Preliminary foray into the definition of and plausibility conditions for [the allegation of] bullshit, in one of the very first posts by my worthy opponent Thill Raghu at The Baloney Detective. This riffs of course on Harry Frankfurt's use of the term, previously developed independently by Fernando Flores. If you compare Thill's post to what follows, it will be clear that I concentrate more on the motive and less on the content of ostensible "bullshit" than Thill does. My post here is not a rebuttal or even a rejoinder to him-- some of this was even written before I read his post-- but he did provide the impetus to organize this into a semi-finished form. Read it, then, as a kind of complement to his.
Recently there were a few posts on Graham Harman's blog where he comments upon those who accuse him --both shockingly and naively, it seems to me-- of "not believing himself" the metaphysics he proposes. Harman responds (quite rightly) that to say this is to make an insinuation about ethics:
Before being right or wrong, people are either serious or full of sh*t. That is a basic distinction of human types, and...the basic fact of ethics.(As a side-note, notice the emphasis Harman places upon sincerity in his account of vicarious causality (e.g., here. Harman uses this word metaphorically, but its connotations are not accidental.)
Philosophers court this sort of accusation, though, and the reason is that there is a useful sense in which one can legitimately spin theories, or even experiential gedankenexperiments, and not believe them. Harman proposes this himself in a comment on Meillassoux's paper "Subtraction and Contraction;" and Rogers Albritton, former chair of philosophy departments at both Harvard and UCLA, says something like this too, in a remark cited here:
Philosophy, as [Wittgenstein] means to be practicing it “simply puts everything before us, [it] neither explains nor deduces anything” and it “may not advance any kind of theory” (Philosophical Investigations I 126, 109). Its aim is, rather, “complete clarity,” which “simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear” (ibid., 133). I’d like nothing better. Moreover, I believe it: the problems (at any rate, those I care most about) should indeed, as he says, completely disappear. That’s how they look to me. I love metaphysical and epistemological theories, but I don’t believe in them, not even in the ones I like. And I don’t believe in the apparently straightforward problems to which they are addressed. However, not one of these problems has actually done me the kindness of vanishing, though some have receded. (I don’t have sense-data nearly as often as I used to.) And if there is anything I dislike more in philosophy than rotten theories, it’s pretenses of seeing through the “pseudoproblems” that evoked them when in fact one doesn’t know what’s wrong and just has a little rotten metatheory as to that. (My emphasis.)Shahar Ozeri, whose post pointed me to this admirable anti-credo, remarks pertinently that this bears upon Meillassoux's post-metaphysical speculation, which also tries to reclaim the status of "genuine questions" for ontological inquiry, though some (and I do mean some) of Meillassoux's answers-- as I have asserted before-- border on the bathetic. Nevertheless, Meillassoux seems to grant the fuzzy boundary between speculation and, well, bullshit (though he calls it by its old-fashioned Greek name):
Philosophy is the invention of strange forms of argumentation, necessarily bordering on sophistry, which remains its dark structural double. To philosophize is always to develop an idea whose elaboration and defense require a novel kind of argumentation, the model for which lies neither in positive science--not even in logic--nor in some supposedly innate faculty for proper reasoning. (After Finitude, p 76-7)My own thinking tends to walk this line quite dangerously (though not at all in the same way as Meillassoux). I am constantly stepping outside my area of expertise (which is more or less being able to write and think passably in English); I offer interpretation of myths; I do historical reconstruction; I play (sometimes fast and loose) with science fringe and mainstream. I shamelessly lift things from anarchists and business consultants, Jacobins and Constitutional scholars; I hint that my readings of Laura Riding or Rousseau have something to do with schools without grades or being able to be both Christian and Buddhist. (O.K., maybe I haven't connected all these dots yet, but don't put it past me).
You bet this skirts close to the fire (perhaps a bit too close, Thill may think-- but I want to be clear that I don't accuse Thill of calling me a bullshitter). I think about this risk a great deal (e.g., here). I daren't guess (and there's no way of knowing) but I wonder whether Socrates, that great performance artist, ever worried about it too.
The bullshitter, as the one who is, not a liar, but indifferent to whether their utterances are true or false, is in some way the inverse of the poet (who "Nothing affirmeth and therefore never lieth"), because this indifference is not a sublimation in the service of something higher (and to which one must metaphorically extend the category truth), but a willful repression for the sake of something lower (reputation, career, getting the sex object into bed).
One of the greatest struggles I have, philosophically speaking, is wedding the seriousness of philosophy with the humility incumbent upon finitude. This constantly risks a kind of bullshit, as Albritton sees; one devotes a love to work one cannot ultimately believe in. (It is here that I'd locate the close kinship between philosophy and scientific method, which must also remain corrigible. But I think science makes things too easy on itself. As Wittgenstein also said, "Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself" (Culture & Value 34e). I could go out on a limb here and speculate that one reason the siren-call of scientism is so seductive in our age is precisely because it distracts from this difficulty and this responsibility; and one motive of the Sokalesque animus against "Science Studies" a la David Bloor, Andrew Pickering, Bruno Latour, and others is that the latter approach directs us back to just this burden we had forgotten. This is a bigger piece of psychoanalysis than I would want to defend unmodified and half-baked, but I believe there is something to it.)
Given this preoccupation, I take quite hard the charge that I would willfully indulge in bullshit (as opposed to letting my conceits run away from me). People who throw around the charge of philosophical bullshitting have either no idea of the seriousness of what they are saying, or are casting real aspersions upon the motives of thought, or, in a very few cases, are offering one's conscience a salutary reminder. In the first case they are not to be bothered with; in the second, they should be called out. I can count those I trust to fall into the third case on my fingers.