[xmca] Review of Frankfurt's "On Bullshit"

From: Peter Smagorinsky (smago@uga.edu)
Date: Mon Nov 06 2006 - 09:58:19 PST

Today I came across this review of Frankfurt's "On Bullshit." It's quite
hilarious in many ways--and I can't tell if it's half-serious, half-ironic,
or both. The authors in part refute Frankfurt by referencing Vygotsky to
argue that Bullshit is actually a necessary dimension of thinking and,
accordingly, human development. Worth a read, if time permits. Enjoy, Peter

Frankfurt, Henry. (2005). On Bullshit. Princeton University Press.
80 Pp.
$9.95 ISBN 0-691-12294-6
Reviewed by Rocco J. Perla & James Carifio
University of Massachusetts, Lowell
May 14, 2006
Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) recent book “On Bullshit” is a succinct commentary
on a very important and pervasive phenomenon in all human discourse: i.e.,
"bullshit." Originally published as a journal article 20 years ago in
Raritan, the book form published in 2005 by Princeton University Press has
received favorable reviews and has been on the bestseller list in several
different markets. Frankfurt, an American moral philosopher, attempts to
provide a theoretical basis for the study of bullshit, which, in his words,
is produced “whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak
about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to
that topic” Frankfurt, 2005, p. 63, italics added).
Similar in many ways to Max Black’s concept of humbug (quackery, nonsense
or pretentious and deceptive misrepresentations that fall short of a lie),
Frankfurt clearly takes a negative and pejorative view of what he calls
bullshit. Unlike the liar who knows the truth yet chooses to deceive, the
bullshitter ignores the truth and is, therefore, “a greater enemy of the
truth than the liar” (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 61).
Frankfurt’s book has struck a chord in our culture and with many people
currently because there is, without doubt, a lot of Frankfurtian bullshit
wherever one cares to look, read or listen. And we all do need to be far
more reflective, cautious and circumspect when we express ourselves and our
views in our fast-paced and fast-changing society, as well as
professionally and in high stake situations, because of a pervasive
“talking heads” environment and climate created by our own recent
inventions. This aspect and dimension of the phenomenon, however, is not
where we disagree with Frankfurt’s views or analysis. No, our disagreement
is far deeper, and more fundamental and important in the long as opposed to
the short run in our current instantaneous culture.
Although Frankfurt’s attempt to shed some light on this ubiquitous
phenomenon is laudable, and his definition of bullshit reasonable and
philosophically sound, his developing theoretical and conceptual view of
bullshit has oppressive undertones and consequences, and is severely
limited and outdated from a linguistic, cognitive science, and learning
theory perspective—fields that have grown tremendously in the twenty years
since Frankfurt’s article was first published. These fields have addressed
many of the key features associated with what Frankfurt is calling
bullshit. Because Frankfurt’s book has received positive attention and
praise by some scholars and science educators (e.g., Good, 2005), many of
whom are likely to embrace and operationalize these concepts, the gross
limitations of this book (and the BS construct specifically) need to be
identified and critically examined from a more contemporary perspective.
The purpose of this article, therefore, is to briefly address some of these
shortcomings and to present a more informed and balanced treatment of
Frankfurt’s interpretation of Bullshit (hereafter referred to as FIBS). Our
aim here is to call attention to the severe limitations and implications of
this popular academic book and to encourage all educational professionals
to consider their own views of what Frankfurt defines as BS in relation to
their own views of pedagogy, educational theory, and learning research. It
is our opinion that many of the problems in education and educational
research today are the result of weak and theoretically groundless attempts
to address fundamental questions through outdated views and models of
cognition versus more contemporary and main stream cognitive views (see
Author, 2005). Frankfurt’s BS construct is a recent example of this
“cognitive crisis” and problem in a philosophical guise.
