). People disagree about matters of fact all the time. Whatever else that means, it shows us that disagreement is not a sign that that there is no fact of the matter.

That would be my approach, anyway.

Glenn said...

To help get the train back on track, here's an excerpt from Frankfurt's On [Humbug]:

Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of "non-sense." He was apparently like that in his personal life as well. This comes out in an anecdote related by Fania Pascal, who knew him in Cambridge in the 1930s:

I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." He was disgusted: "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like."

This calls to mind a few things:

1. I once ran into a friend who looked like she was feeling run down. I asked, "How are you?" She replied, "I slept for 11 hours, and now I feel like a slug." As what a slug might feel like is outside the domain of my experience (though I once did pick one up), I said, "Sans the slime, I hope." Wittgenstein would have been disgusted (and not by the reference to slime).

2. Several years ago my wife was in the hospital for a kidney transplant. Before going into surgery she was told, "When you wake up after surgery, you're going to feel like you've been run over by a truck." Wittgenstein would have been disgusted. (And had he known what I said to my wife as I was helping her walk after the day of her transplant (walking the day after transplantation was required of all transplant patients), he would have been contemptuous. Me: "Hey, the speed limit in the hallway is only 30 yards an hour. You're going too fast. Slow down." Wittgenstein: "Ach du lieber! No one has said anything about a speed limit. And, as you may readily observe, no speed limit is posted.")

As a better effort ought to be made, the next one is (with certain prior posts in mind) closer to being relevant.

3. If it is BS for one to suggest that (s)he knows what a dog that has been run over feels like, maybe it is also BS for an observer to claim that he can tell with infallible certainty from the act itself the intention behind the running of a dog -- or of a puppy (see under 'Chain-undertakings or Courses of Actions' in Ryle's* Courses of Action or the Uncatchableness of Mental Acts. (* An explanation for the asterisk is at the link.)

Timotheos said...

"He was disgusted: "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like.""

She should have responded, you don't know that I haven't been a run over dog.

Which returns us back to Hinduism, Glenn are you part of the plot!!??!

"Wittgenstein devoted his philosophical energies largely to identifying and combating what he regarded as insidiously disruptive forms of "non-sense.""

Yet he was an anti-essentialist? Bullshitter!

Glenn said...


She should have responded, you don't know that I haven't been a run over dog.

Ha! Good retort.

Timotheos said...

In response to Feser calling Nozick a bullshitter in the original post, I think we all know what would have been replied...

"Yeah, I noz-ick"

Timotheos said...

As far as Ryle goes, he has a way of making me Ryled.

Scott said...

Chuang Tzu: Look at those bats flying around. They're really happy.

Thomas Nagel: You're not a bat, so how do you know what it's like to be a bat?

Chuang Tzu: You are not me, so how do you know I don't know what it's like to be a bat?

Ludwig Wittgenstein (disgusted): Bullshit.

Glenn said...

Ah, clever clever.

Scott said...

And here's a little something by Al Stewart that would absolutely drive Wittgenstein mad. Just how do you know how a "catamaran in summer" feels, Al?

Timotheos said...

Bruce Wayne(responding to Wittgenstein): I know what it feels like to be a bat. You know why? Because I'm Batman!

Glenn said...

Wittgenstein: Just how do you know how a "catamaran in summer" feels, Al?

Al (scratching head): Good question, Wit. Btw, how'd you ever get a nickname like that? Never mind; don't answer. Truthfully, I don't know how I know, but I do know that feeling like a "catamaran in summer" feels a whole lot better than "strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime." (Here.)

Glenn said...

What it is like to be the hole in a doughnut?
by Douglas Bagel

To ask what it is like to be a particular something presupposes that that particular something is conscious. But no hole is conscious. And were my consiousness whole, I'd be disquisitive with respect to some other disquieting question. However...

Glenn said...

However much Ryle may rile, it cannot be denied that he makes a good point here:

o It is always possible to pretend to motives and abilities other than one's real ones, or to pretend to strengths of motives and levels of ability other than their real strengths and levels. The theatre could not exist, if it was not possible to make such pretences and to make them efficiently. It is, moreover, always possible for a person to take others or himself in by acting a part (as the spectators are not taken in at the theatre, since they have paid to see people who advertise themselves as actors). -- The Concept of Mind

Scott said...

