NB: BS

by Kieran Healy on February 14, 2005

Matt Yglesias should be pleased to hear that Princeton University Press has re-issued Harry Frankfurt’s well-known essay, “On Bullshit,” as a small book. You can buy it at Amazon. There’s a nice piece in the Times about it, distinguished by the fact that the newspaper’s stylebook forbids the word “bullshit”—though of course its pages are filled examples of the stuff—so it’s referred to throughout as “[bull]” instead. As I think Matt’s also observed, journalism would be serving its readership much better these days if it were possible to write headlines like “More Bullshit from White House on Social Security Reform.”

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1

paul 02.14.05 at 5:21 pm

Kieran:

Is there a reason that you recommend Amazon rather than Barnes and Noble? In a recent — post-election – list of red-friendly vs. blue-friendly corporations (based on political donations, I think), Amazon was shown as red while B&N was shown as blue. I cannot find the list now, but I do recall this.

2

jif 02.14.05 at 6:16 pm

www. buyblue.org
Amazon donations to the GOP or GOP candidates were 59% of their donations. Barnes and Noble, Powells, and Borders all had 100% donations to the Democrats. Borders did have a nasty labor dispute about a year and a half ago, so I haven’t been using them. Since the bit about Amazon was posted I’ve shifted most of my book-buying business to B&N.

3

JR 02.14.05 at 6:36 pm

Unfortunately, Frankfurt’s amusing essay seems to contain a bit of bullshit of its own. Frankfurt pontificates that the word “bull” is a sanitized version of “bullsit” and quotes extensively about “bull” from older British sources such as the OED. Undoubtedly modern Americans believe that “bull” is short for bullshit, but this is a folk etymology that shouldn’t be read back into historical sources. “Bull” meaning nonsense or misinformation is hundreds of years old, while “bullshit” is perhaps 90 years old and became popular only during WWII.
The etymology of “bull” has nothing to do with cattle and appears to be from Latin “boiling, bubbling” – so the original meaning would have been something like “froth.” (Think of “ebullient,” from the same root. Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully,” meaning “terrific” or “brilliant,” is related.) The “nonsense” meaning may have been influenced by- or may itself have influenced- the expression “cock-and-bull story,” meaning a tall tale. (The origin of that phrase is likely from an Aesop’s fable-type of story.)
To “bull” as a verb came to mean “to push up the price of a stock,” and is related to the phrase “bull market.” (Here “bull” nonsense and “bull” an aggressive herd animal intersect.) The idea of spreading overly optimistic information about a stock could have influenced the more general meaning of “bull” as intentional misinformation. Lastly, I’ve found a couple of intriguing but inconclusive websites that state that “bull” in modern Icelandic means “nonsense”- this would point to a Germanic root. Anyone out there speak Icelandic?
“Bullshit” may have started out as an intensifier of “bull,” or it may have been independent. Paul Fussell in his book “Wartime” writes of what he and his fellow soldiers called “chickenshit”- demeaning and pointless army procedures. Frankfurt quotes British soldiers who called this sort of thing “bull”- so perhaps Americans conflated the two. Or perhaps not. In any event “bull” in 19th and early 20th century English sources is not a sanitized version of “bullshit” and Frankfurt is in error when he tries to draw conclusions about “bullshit” from these sources.

4

micah 02.14.05 at 6:37 pm

If only the publisher included G.A. Cohen’s “Deeper into Bullshit”–and, more importantly, the appendix: “Why so much of it comes from France.”

5

Scott McLemee 02.14.05 at 8:42 pm

In a column for Inside Higher Ed tomorrow, I take Princeton UP to task for not including Cohen’s essay.

6

Another Damned Medievalist 02.14.05 at 8:43 pm

In my family, horseshit seems to be the preferred term. Dunno why.

7

Another Damned Medievalist 02.14.05 at 8:45 pm

In my family, horseshit seems to be the preferred term. Dunno why.

8

Scott McLemee 02.14.05 at 9:02 pm

Frankfurt touches on the distinction between bullshit and horseshit in passing, but this remains an underdeveloped aspect of his essay.

9

rob 02.14.05 at 9:19 pm

For those unwilling to pay, a link:

http://victorian.fortunecity.com/postmodern/87/frankfurt.html

Also, I think it’s already been published in a collection of his essays, I think called ‘The Importance Of What We Care About’.

