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Princeton University Press
On Bullshit

On Bullshit

by Harry G. Frankfurt
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One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, "we have no theory."

Frankfurt, one of the world's most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory here. With his characteristic combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humor, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691122946
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/30/2005
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 91,602
Product dimensions: 4.00(w) x 6.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Harry G. Frankfurt is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. His books include The Reasons of Love (Princeton), Necessity, Volition, and Love, and The Importance of What We Care About.

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By Harry G. Frankfurt


Copyright © 2005 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4008-2653-7

Chapter One


One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not-or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.

Any suggestion about what conditions are logically both necessary and sufficient for the constitution of bullshit is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. For one thing, the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely-simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning. For another, the phenomenon itself is so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean. Nonetheless it should be possible to say something helpful, even though it is not likely to be decisive. Even the most basic and preliminary questions about bullshit remain, after all, not only unanswered but unasked.

So far as I am aware, very little work has been done on this subject. I have not undertaken a survey of the literature, partly because I do not know how to go about it. To be sure, there is one quite obvious place to look-the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED has an entry for bullshit in the supplementary volumes, and it also has entries for various pertinent uses of the word bull and for some related terms. I shall consider some of these entries in due course. I have not consulted dictionaries in languages other than English, because I do not know the words for bullshit or bull in any other language. Another worthwhile source is the title essay in The Prevalence of Humbug by Max Black. I am uncertain just how close in meaning the word humbug is to the word bullshit. Of course, the words are not freely and fully interchangeable; it is clear that they are used differently. But the difference appears on the whole to have more to do with considerations of gentility, and certain other rhetorical parameters, than with the strictly literal modes of significance that concern me most. It is more polite, as well as less intense, to say "Humbug!" than to say "Bullshit!" For the sake of this discussion, I shall assume that there is no other important difference between the two.

Black suggests a number of synonyms for humbug, including the following: balderdash, claptrap, hokum, drivel, buncombe, imposture, and quackery. This list of quaint equivalents is not very helpful. But Black also confronts the problem of establishing the nature of humbug more directly, and he offers the following formal definition:

HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.

A very similar formulation might plausibly be offered as enunciating the essential characteristics of bullshit. As a preliminary to developing an independent account of those characteristics, I will comment on the various elements of Black's definition.

Deceptive misrepresentation: This may sound pleonastic. No doubt what Black has in mind is that humbug is necessarily designed or intended to deceive, that its misrepresentation is not merely inadvertent. In other words, it is deliberate misrepresentation. Now if, as a matter of conceptual necessity, an intention to deceive is an invariable feature of humbug, then the property of being humbug depends at least in part upon the perpetrator's state of mind. It cannot be identical, accordingly, with any properties-either inherent or relational-belonging just to the utterance by which the humbug is perpetrated. In this respect, the property of being humbug is similar to that of being a lie, which is identical neither with the falsity nor with any of the other properties of the statement the liar makes, but which requires that the liar makes his statement in a certain state of mind-namely, with an intention to deceive.

It is a further question whether there are any features essential to humbug or to lying that are not dependent upon the intentions and beliefs of the person responsible for the humbug or the lie, or whether it is, on the contrary, possible for any utterance whatsoever to be-given that the speaker is in a certain state of mind-a vehicle of humbug or of a lie. In some accounts of lying there is no lie unless a false statement is made; in others a person may be lying even if the statement he makes is true, as long as he himself believes that the statement is false and intends by making it to deceive. What about humbug and bullshit? May any utterance at all qualify as humbug or bullshit, given that (so to speak) the utterer's heart is in the right place, or must the utterance have certain characteristics of its own as well?

Short of lying: It must be part of the point of saying that humbug is "short of lying" that while it has some of the distinguishing characteristics of lies, there are others that it lacks. But this cannot be the whole point. After all, every use of language without exception has some, but not all, of the characteristic features of lies-if no other, then at least the feature simply of being a use of language. Yet it would surely be incorrect to describe every use of language as short of lying. Black's phrase evokes the notion of some sort of continuum, on which lying occupies a certain segment while humbug is located exclusively at earlier points. What continuum could this be, along which one encounters humbug only before one encounters lying? Both lying and humbug are modes of misrepresentation. It is not at first glance apparent, however, just how the difference between these varieties of misrepresentation might be construed as a difference in degree.

Especially by pretentious word or deed: There are two points to notice here. First, Black identifies humbug not only as a category of speech but as a category of action as well; it may be accomplished either by words or by deeds. Second, his use of the qualifier "especially" indicates that Black does not regard pretentiousness as an essential or wholly indispensable characteristic of humbug. Undoubtedly, much humbug is pretentious. So far as concerns bullshit, moreover, "pretentious bullshit" is close to being a stock phrase. But I am inclined to think that when bullshit is pretentious, this happens because pretentiousness is its motive rather than a constitutive element of its essence. The fact that a person is behaving pretentiously is not, it seems to me, part of what is required to make his utterance an instance of bullshit. It is often, to be sure, what accounts for his making that utterance. However, it must not be assumed that bullshit always and necessarily has pretentiousness as its motive.