Bruce Wayne: Quick, Robin! To the batamaran!

Al Stewart: You know sometime you're bound to leave him, but for now you're going to stay in the Year of the Bat.

Ludwig Wittgenstein (disgusted again) : Batshit.

Timotheos said...

"it is, moreover, always possible for a person to take others or himself in by acting a part"

Funny that Ryle should say this. If I "took a person in" wouldn't that mean, by Ryle's account, that a chunk of him would be in me. So is Ryle saying that there are cannibals at the theater?!

Or does he mean that his behavior would be my behavior, in which case, how would he not be me?

Or does he mean that we both participate in some sort of spooky behavior above our individual behavior. But that can't be right, because then we would be collapsing the distinction between a thing and its behavior.

So obviously Ryle was far too influenced by his Cartesian brethren, and that convinced him of this mysterious ability for people to act like other people. May we call this mysterious behavior the ghost in the machine? ;)

Bullshit #42

Scott said...


And perhaps even more weirdly, Ryle says it's "possible for a person to take . . . himself in by acting a part."

The idea of taking oneself in is odd enough; is that what we mean when we say to someone, "Please try to contain yourself"? How could one not contain oneself? If one takes oneself in, where was oneself to begin with?

But even if that made sense, it would be even odder to take oneself in by acting a part. Does this mean by acting like a part of oneself? I've admitted that one contains oneself, but not as a proper subset!

I'm calling bullshit.

Timotheos said...

Maybe he just meant that by acting on a part of himself, he could take a different part of himself in.

If that's the case, I agree with him, we could always eat our own hands off!

Timotheos said...

Funny thing I've noticed about your average materialist.

They decry many of the ancient superstitions believing something to the effect that the heart is the seat of the emotions and even sometimes the seat of the intellect. I mean after all, what does the heart really do besides pump blood?

But when the same question is asked about the brain, all of the sudden it becomes "obvious" that the brain can think.

My question is, "What's the difference." One pumps blood and the other electrical signals, like there's that much of a difference. This is usually where the magical word "computers" is inserted, but that dosen't matter, I can build a computer that runs off of pumping blood. (call it the Dracula 2013) ;)

So I call bullshit!

George LeSauvage said...

@Scott: Sure it's possible to "take oneself in". If you've ever known anyone who was good at faking sincerity, that is clearly how they do it. At the moment of speaking, they can convince themselves they really, truly, believe what they say. I knew a guy in college who could do this talking to girls. We were in awe of his success rate. But tomorrow, well, he'd be "sincere" about someone else. Politicians do this all the time.

George LeSauvage said...

The problem with Wittgenstein's approach is seen here:

"'Well, by an extraordinary chance, I'm glad to see you. Leave us for a moment, Miss Purvis. I wish to speak to my nephew here, such as he is, on a serious and private matter. Did you notice that girl?' he said, as the
door closed.

'I did, indeed.'


'An eyeful.'

'And as good,' said Sir Aylmer, 'as she is beautiful. You should see her smooth pillows. And what a cooling drink she mixes! Excellent family, too, I understand. Her father is a colonel. Or, rather, was. He's dead.'

'Ah, well, all flesh is as grass.'

'No, it isn't. It's nothing of the kind. The two things are entirely
different. I've seen flesh and I've seen grass. No resem­blance whatever."

(Romance at Droitgate Spa, P G Wodehouse. The whole thing is here in print:

And here on video:

Scott said...

@George LeSauvage:

"@Scott: Sure it's possible to 'take oneself in'."

Oops, looks like we've accidentally taken you in. ;-)

Glenn said...

Janis Joplin:
Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?
My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?

'Take in' is a phrasal verb, and it means to deceive or swindle. Can one deceive oneself? If a person believes that is not possible to deceive oneself, then that person has successfully done what he falsely believes is impossible to do.

A friend from way back once decided to make use of 'the power of positive thinking' so that he could purchase the Mercedes he wanted but couldn't afford. Well, he succeeded. It wasn't brand new; still, good for him. A few weeks later we're talking on the phone, and it comes out that he wouldn't be flying halfway around the world to spend Christmas with his family as he had always done since coming to this country. Why not? Unlike in prior years, he couldn't afford to do so this year.

