Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bullshit again

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.


  1. One of the questions your interesting post - especially your remark "I take quite hard the charge that I would willfully indulge in bullshit" - raises for me is this: Do we always know that we are dishing out BS when we do so? Could I engage in BS without being aware of it? If so, how does this work? What prevents me from knowing that I am dishing out BS?

  2. Why are you beating up on yourself like that or letting someone else do it? What's the point of staying is such an abusive relationship? Kick him out and change the locks! Your writing for so long has been just fine. You are not a BSer. You write and think in English more than passably. You have and you have always had a gentle beauty in your words. There is great value in that. It's fun and also enlightening to watch you make all those connections among seemingly disparate things.

  3. Thill,

    the question you raise is what I hope I address (briefly) in the final paragraph. It is possible to let one's demons get the better of one. Friends who raise the question "why do you say this? is this just b.s.?" are raising that possibility; most people however who call bullshit seem to already "know". My point is that suggestions of bullshit call into question someone's motives for speaking. It is one thing to talk nonsense; another to be unaware of one's reasons for doing so. Both are possible and both are certainly within philosophy's right to point out (philosophy, I say, can remark on anything at all); Socrates is as usual my first reference, and he calls out b.s.(usually not explicitly, but by pointing out contradictions). I just think it's a far more serious offense than is usually admitted by those who toss it around. Which (now that I think of it) raises the question whether sometimes calling bullshit is -- bullshit.

  4. Gary:

    In case it was unclear,, my scenario was a hypothetical one. Anyone who ever says "dude, that's bullshit" (or gentler words to that effect) and makes me care is either a good friend or a carefully-cultivated enemy (in a Nietzschean, not Schmittian, sense). Aristotle calls the friend a second self. And I do think that one should often ask oneself if one is bullshitting. (This is not the same as asking "will I go to the wall for this?" Philosophy is full of different speech-acts, and floating hypotheses one doesn't swear by is one of them.) But I don't often listen to others who accuse me of it, and those I do I've generally known for years and trust to have my best interests at heart.

  5. "I can count those I trust to fall into the third case on my fingers."

    I will soon be responding to your post on my blog. For now, I will observe that the prevalence of baloney, a constitutive element of BS, stemming from factors such as the pressure to express an opinion, the hankering for recognition, the impulse to appear deep and profound, the afflictions of "verbal incontinence", etc., makes baloney analysis necessary and urgent.
    What matters is whether the content contains baloney. It is a red herring whether some find the exposure of baloney offensive. Even the exposure of simple falsity is offensive to many. This doesn't entail that we have to become self-conscious and inhibited about identifying and pointing out falsity or error.
    I wouldn't want someone to be my pilot whose mistakes were not pointed out in the course of her training. Would you?

  6. While, as we know, you and I pretty strongly diverge over the meaningfulness (not to mention the truth) of some claims, I think we actually do agree on the appropriateness of calling out what one perceives to be errors of fact or of method.... at least as long as one harbors any hoe for the exchange to be fruitful at all (and I don't identify "fruitful" with "persuading my interlocutor.") I don't want to feel I can't say that something strikes me as nonsense, or as narrow-mindedness, or as stemming from unexamined commitments, and I don't want my friends to feel this way either. But my friends are my friends because they assume (corrigibly perhaps, but as a starting-place) that I mean what I say even if I am wrong, and not that I am b.s.-ing.

    So I'm not waving the red herring you seem to think I am. It isn't a question of being offended by being told I've made a mistake. I am told this all the time. ("I don't see what you mean by..."; "Your conclusion X doesn't follow from this..." etc). But it is offensive to be told that I don't care if I've made a mistake because I am not even playing that game.

    The distinction you make between baloney and b.s. seems to fit this pretty well. Nonsense, stuff flying in the face of common sense, and so on-- I don't necessarily eschew this, but it's also possible I don't notice it and i don't mind being told. But I prefer to be given credit for caring about what I'm doing, and not just pursuing some ulterior aim like "seeing deep and profound." Please.