Simply put, our discontent with Frankfurt’s BS construct is that it is too
naïve and simplistic to account for the complexities of human thought,
language, memory structures, learning, and representational systems that
have been empirically documented by the cognitive sciences over the past
few decades (see Ashcraft, 2002). We certainly recognize that some, and in
certain instances many, people appear to flatly ignore the truth and are
often compelled to discuss issues they are not knowledgeable about
(including ourselves), and that these are key diagnostic features of BS
according to Frankfurt. However, to just superficially and pejoratively
dismiss (as Frankfurt does) all of these behaviors and instances as BS,
without addressing the enormous weight of evidence in the cognitive
sciences and related fields (including philosophy itself) that has led to a
deeper understanding of human behavior, decision-making, thinking and
learning, is, in our opinion, somewhat irresponsible intellectually. There
are certainly different degrees and types of bullshit that are context
mediated, but this finer grained analysis (or perhaps taxonomy) of BS is
not suggested or developed in Frankfurt’s book, but it suggested in this
The primary objections raised here relative to FIBS are not trivial, but
are actually “theory-cracking” if not “theory-busting,” as they require a
diametrically opposite interpretation of bullshit as defined by Frankfurt,
and one that demonstrates far more parsimony relative to important
experimental and theory-based findings in the cognitive sciences and
related fields. Our revised (cognitive) interpretation of BS can be
succinctly expressed in the following terms:
Bullshit is not always bad or subversive to the truth; rather it is often a
highly dynamic and necessary matrix for the development of expressive,
creative, critical and higher order thinking and representation that gives
birth to the truth or/and new truths.
This revised interpretation of bullshit (referred to here as RIBS, a more
creative and discovery oriented acronym) provides a contrasting view from
which to critically compare, contrast, and analyze FIBS (a more context of
justification and policing oriented acronym).
In the RIBS, emphasis is placed on the highly dynamic nature of bullshit,
whereas FIBS suggests that bullshit is a fixed, static and inert linguistic
and conceptual entity (similar to the early behaviorist and positivists
views of knowledge and experience). Surely, someone can go from “talking
bullshit” and from “bullshitting” to talking authoritatively and
knowledgeably in a particular subject or domain. This transition, moreover,
is often referred to and taken as demonstrative of learning, which is a
concept and simple observational fact completely ignored if not completely
missing from Frankfurt’s views. However, this type of change, transition
(and transformation) is not addressed in FIBS, which runs counter to
decades of empirical research in the “novice to expert” continuum and
developmental transformation, and basic research in the cognitive sciences
(Ashcraft, 2002). Similarly, FIBS fails to address Chomsky’s (see Ashcraft,
2002) competence/performance distinction and Vygotsky’s (1976) zone of
proximal development, both of which require transitions and qualitative
transformations in an individual’s ability to knowledgeably express her or
himself through language, social interaction and enculturation.
Furthermore, basic research in language acquisition and development has
shown (and continues to show) convincingly that the use of words, concepts
and conceptual relations is a highly emotive process that is extremely
difficult to develop, and that imitation, modeling and “talking above
oneself” or “beyond one’s comfort zone” or experiences is necessary to
develop increasing knowledge and skill in a particular area (see Bruning,
Schraw, & Ronning 2001, and Schunk, 2004). This later point is especially
true for highly complex instructional areas such as mathematics, science,
philosophy, and other highly abstract and technical fields of study.
In expressing the inert, useless and meaningless nature of bullshit,
Frankfurt draws an analogy between excrement and bullshit, and in doing so
he provides an excellent example of bullshit by his own definition.
Frankfurt (2005) states:
Excrement may be regarded as the corpse of nourishment, what remains when
the vital elements in food have been exhausted. In this respect, excrement
is a representation of death that we ourselves and that, indeed, we cannot
help producing in the very process of maintaining our lives. Perhaps it is
for making death so intimate that we find excrement so repulsive. In any
event, it cannot serve the purposes of sustenance, any more than hot air
can serve those of communication (pp. 43-44).