Misrepresentation ... of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes: This provision that the perpetrator of humbug is essentially misrepresenting himself raises some very central issues. To begin with, whenever a person deliberately misrepresents anything, he must inevitably be misrepresenting his own state of mind. It is possible, of course, for a person to misrepresent that alone-for instance, by pretending to have a desire or a feeling which he does not actually have. But suppose that a person, whether by telling a lie or in another way, misrepresents something else. Then he necessarily misrepresents at least two things. He misrepresents whatever he is talking about-i.e., the state of affairs that is the topic or referent of his discourse-and in doing this he cannot avoid misrepresenting his own mind as well. Thus someone who lies about how much money he has in his pocket both gives an account of the amount of money in his pocket and conveys that he believes this account. If the lie works, then its victim is twice deceived, having one false belief about what is in the liar's pocket and another false belief about what is in the liar's mind.

Now it is unlikely that Black wishes the referent of humbug to be in every instance the state of the speaker's mind. There is no particular reason, after all, why humbug may not be about other things. Black probably means that humbug is not designed primarily to give its audience a false belief about whatever state of affairs may be the topic, but that its primary intention is rather to give its audience a false impression concerning what is going on in the mind of the speaker. Insofar as it is humbug, the creation of this impression is its main purpose and its point.

Understanding Black along these lines suggests a hypothesis to account for his characterization of humbug as "short of lying." If I lie to you about how much money I have, then I do not thereby make an explicit assertion concerning my beliefs. Therefore, one might with some plausibility maintain that although in telling the lie I certainly misrepresent what is in my mind, this misrepresentation-as distinct from my misrepresentation of what is in my pocket-is not strictly speaking a lie at all. For I do not come right out with any statement whatever about what is in my mind. Nor does the statement I do affirm-e.g., "I have twenty dollars in my pocket"-imply any statement that attributes a belief to me. On the other hand, it is unquestionable that in so affirming, I provide you with a reasonable basis for making certain judgments about what I believe. In particular, I provide you with a reasonable basis for supposing that I believe I have twenty dollars in my pocket. Since this supposition is by hypothesis false, I do in telling the lie tend to deceive you concerning what is in my mind even though I do not actually tell a lie about that. In this light, it does not seem unnatural or inappropriate to regard me as misrepresenting my own beliefs in a way that is "short of lying."

It is easy to think of familiar situations by which Black's account of humbug appears to be unproblematically confirmed. Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about "our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind." This is surely humbug. As Black's account suggests, the orator is not lying. He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs that he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country's history, or the like. At least, it is not an interest in what anyone thinks about these matters that motivates his speech.

It is clear that what makes Fourth of July oration humbug is not fundamentally that the speaker regards his statements as false. Rather, just as Black's account suggests, the orator intends these statements to convey a certain impression of himself. He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him. He wants them to think of him as a patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and the mission of our country, who appreciates the importance of religion, who is sensitive to the greatness of our history, whose pride in that history is combined with humility before God, and so on.

Black's account of humbug appears, then, to fit certain paradigms quite snugly. Nonetheless, I do not believe that it adequately or accurately grasps the essential character of bullshit. It is correct to say of bullshit, as he says of humbug, both that it is short of lying and that those who perpetrate it misrepresent themselves in a certain way. But Black's account of these two features is significantly off the mark. I shall next attempt to develop, by considering some biographical material pertaining to Ludwig Wittgenstein, a preliminary but more accurately focused appreciation of just what the central characteristics of bullshit are.

Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

In the elder days of art Builders wrought with greatest care Each minute and unseen part, For the Gods are everywhere.

The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who-with the help of advanced and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth-dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right.

Yet there is something more to be said about this. However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline. The pertinent mode of laxity cannot be equated, evidently, with simple carelessness or inattention to detail. I shall attempt in due course to locate it more correctly.


Excerpted from ON BULLSHIT by Harry G. Frankfurt Copyright © 2005 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

William Chester Jordan

The most audacious of the ancient alchemists desired to transmute lead into gold. They never succeeded. Who would have known that they should have started not with a base metal, but with bullshit? Harry Frankfurt offers a philosophical analysis of bullshit that is golden. The prose by turns employs irony, broad humor, and tongue-in-cheek high seriousness while at the same time manages to have a rigorous logical coherence that is always impressive. One leaves the essay not merely thinking it was a delight. One leaves it realizing that one has engaged the accomplishment of a great analyst and thinker.
William Chester Jordan, Professor of History, Princeton University

From the Publisher

"A gem of psychological insight, social commentary, philosophical analysis, and good humor. This is the work of an extraordinarily acute, attentive, and versatile philosopher who has succeeded in addressing an audience comprised of both other philosophers and the general public on a topic of considerable human interest in a characteristically wry and engaging way. It is one of the most enjoyable and humanly illuminating short pieces of philosophy produced in the past fifty years."—Raymond Geuss, University of Cambridge