  7. great stuff! I wonder, are post-metaphysical views and post-formal cognition based in the same 'advanced' intellectual development?

    Isn't the mark of both the ability to know all abstraction, all languaging as "bullshit" - or as poetry? After the realization of our bullshit what we are left with is praxis; the consequential envelopment of being thus...

  8. Michael,

    I am very ambivalent about the relationship between B.S. and poetry. This is a crucial point, and needs careful thinking-through. I would like to say of course that one can just ask if it's good poetry (and if not, must be B.S.!) but alas the debate rages on (and rightly so) about what constitutes "true" poetry too.

    As to post-metaphysics, well, I've never been entirely on board with this notion. To me, all real philosophies are contemporaries. (I want also to take history seriously, but I refuse to be historicist).

    I take something of my cue from J.L. Borges:

    "One of the thorns in the flesh of Europeans who write or have written histories of Indian philosophy is that all philosophy is seen as contemporary by the Indians. That is to say, they are interested in the problems themselves, not in the mere biographical fact or historical, chronological fact. That So-and-So was What's-His-Name's master, that he came before, that he wrote under that influence --all those things are nothing to them. They care about the riddle of the universe." (This is from Borges' essay "Word-Music and Translation" in This Craft of Verse.)

    Or, to quote Aquinas: "Philosophy enquires not into what men have said, but into the truth of the matter." (In I
    lib. de Coelo, lect. xxii; II Sent., D. xiv, a. 2, ad 1um).

    What I mean by this is (at least) that I genuinely don't see philosophy as progressing, the way the sciences are typically held to do.

    Zizek's relation to Kant is more like Philip Glass's to Brahms than like Feynmann's to Maxwell. So, no, I don't see post-metaphysical philosophy as some next Piagetian phase. (Am I reading your comment right, though?)

    But: philosophy must address itself to the nature and scope of such progress as does occur, and that includes inquiry into the "evolution of consciousness."

    (This is incidentally a distinction between philosophy per se and the Abrahamic "religions of the book" with their insistence on revelation; or even Newmann's "Development of doctrine," for instance. One could not say of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam what Borges says of "Indian thought." And it even occurs to me that the notion of "progress in philosophy" (which as you know Kant bemoaned never happened either) results from a cross-breeding (or confusion?) of religion and philosophy in the west. Some would say this cross-breeding produced a mule).

  9. It occurs to me too that Heidegger's famous discussion of "idle talk" in B&T I v 35 is pertinent to this whole topic. (In fact, given that Flores studied under Hubert Dreyfus and I think also read a ton of Heidegger in prison, I suspect some of his account of b.s. might presuppose a lot of Heidegger). It's not perfectly isomorphic-- H. is referring to such things as gossip and cocktail-party chat and so on too-- but he does note that idle talk winds up obfuscating despite not being intended as a lie, and (I'd argue) precisely obfuscates because it is not intended to disclose. It makes a kind of assumption that one already understands before hearing anything.

    Now I am tempted to count the minutes until someone says that H's analysis is itself BS.

  10. Skholiast,
    I have started a new blog The Way of Ordinary wisdom at http://ordinary-wisdom.com
    to complement my blog on baloney detection.
    I look forward to your comments on my blogs!

  11. I'll look forward to this, Thill. I like the notion of complementing the negative and the affirmative with each other (as per yr first post)

  12. Thanks! I pointed out in a recent post on my blog that someone could be dead serious or have strong conviction in the truth of their claims and yet these claims could turn out to be baloney. Any thoughts on this?

  13. Aquinas: "Philosophy enquires not into what men have said, but into the truth of the matter." (In Ilib. de Coelo, lect. xxii; II Sent., D. xiv, a. 2, ad 1um).

    This is a curious remark, one which qualifies as a candidate for baloney analysis. The "truth of the matter" can only be investigated if we know what the "matter" is. And we can know what the "matter" is only by examining what men have said about it. So, an inquiry into what men have said about a matter is essential for an inquiry into the truth of that matter. Therefore, to create a false contrast or opposition between the two tasks is absurd. So, this false opposition is an instance of baloney.