The problem with this statement is that it is a shallow, uninformed and
simply incorrect biological (i.e., scientific) view of excrement. Excrement
is vital for life and contains material that will decompose and unlock the
chemical prerequisites for life. In this passage, Frankfurt is taking the
opportunity, or feels the compulsion, to speak about some topic (biology)
that exceeds his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. In
other words, Frankfurt is, by his own definition, talking bullshit.
Further, he is not only talking bullshit, but he is missing the key and
critical point about this phenomenon because of his (outdated and
inaccurate) schemas about the phenomenon as well as the hidden flaws in the
similes and metaphors he uses to explore and investigate it.
More than simply pointing out an instance of Frankfurtian bullshit and why
it has occurred, the above point demonstrates Frankfurt’s fixed and rigid
view of BS that is untenable from a contemporary cognitive science and
learning theory perspective. Just as excrement provides the raw materials
for sustaining life, conceptual and linguistical bullshit (which Frankfurt
associates with “hot air”) provides the opportunity to exercise one’s
developing rhetorical style, imagination, storytelling ability, humor and
creativity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1996). Perhaps more importantly, bullshit
provides a vehicle for cognitive and social engagement and the opportunity
to develop more “accurate,” cogent and informed ideas and views via
discussions with more knowledge people (Schunk, 2004), however “more
knowledgeable” people are defined. This last point is where Frankfurt’s
interpretation of bullshit has both oppressive and intimidating undertones
and consequences.
Perhaps without even realizing it, FIBS sends a message that suggests that
one should avoid talking bullshit (almost all of the time and because of
the “risks and potential consequences”), or of expressing a developing and
“non-expert” view, concern or opinion. In other words, leave the thinking,
discourse and decision-making to people who don’t “talk bullshit” (with no
definitive or even rough-gauge Turing test of this “non-bullshit talk”
provided by Frankfurt), which is a view that seems to be particularly
attractive to many educators and politicians of all persuasions today. The
difficulties with any view that even suggests this type of restriction of
intellectual and social engagement are manifest, and should be easily
identified by most people (and especially by a moral philosopher!). In a
world where knowledge (particularly scientific and technical knowledge) is
growing exponentially, and, at the same time becoming so specialized, it’s
reasonable to wonder how many people actually exist who don’t talk bullshit
(or at least a good deal of the time), as well as who is the final arbiter
of such decisions.
Frankfurt is correct, however, in assuming bullshit is ubiquitous,
pervasive, and growing at an accelerating rate. But one must stop and ask
why, and ask why in a fairly sophisticated and differentiated way. Not all
BS may be bad and something to be radically reduced if not eliminated in
all contexts and situations, which is one of our central points here. Yes,
a lot of BS should be scrutinized, and, as we have said, we all need to be
far more reflective and circumspect when we express ourselves and our views
professionally or in high stake situations without doubt. But something as
ubiquitous as BS may exist for a reason and perhaps an important and “good”
reason. In the RIBS view, it was stated that bullshit is a matrix for the
development of higher-order thinking. The assumption here is that one can
go from this (bullshit) matrix that is highly generative (and allows for
the thinking and expression of ideas in a less inhibited manner that may
not consider the truth or falsity of the expression) to more precise ideas
and conceptions that may (or may not be) weeded out by some form of reason,
experience, formal testing procedure or logic. Without the development
component of bullshit, it would be difficult to understand how scientific
ideas, facts, theories and concepts developed from their metaphysical
origins to “authoritatively accepted and blessed realities,” which is an
idea (and process) that has been the basis of the work and contributions of
some of the most important “post-positivist” philosophers of science such
as Bachelard (1938), Koyre (1957), Fleck (1935/1976) and Kuhn (1962).
