Truth and Bullshit

Saturday, January 27, 2007 -- 4:00 PM
John Perry

On today's show (i.e., Sunday January 28, 2007) Ken and I will interview Harry Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.  Frankfurt has been around a long time, even longer than me, I think.  He has written important work on Descartes and the Cartesian Circle (see Demons, Dreamers, and Madmen, 1970), freedom and free will (see Freedom of the Will and the Concept of the Person in the Journal of Philosophy, 1971)  and related issues  of caring, love, identity and much else (see The Importance of What We Care about: Philosophical Essays, 1988, Necessity, Volition, and Love, 1999 and Taking Ourselves Seriously & Getting It Right,  2005).  Today we'll focus on, or at least begin with, his two best-selling little books, On Bullshit, 2005, and  On Truth,  2006.  The first decries and  defines  bullshit; it assumes we care about the truth, the second  tells us why we should.

Philosophy literally means "love of wisdom," or so I am told.  Modern analytic philosophers might find "wisdom" a little pompous, and prefer "love of truth" as an articulation of the central aim of philosophers.  Of course, love of, or devotion to, truth, is not peculiar to philosophy.   But still, it is a central aim.  But philosophy is also, as we like to say on Philosophy Talk, devoted to questioning everything (except your intelligence), then we are committed to questioning the central aims of philosophy, including truth, and the value of questioning everything.

Frankfurt makes the point that truth is often of practical significance.  This is certainly true in life's mundane affairs.  If I want to show up for the program on time, it's better that I think that it will start at 10 a.m., when it will start, than 11 a.m., by which time it will be over.  If I want to drive there, it's best if my gas gauge is correct, so that I don' t think my tank is full when it is empty.

It's also true about  some not-so mundane things.  Bush invaded Iraq thinking they had weapons of mass destruction.  Since then we've been told that the fact that this wasn't true wasn't important.  Bush said he would do it all over again, even if he knew then what he knows now; even Kerry couldn't make up his mind whether knowing what he knows now would change his vote.  So much the worse for the thought processes of Bush and Kerry.

A distinction worth making, I think, is between cases in which the truth is important because the subject matter involved is itself important, independently of whether people know or care about it, and cases in which the truth is only derivatively important, because philosophers or others care about it, and if we get something wrong we will be in some sort of trouble with these people.  It matters if the earth is getting warmer, particularly if there is something we can do about it.  This was so, before we realized it was getting warmer, and it would be so, even if we hadn't figured it out yet.  It is the warmng of the earth that will have many effects on human life, which if we know the truth we may be able to prevent, or at least prepare for.

But consider the fact that Locke's chapter on personal identity only appeared in the second edition of his Essay.  That's important to me.  It means we can't appeal to his theory of personal identity to explain other parts of his Essay, that already appeared in the first edition.  If I don't know this fact, I may say something stupid about the Essay.  Other Locke fans may think less of me.  And so forth.  The negative effects  not knowing the truth don't stem in any direct way from Locke and his writings, but from the fact that other people care about getting the facts about Locke right.

Once there was a scholarly debate about whether Berkeley suffered from chronic constipation.  A whole book was written on this subject, and it provoked many articles.  Berkeley's chronic constipation, if he had that problem, was important to him, and knowing the truth about it may have been important to the folks that dealt with him --- tar water merchants and the like.  But whether he did or not had no effect on anyone who took part in this debate.  All that mattered was that they and other people were curious, and cared one way or another.

If we are honest, it seems we'll have to admit that much research in the humanities has to do with topics about which the truth is of no direct importance; it has only this indirect importance, because people have come to care about it, for some reason or another.  And, I suspect, much research in mathematics, especially topics like large cardinal theory, also has this characteristic.  And frankly, I suspect that this is too of a great deal of science.  It's really cool that we are discovering the truth about whether there was ever water on Mars.  Perhaps its directly important, because someday we  will have colonies on Mars, or something we learn about Mars, that turns on whether there is water there, will lead to a cure for cancer or athlete's foot or God knows what.

Be that as it may, I don't think the money we spend on finding out whether Mars has water could be justified on a hard-nosed cost benefit analysis, any more than the (very modest) amounts we spend on learning minutae about the composition of the works of dead philosophers or novelists could be.  The truth about these things is most likely only important because people care about it. 

Sometimes philosophers and others, who love truth, and the search for truth, seek a more solid foundation for their enterprizes than that they care about the truth of the things they do research about it, and so do other people.  The search for truth becomes the true calling of humankind, the ineluctable denstiny of the Human Spirit, or something like that.  At that point, lovers of truth become purveryers of bullshit. 

Or so it seems to me right now.  Insight?  Or chronic constipation?