    If Aquinas had said that philosophy does not stop with just what men have said on a matter, but also examines the truth of the matter, he would have made a correct claim.

  14. @skholiast

    I’m not sure I even like the distinction between bullshit and poetry, at least in that sense I’m talking about here. What I should have done a better job at highlighting is that fact that, in some sense, ALL rhetoric, poetry, discourse, and conceptual expression is “bullshit” – because its all supplemental and constructed. Languages are speech-act/gestural systems that represent reality; that is to say, conceptual thought mythologizes actual situations and relations, and thus all assertions are tentative, relative and susceptible to “slippage” (to borrow a term from Derrida).

    Alternatively, all speech-acts or semantic expressions can be considered “poetry”: resonate significations deployed to generate difference systems and affective responses for coping in social and physical environments.

    My point is, simply, that conceptual thought is an edifice, a “language game”, or sonic and symbolic heuristic capacity for communicative adaptation, which accomplishes (coordinates, affects, explains, etc) a wide variety of things depending on the context in which it is used.

    The realization of the fleeting, tentative and constructed nature of semantic reasoning is what I mean when I talk about “post-formal cognition”. There is a growing literature on post-formal thinking that is fairly good at explaining the developmental dimensions of coming to realize, as Socrates so famously quipped, that true knowledge is in knowing that we know nothing.


  15. cont...

    Incidentally, this connects to what I want refer to when I talk about “post-metaphysics”. I agree that many philosophical ideas are contemporary, but that’s not what I mean when I refer to “post” here. What I mean by “post-metaphysics” is a variant or strain of human thinking that only comes after a certain competency is gained with formal-operational (“rational”) cognitions. A “post-metaphysical” cognitive orientation, then, is based in capacities of thought that “understand” the tentative and constructed nature of thought-itself.

    The Eastern traditions call this “insight” by many names, but it is only when we instantiate such insights into permanent cognitive capacities and “states of mind” that they become truly affective.

    To stake out novel possibilities.

    The nuance here is what is quite contentious. I’m not saying post-metaphysical thinking is what comes after (chronologically speaking) a certain tradition, because all traditions (East and West) are inherently metaphysical, but that recognizing this inherency and letting go of our attachment to it – to the security offered by semantics, language, concepts, discourses, absolute “truths” – in general constitutes a qualitatively different and emergent mode of cognition, and way of being in the world.
    Philosophy is only one discourse among so many others - the deepest wisdoms are beyond the fancies of all discursive formation. Philosophy’s true progression, in this sense, can only arrive after its final destruction – and only then in light of its consequence for praxis.

  16. "When tradition thus becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it 'transmits' is made so inaccessible, proximally and for the most part, that it rather becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial 'sources' from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand…

    If the question of Being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up, and the concealments which it has brought about dissolved. We understand this task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue we are to destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being---the ways which have guided us ever since… But to bury the past in nullity (Nichtigkeit) is not the purpose of this destruction; its aim is positive…" (Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 43-44)

  17. Nice, Michael, but you've said a great deal more than I dare respond to off-the-cuff.

    I think in general I chime with your fingers-pointing-at-the-moon line, and this is in part what I meant when I just wrote that thinkers who contradict each other are still usable in concert, because there is an experience that is aimed at. There's a good post up by Jeffrey Bell on sayable and unsayable which points out that this line courts paradox, since after all to say that "X cannot be said" is still to say "X". Peter Gratton just called for a moratorium (in the contexct of the Analytic/Continental divide) in using Wittgenstein's conclusion of the Tractatus ("Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.") I am pretty sure I cannot sign on.

    More soon. Thanks for such an extensive comment to sink my teeth into.

  18. I'd reformulate it thus 'whereof one cannot speak, one must remain speculative'...

    thanks for the links!

  19. "But I think science makes things too easy on itself."

    What do you mean? Is there an example?

    "the Sokalesque animus against "Science Studies""

    I think the unmitigated baloney in a great deal of these so-called "science studies" has been well-documented by Sokal and others.
    Could you give me one example of a instance in which Sokal's criticisms were off the mark?