10

jake 02.14.05 at 9:53 pm

The essay is in `The Importance of What We Care About.’

Has anybody bought the new book? I’m curious how they turned a short (10 pages or so) essay into an 80 page book. Is the original essay expanded? Is there a lengthy introduction or other commentary?

11

seth edenbaum 02.14.05 at 11:56 pm

My old argument again:
Lawyers represent their clients, not ‘truth.’
If they can get away with bullshit, and have a right to use it. It’s arguable in some cases that they have an obligation to. The adversarial system is the best way we’ve found to administer justice, but it’s sloppy. My friends and I, however, value neatness. So here’s our proposal:

Why don’t we do an analysis of the percentage of cases that are resolved correctly [let’s just pretend it’s possible] and switch to a lottery system that produces the same percentage of correct outcomes. Justice as a toss of the appropriatly loaded dice. We can even allow the accused to push the button that starts the decision making process.
So neat and tidy. So logical. So stupid.
This post reminds me why Montaigne is still my favorite philosopher.

12

Jeremy Osner 02.15.05 at 4:44 am

Jake — I received the book in the mail today (bought not from Amazon nor B & N, but from Princeton) — part of the answer is that the pages are very small. I have not yet looked into it more closely and suspect that that does not completely explain it.

13

ian malcolm 02.15.05 at 4:29 pm

I can shed some light on the genesis and format of *On Bullshit*, as I’m the editor at Princeton who suggested we do it. Although philosophers know the essay well, I thought it might never get the wide audience it deserves unless someone packaged it as a book. Aside from a comma here and there, it’s identical to the original essay. That means, of course, that it’s tiny–the smallest book we’ve ever published, I think. The designer, Deborah Hodgdon, did a very nice job of turning it into a pocketbook. (One philosopher at the recent APA meeting said it looked like a prayer book, which is not a bad comparison.) A number of people told me we should add G.A. Cohen’s *Deeper into BS* to it, but I thought keeping it as a self-contained piece had a nicer feel. I’m not sure why. In any case, if you have *The Importance of What We Care About*, the only advantage of buying this book is that it looks better. The substance is the same.
Ian Malcolm

14

Hamilton Lovecraft 02.15.05 at 10:52 pm

Check out this essay on “shit” vs. “fuck” in today’s political climate.

15

dave heasman 02.15.05 at 11:36 pm

Paul Fussell in his book “Wartime” writes of what he and his fellow soldiers called “chickenshit”- demeaning and pointless army procedures. Frankfurt quotes British soldiers who called this sort of thing “bull”

I recall it as “bullshine”

16

aldousk 02.20.05 at 9:42 am

It is curious to observe that, as one gets older, things that have seemed self-evident, or at least obvious, are rediscovered by the young and proclaimed as if they were new. So it is with Harry G. Frankfurt’s rediscovery of well … bullshit. What he is telling us that the politician (which means more or less all of us from time to time, for, save the siantly, there is an element of the polly within everyone) makes utterances that are disconnected from truth. Statements made by the politician have no truth value: they are not intended to convey information. Their purpose is to procure and maintain political power of one sort or another. It is plain to children from an age of eight or therabouts that this is the case. I guess the scary thing is that in some democracies, the infection of making value-free utterances by elected representatives and their associated cloud of wannabes has been passed on to our paid servants. The end of this process is terrifying.

17

Kent 02.20.05 at 11:07 am

Barnes and Noble vs. Amazon? How about private bookseller vs. corporate bookseller? I think it matters.

Try Powells:
http://www.powells.com
http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=62-0691122946-0

or ABEBooks
http://www.abebooks.com/

18

Ray 02.20.05 at 11:47 am

Robert Heinlein said: “The truth of a proposition has nothing to do with it’s credibility, and vice versa.” Politicians, preachers and lawyers know this instinctively. My dad informed me when I was a teen with a well crafted but easily debunked excuse regarding my whereabouts on a Friday night “Don’t try to bullshit me, I brought bullshit to town.” It seems that people outside of academia know it and deal with it everyday – which I find odd because academia is awash in bull. Any undergrad can tell you which profs are “10 pounds of bullshit in a 5 pound bag.”

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