I want to talk about a concept that I believe is often discussed but misunderstood: bullshitting.
Philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay called On Bullshit in 1986 that was republished as a book in 2005. In it, Frankfurt defines bullshit, explains how it differs from lying, and why bullshitting is actually worse than lying.
Bullshitting is when a person is bluffing that they know what they are talking about when they really don’t, while lying is when someone does know what they are talking about but deliberately says something they know is untrue, the opposite of what they know to be the truth. While a lie is always intended to be a dishonest statement, bullshit doesn’t really care about truth of a statement but rather the plausibility of the statement.
Bullshit is more concerned with whether or not the statement is believable rather than whether it’s true. Bullshit is more concerned with the appearance of a statement, and what impressions it gives to the listener about the speaker, rather than the content and veracity of the statement. Therefore, bullshit is more concerned with identity, appearances, impression management, context, and image. A lie on the other hand is more concerned with actions, content, and substance. A liar is trying to mislead you about the truth-value of their statements. A bullshitter on the other hand is not trying to deliberately mislead you about the truth-value of their statement, because they themselves often don’t really know how true or false their own statements are. Instead, they are trying to mislead you about how knowledgeable they are on a particular topic.
For example, let’s say I am at a party at a mansion and there’s a fancy-looking vase on display. There is a beautiful girl standing next to me who I want to impress with my worldliness, and she asks me if I know what type of vase that is. I want to make a good impression on her, so I tell her the vase is probably a 15th century Ming, but in truth I know little about vases and am just saying whatever comes to mind that sounds plausible. I have no idea whether the vase is really a Ming or not, nor do I care much. What I really care about is presenting an image of myself a worldly person. This is bullshitting.
Let me clarify what I mean when I say a bullshitter doesn’t care about the truth. A bullshitter may care about the truth to a small degree, to the extent that the truth will enhance or ruin his image or expose his fraudulent identity. So if his statement ends up being fraudulent, the bullshitter is concerned about that not coming to light and ruining the phony image of himself as an expert he is trying to sell the listener on. And if his statement ends up being true, he views that as a bonus in helping him sell that phony expert image, so he wouldn’t mind that truth come to light. So he is to an extent concerned about the truth, but it’s always secondary to his image and identity, which are his primary concerns.
To contrast, let’s say I’m an antique buyer and someone brings in a fancy-looking vase for me to look at and make an offer on. I look at it, then I do some research of my own, and I discover it’s a 15th-century Ming. I go to the seller and say “Sorry, I’m not sure what that is, but it’s probably some faux-Chinese department store pottery from the 1960s” and I offer far less than it’s worth. This is a lie. I know the truth and I’m deliberately choosing to say the opposite of the truth in order to convince someone else to believe in something untrue. I have a specific goal of getting the vase at the cheapest price possible, as opposed to the bullshitter’s much more general goal of looking like an expert. As a liar, I wouldn’t mind appearing to be an expert, but that goal is secondary to getting the listener to believe the lie. If I could get him to believe the lie by appearing to be a novice, I would gladly do that instead. My personal image and the context of the lie is not as important to me as selling the specific lie.
Bullshit does not always have to involve untrue statements. In the first example, the vase I was talking to the beautiful woman about may indeed turn out to be a 15th century Ming. Thus, even though I was bullshitting, the statement coincidentally turned out to be true.
The intentional dishonesty the bullshitter is guilty of is not in the statements he makes, but in the impression of himself he wishes to convey. He’s pretending to know more than he actually knows. What’s intentionally false with the bullshitter is his very identity, his persona, his presented self. Again, substance and content are irrelevant to the bullshitter, what he cares about more are images and contexts and plausibility.
In the previously mentioned book On Bullshit, Frankfurt discusses a character named Arthur Simpson, from the novel , who is recalling advice he received from his father as a kid, “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.” Frankfurt discusses why the character’s father would give him this advice and what it means [emphasis is added by me]:
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth.
On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared, so far as required, to fake the context as well. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the “bullshit artist.” My guess is that the recommendation offered by Arthur Simpson’s father reflects the fact that he was more strongly drawn to this mode of creativity, regardless of its relative merit or effectiveness, than he was to the more austere and rigorous demands of lying…
This is the crux of the distinction between the [bullshitter] and the liar. Both he and the liars represent themselves as 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 to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.