What FIBS fails to recognize is the dynamic nature of the bullshit
construct and that bullshit is very often (if not always) an important
developmental phenomenon that can be refined over time in a way that leads
to more complex (valid) knowledge structures and greater (valid) knowledge
capacities. What is missing in FIBS—and also in many psychological,
philosophical and epistemological models and theories of knowing—is a
balanced treatment of the irrational, silly, fanciful, deceptive and
emotive nature of thought and behavior, as well as the more logical, formal
and scientific ways of thinking and behaving.
What is more disconcerting than the limitations and shortcomings of FIBS is
that so many educated people and teachers view this book as some sort of
moral victory to be immediately implemented in the classroom. They fail to
identify the problems of FIBS and to recognize its outdated, naïve,
simplistic, oppressive, and non-developmental thesis, relative to a concept
that is so pervasive and actually very developmentally important in the
classroom; namely BS, and BS that reflects a striving to think and speak
beyond one’s immediate grasp in order to learn, develop, and qualitatively
change and improve one’s views. Attempting to reduce the occurrence of BS
to zero in our daily lives and discourse only to the obedient parroting of
the views of authorities and catechisms currently in fashion, particularly
in classrooms, will prevent the events that will lead to the birth (slowly
and over time) of the next Tessler, Edison, Kekule, Semmelweis, Darwin,
Pauling, or Gell-Mann from occurring, never mind the even more important
events of the daily intellectual growth and development of self-regulating
and higher-order learners and students. One must really ask why people seek
to speak beyond their grasp and ask if the reasons are always the same and
the same in all contexts. And one must ask what is the price and the
consequences of just simplistically and unilaterally severely reducing and
choking off bullshit in daily discourse, particularly educationally. Maybe
a completely bullshit free society (if at all possible) would not be such a
complete moral or desirable victory after all. And maybe “deception” is a
far more interesting and important phenomenon than most of us think or realize.
Ashcraft, M.H. (2002). Cognition (3rd edition). Prentice Hall.
Carifio, J. (2005, July). Toward a standard integrated information
processing/cognitive model of learning. Paper presented at the biennial
meeting of the International History, Philosophy and Science Teaching
Group, Leeds, England.
Bachelard, G. (1938). La formation de l’esprit scientifique. Paris: Vrin.
Bruning, R., Schraw, G., Norby, M., & Ronning, R., (2001). Cognitive
Psychology and Instruction. New York: Prentice-Hall.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity, Flow and the Psychology of
Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper-Collins.
Fleck, L. (1935/1979). Genesis and development of a scientific fact. (F.
Bradley & T. Trenn, Trans.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Good, R. (2005, October). Science, pseudo-science, and just plain bullshit.
Paper presented at the Science Education at the Crossroads Conference,
University of Connecticut.
Koyre, A. (1968). From the closed world to the infinite universe. The John
Hopkins University Press.
Kuhn, T.S. (1962/1996). The structure of scientific revolutions (3rd
edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Schunk, D. (2004). Learning Theories: An Educational Perspective (4th
Edition). New York: Prentice-Hall.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher
psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E.
Souberman, (Eds.), Harvard University Press.
About the Reviewers
Rocco J. Perla
Graduate School of Education
Dept. Mathematics and Science Education University of Massachusetts Lowell
35 Academy Road
Leominster, MA 01453 USA
Email: perla98@medscape.com
Rocco J. Perla recently completed an Ed.D. in Mathematics and Science
Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Dr. Perla’s interests
include nature of science studies and instruction, philosophy of science
and cognition. His current research projects focus on developing
inter-disciplinary models of nature of science instruction for
undergraduate students.
James Carifio
Graduate School of Education
Dept. Leadership in Schooling
University of Massachusetts Lowell
61 Wilder Street
Lowell, MA 01854 USA
Email: James_Carifio@uml.edu
James Carifio is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the
University of Massachusetts Lowell. His interests include measurement,
cognition, mathematics and science education and complex problem solving.
Dr. Carifio teaches courses in research design and data analysis, cognitive
psychology and learning theories. His current research projects focus on
developing and validating an integrated standard information processing
model (and theory) of learning.
Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of
first publication to the Education Review.
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