Raymond Geuss

A gem of psychological insight, social commentary, philosophical analysis, and good humor. This is the work of an extraordinarily acute, attentive, and versatile philosopher who has succeeded in addressing an audience comprised of both other philosophers and the general public on a topic of considerable human interest in a characteristically wry and engaging way. It is one of the most enjoyable and humanly illuminating short pieces of philosophy produced in the past fifty years.
Raymond Geuss, University of Cambridge

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On Bullshit 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 46 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Frankfurt has aptly exposed the intellectual laziness and disconcern for truth that is so prevalent in post-modern society. Far to many people have dismissed truth completely and have ignorantly embraced BS. Frankfurt has recognized this problem and has written a very clever, humorous, and much needed response.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have to disagree with the preceding post which suggests that this book is for the pretentious and superficially educated. This was one of the texts for a class at my University concerning the nature of truth and lies. As our Professor (who personally knows Frankfurt) informed us, this book was originally a philosophical essay by Frankfurt. He was understandably surprised when approached by a publishing company wanting to make it into a book. Yes, the publisher's aim in marketing the book is likely for the kitschy humor factor, perhaps as a gag-gift for a pseudo-intellectual friend- but that does not negate the content. The title is perhaps a throw-off, and again contributes to the pseudo-intellectual humor factor. In reality, Frankfurt is a serious philosopher and the text was not originally intended to become a novelty in book form. The companion to this book, 'On Truth', can attest to the fact.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I consider this book to be a very rich philosophical yet hilarious work, challenging in content, and gripping as a smooth read. Tou will agree with me that this book stands out as a tantalizing novel. You never guess what you will find until you start reading it. One thing for sure is that you will laugh, smile and ponder in turns. In the end, you will be more of a truthful guy than a the other type.
Anonymous 6 months ago
This is a must read for everyone. The book details on the meaning of the word and its moral effects.
Anonymous 9 months ago
dvf1976 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A book (more like a hardcover pamphlet) that tries to provide a theory for BS.While I like the concept (and the attempt to fill the vaccuum that I didn't even know existed), the book seemed a bit more pretentious than it needed to be.Heck, it could've been boiled down to: "Someone who shovels BS is worse than a person who lies because a liar has a relationship with the truth"
stypulkoski on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" is a fun, light-hearted little essay, and serves as a good introduction to the concepts of logic and reason to those who weren't philosophy majors. I'd recommend "Crimes Against Logic" by Jamie Whyte to anyone who enjoyed this book, and also to those who were disappointed by it.
bexaplex on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A tongue-in-cheek investigation of the phenomenon of bullshit. So, so clever.
detailmuse on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The first time I sat down with On Bullshit, the book's tiny size fooled me into assuming the essay inside was a light read. When I found myself halfway through but without much interest in what I'd read, I regrouped. I moved to a room with fewer distractions, turned back to the first page and approached the work with a little more respect. And an hour later, I finished Frankfurt's readable and insightful (albeit at times tedious) thesis on the definition and motivation for contemporary society's BS. I was especially drawn to his deconstruction of lying vs BS-ing (lying recognizes the truth -- and then ignores it; BS is sloppier). And the most useful revelation: "[BS] is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about." I do regret that the author didn't adapt the essay to a general audience by including a preface and some background about the people he quotes. And the publisher could have assisted the reader by formatting the text with some space on the page, or a chapter break, in the several places where Frankfurt makes sudden transitions. Overall, a recommended read on a growing aspect of communication.
FPdC on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
''One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.'' This opening phrase of Frankfurt's essay can well become as famous as some openings that have acquired myth status (I think of García Márquez in Cien Años de Soledad, or (why not?) of Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto.) In this short essay, the emeritus moral philosopher at Princeton dissects the term, its meaning, its usage, the possible reasons for its widespread usage in contemporary society. And ends this brilliant essay in an equaly brilliant way: ''Our nature are, indeed, elusively insubstancial (...). And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit''. No further words needed.
stephaniechase on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Two words: it's bullshit.
Tullius22 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't know how he does it. (10/10)
mhgatti on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Frankfurt passes up the perfect opportunity to have a little fun with the subject, never veering from his dry and overly earnest look at an extremely silly word. Somewhat interesting, but ultimately not very enjoyable.
rwmsn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How can you say too musch about this little book. Frankfurt makes a good stab at parsing the characteristics that define bullshit.
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discourseincsharpminor More than 1 year ago
That's the question this book attempts to answer. What is the difference between bullsh*t and hokum or just plain lying. While is has some funny lines, this is actually a serious examination of a very trivial topic.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's really good and really brief. Save some money and read it in a BN store.
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Lazarus More than 1 year ago
However, unless you are buying it as I gift I recommend you save your $10 and take the half an hour to read it right in the store. This is fairly informative from a psychological standpoint but doesn't really shed a whole lot of light on dealing with the subject for those of us who are, or have experienced, a fair amount of b*llsh*t in our lives which as the professor conveys is all of us and probably on both sides of the coin.
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Penicillin More than 1 year ago
Academic, philosophical, but not memorable.