By no means was my friend from way back in possession of any unique or special qualifications, and you too, dear reader, can use 'the power of positive thinking' to unwittingly convince yourself that buying a used car is better than spending Christmas with your family halfway around the world as you have always done.

(OTOH, simply deciding to buy a used car in lieu of going home for Christmas may be more economical than going through the shenanigans of using 'the power of positive thinking' to unwittingly convince yourself to do that.)

Glenn said...


If one takes oneself in, where was oneself to begin with?

Not here, certainly not. (See there.)

Glenn said...

George LeSauvage,

Romance at Droitgate Spa, P G Wodehouse. The whole thing is here in print:

Good story (apropos, too); thanks for posting the link.

Scott said...


"Not here, certainly not. (See there.)"

Yep, that proves it.

One couldn't have been at home, either. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

So if I'm not at home, and I'm not here, where am I? Good heavens, I'm beside myself!

benbradley said...

Reading through this I was reminded of the (much-maligned and rightly so, and recently banned from the Popular Science website) Internet troll. At first I thought the troll was a bullshitter as both do not care about the truth. But the troll does NOT believe what he/she/it writes, and is fully conscious that he's making up some story with a specific unstated purpose (winding up others to post and comment on the topic). He's not really lying either, as his statement may or may not have any relation to what he actually believes. He IS implying a meta-lie, however, in that he is pretending to care about the conversation or the topic. But the bullshitter is trying to puff himself up and perhaps believes what he says, whereas the troll's covert purpose is to start a fight, preferably between two or more others (he may be a concern troll who is overtly "only here to help"), though engaging another in battle may be considered a success by the troll.

Thus a troll is a third type of abuser of truth.

Anonymous said...

@Dr. Feser

This guy totally pwned you!!

Mr. Green said...

Timotheos: They decry many of the ancient superstitions believing something to the effect that the heart is the seat of the emotions and even sometimes the seat of the intellect. [...] But when the same question is asked about the brain, all of the sudden it becomes "obvious" that the brain can think.

Indeed. Well, except for the bit about the heart's being the seat of the emotions. For the sake of conceptual precision, I feel compelled to remark that that is a quite recent superstition. Everyone knows feelings come from the gut. Anciently, the heart was the seat of the will; hence its association with love. If you want a fright to put you in the mood for All Hallows' Eve, just imagine what society would be like if people thought that love was an emotion! Civilisation would collapse before our very eyes!

Timotheos said...

Mr. Green: "Indeed. Well, except for the bit about the heart's being the seat of the emotions"

And here, yet again, I decry the technical limitations of English against Latin.

Timotheos said...

This post reminded me of an extremely liberal history professor I once knew who, apon hearing of the aristotelian natural law theory I proposed as a possible argument against the morality of homosexuality, replied that I must have gotten the facts wrong, since the Greeks not only thought homosexuality permissible, but in fact thought of it as an ideal. He quickly got agreement from another history professor listening to the discussion, who also happened to have a Bachelors in philosophy, to agree that he had NEVER heard anything to the contrary.

At that point, I was done with the discussion, since there was at least five levels of bullshit in that reply, and these professors were both Phd's in US History, and they were the only professors in the room, in other words, even with proof texts in hand there was no way to convince them. In addition, no one else in the room, except for perhaps a Daniel Dennett book carrying scientismist, even had the faintest idea of natural law ethics, so I had little intellectual resonance.

Since the professor in question was also a quasi-communist, I must call him out for what he was.
A Bull-shi-vist! ;)

Scott said...


@Dr. Feser

This guy totally pwned you!!"

Somebody obviously doesn't know what an illustration is (and probably also hasn't read this).

BenYachov said...

>This guy totally pwned you!!

The classic philosophers are taking this guy to task.

It figures he would post a video repeating all the same basic errors instead of coming here to make his argument.

He must be afraid of being taken to task.

BenYachov said...

If we had a dime for every Gnu who thinks the First Way is just Aquinas' version of the Kalam we would have enough money to start our own Thomistic TV network.

rank sophist said...


