Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'On Bullshit' and NBC

Have you read On Bullshit? It was a #1 New York Times bestseller.

It's a work certainly worth revisiting, particularly as it applies to NBC's apparent willingness to tolerate falsehoods and embrace the purveyor, Brian Williams.

Harry G. Frankfurt, professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton University, offers an analysis of "bullshit."


HARRY FRANKFURT: I think that respect for the truth and a concern for the truth-- these are among the foundations of civilization. I was, for a long time, kind of disturbed by the lack of respect and concern for the truth that I seemed to observe in much of the speech and writing that was being produced. And bullshit is one of the deformities of these values....

This was a concept, that seemed to me, to be an important one. It referred to a signficant feature of our culture, and not only a signficant feature, but a feature that, in my view, posed certain dangers to the foundations of civilization.


INTERVIEWER: What is your theory of bullshit? What is bullshit?

FRANKFURT: It consists in a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true or even to say things that are false, but serving some other purpose. And the question of whether what he says is true or false is really irrelevant to his pursuit of that ambition.


INTERVIEWER: You actually find bullshitters in some way more reprehensible than liars.

FRANKFURT: I don't know if they're more reprehensible exactly, but bullshit is somehow a more insidious threat to the values that I'm concerned with than lying is, because the liar knows what the truth is, and he's concerned with trying to keep people away from the truth. This in itself shows a certain respect for the value of truth and the importance of truth; whereas the bullshitter doesn't care at all. So, his stance is a greater threat to respect and concern for the truth than the liar's is. The liar wants to substitute for the truth something he knows or believes to be false. So, the difference between truth and falsity is very important to him, whereas for the bullshitter, it's not important at all. That's why I think that there's a more insidious threat to concern and respect for the truth in bullshit than in lying.


FRANKFURT: There's a question...that I think is worth pursuing, which is our attitude towards bullshit, why we are so tolerant of it, because I think we are very tolerant of it, much more tolerant of it than of lying. Lying strikes us as somehow a violation. We feel that the liar is injuring us in some way or at least threatening to injure us. We don't feel that way so much about the bullshitter. And I don't really understand exactly why our attitudes towards these two deformities of respect for the truth, why our attitudes are so different in the two cases.


FRANKFURT: The liar is limited by his commitment to saying something that conflicts with the truth, so there's a constraint upon him that he has to respect; whereas the bullshitter, who doesn't care about truth, can go anywhere he likes. There's a kind of a panoramic view that he can take that the liar can't take because the liar is limited to inserting in the specific place in the system of beliefs a false belief for a true one; whereas the bullshitter can go anywhere he likes and draw any kind of picture, any kind of panorama of beliefs that serves his purpose.

Brian Williams and NBC News: A master class ON BULLSHIT.

Or would it be lying?

Maybe both?

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