It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
And usually, his purpose is to sell you on himself. The conversation with a bullshitter is rarely about whatever subject matter it seems to be about on the surface. The conversation is really about his perceived identity and giving off the impression that he is of high value, rather than being about the supposed conversational topic. In the Ming Vase bullshit example above, the conversation to the bullshitter is not really about the finding out the truth about the vase, but in leaving the woman with a specific impression about his value and giving off a positive image. Occasionally a bullshitter will know the truth-value of his own statements and deliberately choose to tell a lie, but his ultimate goal in deliberately spreading this false statement still boils down to selling a specific image of himself.
Both in lying and in telling the truth people are guided by their beliefs concerning the way things are. These guide them as they endeavor either to describe the world correctly or to describe it deceitfully. For this reason, telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
Frankfurt poses some theories on why bullshit is so prevalent nowadays:
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 exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.
Let’s unpack this passage a little. Frankfurt describes two factors that stimulate the production of bullshit: (1) obligations to speak about some topic, and (2) opportunities to speak about some topic. I believe the biggest self-created and self-imposed obligation to speak about some topic have to do with the need to be considered an infallible genius or an expert. If my idealized, false self is that of a person who is the smartest person in the room and an infallible expert, I will feel an obligation to always have a response to every challenge and to every question, no matter how fallacious, glib, or underresearched that response is. In other words, the more narcissistic one is, and therefore invested in being perceived as intellectually, physically, emotionally, or morally superior, the more obligated one will feel about speaking on a topic that will serve that superior image. And when it comes to opportunities, nothing gives us more opportunities to speak about a topic than the internet, the endless glut of new print media and TV networks, and the 24-hour news and gossip cycle. A growing societal narcissism is increasing our perceived obligations to talk about things we’re not qualified to talk about, and a changing technological and media landscape is increasing out opportunities to talk about things we’re not qualified to talk about, and these increased obligations and opportunities are combining to create a bullshit epidemic.
There is also another concept called a half-truth, or lying about omission, that is not quite a lie or bullshit, but somewhere in between (although much closer to bullshit). An example of a half-truth is, for example, is when a girl is going to go out with this guy that she knows her boyfriend does not approve of her hanging out with because they guy obviously wants to have sex with her. Let’s say the girl wants to go out with the guy even though she is not planning to cheat because she likes the sexual attention and the money she can get him to spend on her, and she wants to keep the guy in the background as a backup, a potential romantic prospect she can “promote” to main boyfriend if she and her current boyfriend ever break up.
So what this girl does is invite her friends to come along, with plans to eventually ditch them and be alone with the guy later on in the night if things are going good with him. When her boyfriend asks her what she has planned for the evening, she tells her boyfriend “Oh, I’m hanging out with some friends” but leaves out the part about the other guy. Technically, she’s not lying. It’s a true statement. But it’s not quite bullshit either, because she knows what the truth is. However it is like bullshit in that half-truths make it harder to distinguish truth from reality. With lies, once you know they’re lies you are on the road to figuring out the truth by just looking for the opposite of the lie. With half-truths, people lose track of what’s true and what’s false because of all the technicalities and loopholes.
This is a key element to both bullshit and half-truths: an erosion of commonly agreed-upon standards of objective truth. If you give a statement that is bullshit, that is, a statement where you have no idea whether what you’re saying is true or false, just that it advances your agenda, both you and the listener have lost track of the truth. If you add another bullshit statement that builds off the premise set by your previous bullshit statement, you have made a random statement based on another random statement. It becomes like making a xerox of a xerox, each occurrence gets farther and farther from accurately representing reality. When you layer lies upon lies, however, even if the listening party believes the lies, at least one party, the liar, is making sure to keep track of the objective truth. The liar, in a warped way, is keeping the truth alive even though he is actively concealing it. The truth remains far more recoverable with lies because someone has been researching and tracking it, whereas with the bullshitter all parties lost track of true and false very early in the process.
Similarly, the teller of half-truths has managed to make the truth itself to be the lie, so that even when you know the truth, you can’t trust it because it has been rendered unreliable. Whereas the bullshitter has made truth and falsity of a statement almost impossible to determine, the half-truth teller has made it so that knowing truth and falsity is easy but ultimately worthless thanks to all the omissions, technicalities, semantics, and hair-splitting tricks involved in telling the truth. Either way, both the bullshitter and the half-truth teller have made it almost impossible to know what’s real and what’s not and to get a big-picture view of objective reality.