I am not aware of any texts in which Aristotle labels homosexuality as immoral, though. Do you have a source? I've tried digging up such material before, but I was left to conclude that it was yet another Thomistic rather than Aristotelian concept.

Scott said...

@Ben Yachov:

"If we had a dime for every Gnu who thinks the First Way is just Aquinas' version of the Kalam . . . "

It's even worse than that—this guy is actually "arguing" that because Aquinas's illustration of a per se causal series (the famous hand-stick-stone) isn't really (he says) per se, Aquinas's argument therefore fails. Takes him twenty minutes, too.

Timotheos said...

@ Scott

What’s even sadder is that the example he “critiqued” was to merely illustrate the idea of per se causation as compared to per accidens causation, not to illustrate the idea of chains of per se causation. So simultaneity is not even directly relevant to the illustration.

@ rank sophist

How about this?
“These states are brutish, but (B) others arise as a result of disease (or, in some cases, of madness, as with the man who sacrificed and ate his mother, or with the slave who ate the liver of his fellow), and others are morbid states (C) resulting from custom, e.g. the habit of plucking out the hair or of gnawing the nails, or even coals or earth, and in addition to these pederasty; for these arise in some by nature and in others, as in those who have been the victims of lust from childhood, from habit.“

Nicomachean Ethics Book VII Section 5
(sorry, about the lack of a bekker #; I can’t make heads or tails of them.)
Available here and with Aquinas’s commentary here.

Brandon said...

The Bekker number is 1148b (1148b37-39, I think).

Timotheos said...

Thanks for the update Brandon

rank sophist said...


Thanks for the link. Aristotle's passage deals with pederasty, however, rather than homosexuality as such. Only in Aquinas's commentary is this expanded to relate to general homosexuality. It's still interesting to get a clear answer regarding Aristotle's position on pederasty, though.

Timotheos said...

@ rank sophist

To be a little more technical on something I didn't make clear in the original post, my professor thought that the Greeks at least generally believed that pederasty was an ideal, and from that concluded that Aristotle must have thought that homosexuality was right, and I was therefore wrong about the origins of natural law theory. So you can see that there were layers of bullshit in his argument regardless of what Aristotle actually thought, and that the passage I quoted refutes his claim.

Putting that aside, you say that the passage in question only speaks about pederasty, and not about homosexuality in the full. I’m not so sure that’s correct, because I think that might just be the way the passage was translated.

For instance, when Aristotle’s words are reproduced in Aquinas’s commentary, it does clearly say homosexuality instead of pederasty. That might be because Aristotle’s words in that edition are a translation of Aquinas’s translation, which was, perhaps, an erroneous translation, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

Another possibility is that pederasty was generally the only form of homosexuality of the time, and so when Aristotle commented on that, he could also be taken to be commenting on homosexuality in the full, like when, here in the south, we say “Coke” when we really mean “Soda” because Coke is the most popular brand of Soda.

Not having a working knowledge of Greek however, or any other translations of the Nicomachean Ethics on hand, I cannot be sure.

What I am sure about though is that both C.S. Lewis and Dr. Feser (in TLS) have both claimed that Aristotle explicitly condemned homosexuality, and the former certainly knew his Greek, so, for what it’s worth, I have some extra ethos to back up my claims.

(although, to be technical, C.S. Lewis used the word “sodomy”, which, if I remember right, always included homosexuality in the full back in his day and context)

rank sophist said...


Thanks for the clarification. It's an interesting topic, and I was never sure what exactly Aristotle's position on pederasty and homosexuality was. I think it's clear that you gutted your professor's argument.

Timotheos said...

rank sophist: "I think it's clear that you gutted your professor's argument."

He meant well; he's just blinded by the very narrow thinking of contemporary academia.

I think he probably heard “Aristotle”, equated it with “Plato”, made the mistake of trusting whatever history text on homosexuality he read to be historically accurate, which in turn probably made the mistake of equating Plato’s opinion with what he wrote in the Phraedrus, and then confirming his bias by naively trusting a philosophy Bachelor and US History PhD to know anything about a classical philosopher’s position. (which is like asking a math major who got a PhD in computer engineering to give a summary of Euclid’s Elements off the top of their head)

Honestly, he knew better, since he was a PhD in US History and one thing you should never do as a historian is assume you know better than someone else on a slice of history you’re not a specialist in.