 

Comments (11)


Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 29, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Great post, John, and great show, John, Ken, and H

Great post, John, and great show, John, Ken, and Harry.
In the Genealogy of Morals (I:1), Nietzsche says, "I hope from my heart they may be the reverse of this--that these investigators and microscopists of the soul may be fundamentally brave, proud, and magnanimous animals, who know how to keep their hearts as well as their sufferings in bounds and have trained themselves to sacrifice all desirability to truth, EVERY truth, even plain, harsh, ugly, unchristina, immoral truth. --For such truths exist."
This is a strong claim, and I don't really know if Nietzsche believes it--the claim that we have an overriding interest in finding out every truth. Even the claim that we have a prima facie interest in doing so seems implausible to me, but the stronger claim is manifestly implausible. So suppose a baby is drowning in the bathtub. You know you could go to your library and figure out which book is the 57th book from the left on your middle bookshelf, and then you could add up the words on page 23 of that book. You would have got a truth for yourself, but you also know that you couldn't save the baby if you do this. Well, you see where this is going.
I guess it is an obvious point, made by both John and Ken on the show, that we don't care about MANY truths, and surely we have other interests that must frame and guide our pursuit of our interest in truth. Presumably, Harry would agree. Given this, it is a bit harder to formulate the exact thesis of someone holding to the importance of truth--it seems disapointing to say that we have an interest--a strong interest--in pursuing and finding the truth in certain (although not all) areas, an interest which is one of many, and which is not necessarily overriding. Unexciting, but true?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, January 29, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

woops--in the quote from Nietzsche, "unchritina" s

woops--in the quote from Nietzsche, "unchritina" should (obviously) have been "unchristian".

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, January 30, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Your audience is perhaps unaware of the obscure se

Your audience is perhaps unaware of the obscure semantic paradox that is really called "The Bullshitter." Like its better-known cousin the "Liar" paradox, "The Bullshitter" requires identifying a sentence that says of itself "I am false." The problem is that nobody cares enough about "The Bullshitter" to actually construct the paradox! (Uh, that's a joke....)
Seriously, though, it's not clear how the bullshitter (the person, not the paradox) communicates. In "On Bullshit" your guest Harry Frankfurt writes that "the truth-values of [the bullshitter's] statements are of no central interest to him ... his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it." How then does the bullshitter make an assertion, if he has no intention to do so? Is this Frankfurt's point, that the bullshitter really has nothing to say in the first place and the joke is that you thought he did?
The bullshitter, then, is reminiscent of Aristotle's sophist in Metaphysics Gamma, who, having denied the principle of contradiction -- that for no proposition P is both P true and not-P true -- is unable to assert anything because, whatever he might say, its contradiction also will be true. Like Aristotle's sophist, the bullshitter will quite literally have nothing to say. So how much of a threat can he be? Isn't it more difficult to do harm when you have nothing to say? Maybe the real problem is that the bullshitter is just terribly misunderstood, naturally enough since he doesn't communicate well.
"Bullshit is unavoidable," Frankfurt writes, "whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about." But knowing in what sense? Do we invoke Bertrand Russell's distinction between knowledge-by-acquaintance and knowledge-by-description, and say that the bullshitter talks on subjects about which he has no perceptual acquaintance? In one fell swoop the philosopher, the quantum physicist, and yes even the mathematician becomes a bullshitter. In fact, the mathematician becomes the supreme bullshitter -- not to be confused with Leibniz's supreme monad -- devoting his life to clever glass bead games which make it look that he more than anyone knows what he is talking about, when in fact the mathematician is bullshitting the most!
Cheers,
-paul

Per Fagereng's picture

Per Fagereng

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

The country is drowning in bullshit these days, bu

The country is drowning in bullshit these days, but the FCC won't let you use that word on the radio. So I have coined a term, which all are invited to use -- poopaganda.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 8, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Think about buying my 'avant-garde' novel. Thus, y

Think about buying my 'avant-garde' novel. Thus, you shall receive enlightenment from thy inner self how to proceed (with 24/7 sardonic satire, of course). It's a win/win situation, dude. God bless you with discernment.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, February 15, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Would a person after becoming famous refuse to ans

Would a person after becoming famous refuse to answer readers be committing B.S because he is not being true to the end?

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, February 19, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

One problem with the truth is that it is interesti

One problem with the truth is that it is interesting only to those that are interested.
If we look at our pre-historic relatives, their truths
were basic,ie food, water and shelter meant survival.
Today we consider truth to be equivent with those issues
that make our lives "convenient" and easier to live with.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, February 21, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

What is the universal significance of any doctrine

What is the universal significance of any doctrine,
if it is not embraced with honesty and practiced in truth.

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 13, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

Definitely a BS Adverse Blog! Great job calling

Definitely a BS Adverse Blog!
Great job calling bullshit.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, November 14, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

IF THINGS IN THIS LIFE ARE TEMPERARY WHY DO I WANT

IF THINGS IN THIS LIFE ARE TEMPERARY WHY DO I WANT THEM SO MUCH.

Guest's picture

Guest

Monday, December 22, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

Rather that quoting from some long dead philosophe

Rather that quoting from some long dead philosopher, I think I will go with the chronic constipation.

 
 
 

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