  20. What might "the question of Being" be? Aren't there many questions on Being?

  21. Hi Thill,

    Well-placed though a number of Sokal's skewers were, these by and large hit home at the (mis)appropriation of science per se, pressing it into service of some (often half-baked) postmodern contention of the humanitites. I have always thought that hanging ones metaphysics on the science of the day is a bad bet. As if God would be caught glimmering at the end of a telescope! However, this same stance of mine is what makes me see science as a deeply human affair, fraught with mistakes and over-confident assertions, time and time again falsified by newly-confident weltanschaungen that have their own promethean day in the sun and likewise meet their limitations. Latour et al are arguing not that science is made-up but that it is over-confident if it thinks it is describing how things are. It can aim at empirical sufficiency.

    As to the "question of Being", I take this to be : Why is there anything? Pace Stephen Hawking, this is not a scientific inquiry.

  22. "Latour et al are arguing not that science is made-up but that it is over-confident if it thinks it is describing how things are. It can aim at empirical sufficiency."

    I'm afraid I find Latour's claim absurd. How does he know that science is not describing how things are? What else is there to describe in science? Atomic physics doesn't describe the world of atoms? Cosmology does not describe the origins of the universe? We don't have descriptions of black holes and the sources of gamma ray outbursts?
    (Re: Latour) Science envy combined with philosophical vacuity can be deadly indeed!
    "Empirical sufficiency" is measured in terms of adequacy and accuracy of description of how things are and behave.

    Why is there anything? Does the question admit of an answer at all? What would be an answer to this question? God? "Being"?" Well, then, why is there God? Or, Why is there Being?

  23. Thill,

    On re-reading my comment, I just want to clarify that my very brief gloss of Latour is mine and that I may well have mis-represented him. However, yes, I will stand by it. Yes, we have elaborate accounts of black holes and gamma ray bursts. I'm guessing it's a good bet that there are such things. But such ontological assertions are not what science deals in. You write: ' "Empirical sufficiency" is measured in terms of adequacy and accuracy of description of how things are and behave.' Strike "are" here and I'll come closer to agreeing with you. I don't at all dispute that there are trees or coffee cups or ocean currents or radio waves. I talk about them and I assume that they will conform to previously-established patterns. But even on scientific grounds, these things do not ultimately exist. They are contingent networks of effects; what is "ultimately real" are-- what? quarks? In short, I think I am more "realistic" than scientific partisans, who must ultimately evaporate away even themselves, since the self is an epiphenomenon of neuronal complexity, which is itself a byproduct of Darwinian mechanisms arising from the properties of carbon, which in turn are just emergent properties of a few cosmological constants. Or am I -- would you say? -- conflating reductionism with science?

    The fact that a question does not admit of an answer in words does not mean it is pointless. The wonder one experiences in asking, dumbfounded, "why is there anything at all?" is, I readily grant, not even articulate. Am I then to conclude that it is meaningless?

  24. "I don't at all dispute that there are trees or coffee cups or ocean currents or radio waves. I talk about them and I assume that they will conform to previously-established patterns. But even on scientific grounds, these things do not ultimately exist. They are contingent networks of effects; what is "ultimately real" are-- what? quarks?"

    What is the difference, if any, between existing and "ultimately existing"? How can something produce a "network of effects" if it doesn't exist or doesn't "ultimately exist"? A network of effects obviously implies the existence and the ultimate existence of the cause(s).
    It doesn't follow from the fact that a table can be broken down or analyzed into constituents x, y, or z, that the table qua table doesn't exist or doesn't "ultimately exist". A pizza can be reduced or analyzed in terms of constituents, but who would deny that it is, nevertheless, a pizza?
    If we want to understand science, we have to start with the achievements, discoveries, inventions, of science, not weird philosophical theories about it.

    Wittgenstein wrote that "the feeling of the mystical" has to do with the wonder that anything exists at all. "How extraordinary that anything should exist at all!" is fine as an expression of this "feeling of the mystical".
    But the weird philosophical pseudo-question "Why is there anything at all?" is in another ballpark.