That’s why I called bullshit, because he knew what he’d be wading in going into it.

Strangely, I actually thought I was fairly well received though; up until homosexuality was mentioned, they were all for natural law theory, and were still interested in it even afterward. (Albeit, skeptical that it could even potentially refute homosexuality as being moral)

I especially thought this strange because practically none of them had even the faintest idea of the theory before that day. Perhaps my (very rough) explanations matched up well with their common sense intuitions?

Jeremy Taylor said...

Rank Sophist,

It is only pederasty that had any acceptance amongst the ancient Greeks. Adult homosexuality (where both partners were capable of growing beards), even for the masculine partner, was something inferior and distasteful, at the very least. Even Plato has Socrates use the pleasures of a catamite as an obvious example of a disgraceful pleasure.

For an ancient Greek it is almost certainly pederasty which was the more acceptable practice - although even that had a far more ambiguous place than many revisionists claim, varying in its legitimacy across time and place in the Hellenic world. For example, we often find parents and offers with a low opinion of pederasty, even in those cities and times it was common practice.

If Aristotle condemns pederasty then it can be assumed he was not in favour of adult homosexuality either.

The only partial exception I'm aware of is female homosexuality. This is not condemned, to my knowledge, against the ancient Greeks, although it is discussed very little.

Jeremy Taylor said...

- others, not offers

Timotheos said...

@Jeremy Taylor
Thanks for confirming my suspicions; I had a feeling that was the case.

Timotheos said...

"although even that had a far more ambiguous place than many revisionists claim, varying in its legitimacy across time and place in the Hellenic world"

To give some perspective for everyone, the time span between Aristotle and Christ was roughly 400 years. Think about how the opinions on homosexuality of this country have changed over the last 20 years, and you could see how easy it is to make an over-generalization.

Jeremy Taylor said...

Yes, pederasty arose as a common practice in the Hellenic world in the late Seventh Century BC and faded from popularity during the later Hellenistic period, if my memory serves.

But, I believe, there were many parts of the Greek world where it was never a common practice (well, obviously, there are always men with such perverse attractions, but I mean in any sort of socially legitimate and recognised sense) and even where and when it was, it was hardly the case that it was unambiguously accepted and praised. It was certainly never the case, as some revisionists claim, that it was the natural and normal orientation of many Greeks, or that they tended to slight and repudiate heterosexual attraction.

Even Plato's Symposium , one of the works that provides the best evidence of the idealisation and claimed superiority of pederastic relations use Aristophanes as one of the principle mouthpieces for this view. But, curiously, Aristophanes, at least from all the surviving evidence we have, was a poet who almost exclusively alludes to and makes use of heterosexual bawdiness and representations in his comedies. Add to that the fact that Aristophanes famously savaged Plato's mentor and mouthpiece Socrates, and we can see something unusual is going on in this aspect of the dialogue.

Joseph said...

According to Neal Stephenson, the proper spelling is "bulshytt." That might help distinguish the technical term in philosophy from its vulgar homonym.

Glenn said...

Ah, but in Cryptonomicon the proper spelling is anathema.

claudio said...

“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass!
The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!”

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Hans-Georg said...

Mind checking if I have been guilty of bullshit here?

Item a, item b, item c.

Answers can be left as comments under my blogposts (the items). I will aslo check up on this one.

Rob T said...

Of course, one particular form of bullshit is very popular with some natural law theorists: Specifically, assuming incorrectly that something (say, genitalia or sex) can have only ONE "natural purpose" -- and then going gangbusters based on this deeply flawed assumption.

It's hard to see anyone who builds their reputation on such a premise -- so obviously contrary to human experience -- as anything but a bullshitter.

Edward Feser said...

assuming incorrectly that something (say, genitalia or sex) can have only ONE "natural purpose"

I'm not aware of any natural law theorist who assumes that genitalia or sex have only one natural purpose. Certainly I don't -- indeed, I've said repeatedly that genitalia and sex have more than one purpose. Nor is there anything in the NL position that requires saying otherwise.

Not that I'm calling you a bullshitter, mind, you. just someone who manifestly doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.