Another thing that is important to differentiate is the difference between lies told by a liar and lies told by a bullshitter. As mentioned before, when a liar is telling a string of lies, he has to keep conscious of the truth underlying his lies throughout the process. When a bullshitter tells a lie, meaning an intentionally false statement that he knows to be the opposite of the truth, he tells the lie in the service of perpetuating bullshit. Lies told in the service of bullshit (and truth told in the service of bullshit for that matter) end up having the same eroding effect on our ability to appreciate objective reality as straight-up bullshit does.
I know I’ve been a little repetitive in this post, but it’s very important to me that I make these distinctions as clear as possible, because it greatly ties into concepts I’ve been discussing for the past two years and concepts I’m going to go into for the next few months.
Truth, lies, bullshit, half-truths, and lies in the service of bullshit are related to and correspond to guilt, shame, and toxic guilt. Because intentional truth and intentional lies are concerned with the substantive content of statements and the actual actions involved, they are more guilt-based. The liar is concerned about his information and actions appearing flawed. Bullshit is more about the speaker’s need to micromanage others’ impressions of him and project a desired identity to others, and is thus concerned more with context of statements, image, identity, and appearances. This makes bullshit more shame-based. The bullshitter is worried about his identity, his very self, appearing flawed. Half-truths and lies in the service of bullshit are, on the surface, concerned with telling the truth and telling lies, but only to the extent in which that doing so will help perpetuate bullshit. This is why they correlate to toxic guilt, which appears to concern itself with issues of guilt on the surface, but only does so in order to perpetuate underlying shame issues. Half-truths and lies in the service of bullshit occurs when someone’s sense of truth and lies are inextricably fused to bullshit, and toxic guilt occurs when one’s sense of guilt is inextricably fused to shame.
You can read more about shame and guilt here, here, and here. Shame is the primary motivation behind both codependents and Cluster Bs such as narcissists. Codependents surrender to shame while narcissists and other Cluster Bs overcompensate against it. Either way, since both are primarily shame-based, they are more likely to use bullshit than truth or lies, because they are more concerned with supporting a desired image of themselves at any costs than with grasping objective reality, especially when objective reality threatens their ability to maintain their preferred self-assessment.
Since bullshitting, half-truths, and lies in the service of bullshit all work to destroy the ability to differentiate true from false and accurately assess objective reality, prolonged relationships with narcissists lead to a phenomenon called gaslighting, or ambient abuse, where the victim is no longer able to trust the evidence of their own senses:
When gaslighting is especially bad, the victim is not only unable to trust themselves during the relationship, but even after the relationship when the victim realizes that they were dealing with an abuser, they still cannot look back on the relationship and know for sure what was true and what was false. See, when you deal with someone who is just a compulsive liar, and you know what their lies were, you can just look back and assume the opposite of x, y, and z statements made by the liar were probably the actual truth. When you deal with someone who is a bullshitter, half-truth, and liar in the service of bullshit, it’s not that easy. Any statement they made could have been either true or false, and even if it was true, that still tells you nothing because you can’t even trust the context of the truth. Not knowing what to believe as true or false is far more disorienting than knowing all your beliefs are false, because the latter at least gives you some type of closure and an ability to feel in touch with reality.
Not knowing what’s real around you leads to not knowing what’s real inside you either, which feels like a type of disintegration, a type of emptiness. Again, bullshitters are bigger enemies of truth and the ability to accurately gauge objective reality than liars are, and since narcissists and other Cluster B emotional vampires are consummate bullshitters they undermine your whole sense of what’s true and false, right and wrong, real and unreal.
- On Bullshit by Harry Frankfurt. This book is a treasure, plus it’s a very short, enjoyable read. You can easily get through it in one sitting. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because it’s a short read it’s overpriced. It’s well worth the money for conveying so much information in such a clear, concise way. I reread this book often.
- The pay-turned-movie “Gaslight“, where the clinical term “gaslighting” came from. A fun little Hitcock-style suspense yarn about a man trying to convince his wife she’s crazy.