From the Honest History vault: Another (timely) look at Professor Frankfurt on bullshit

Update 1 August 2023: Professor Frankfurt dead at 94; article in Inside Story from Brett Evans.


Some time ago, Honest History came across the work of Professor Harry Frankfurt on bullshit. It was not a joke, but a serious academic work. Professor Frankfurt’s little book had been around for a while, since 1986 in fact, but it got a new lease of life on the election of Donald Trump.

Image result for donald trump

A bullshitter bullshitting (

We compiled this post on Inauguration Day 2017 and added to it later; it is worth another look, particularly in light of the President’s most recent outbursts – where he himself used the word ‘bullshit’ we noticed – and because now, as then, the United States is not the only polity where bullshit is common. Australia is certainly not immune from bullshit. Indeed, one of the objectives of the Honest History project was to push back against the bullshit tide, particularly as it affected how we recall and write our history. In our introduction to The Honest History Book (2017) Alison Broinowski and I were happy to quote Don Watson on the subject:

As author Don Watson wrote in 2016, “That’s the thing about spin – or what goes under the banner today of ‘communications’ – you begin to believe your own bullshit. Spin is the stuff that myths are made of.’ Bullshit [we went on] flows relentlessly to fill the space available. Myths build Anzac into Anzackery, overshadowing the many other parts of our history that deserve examination and, sometimes, celebration.

Note that bullshit is not the same as lying; bullshitters don’t care whether they are telling the truth or not.

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth [says Frankfurt]. 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 …

Professor Frankfurt is only 90; perhaps he will write more on this important topic. That link again.


Professor Frankfurt (American Academy in Berlin)

David Stephens

10 February 2020 updated

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