Bullshit: True Sentences and Trivialization of Knowledge


First, an ‘autobiographical’ point: I was charmed by how Akeel Bilgrami spoke about ‘bullshit’, when we met each other for the first time. Akeel also said that we call this ‘bakwas’ in Hindi. This resulted in revisiting Harry Frankfurt’s article on the issue; it further led to reading the late G.A. Cohen’s contribution on the topic and going through most of the literature on the subject. (Some interesting stuff on the theme is collected in an edited volume on the subject that was published a few years ago.) Since then, some on and off thinking on the subject has been going on, some of whose results you shall notice in this post.

Second, a line or two about ‘bullshit’. Frankfurt ties it to truth: the bullshitter, unlike the liar, does not value truth. The honest person does; the liar too because he values it enough not to speak truth. The bullshitter, by contrast, is indifferent to truth. G.A. Cohen modified the thought further. As an ex-Marxist, his reference point was the Althusserian Marxism of the early 70’s. (Louis Althusser was a French Marxist and his formulations were influential for some time; some of his thoughts live on in various forms to this day, outside Marxist thought.) What is interesting about Cohen is his attempt to tie, more implicitly than explicitly, bullshit to knowledge.

Third, some thoughts about the relationship between bullshit, truth and knowledge. Let us assume that there are different types of bullshit. (May be the difference is one of dimensions; perhaps, there are different kinds of bullshit. These are not issues for now.) Is it possible to identify one of the most malicious and dangerous types of bullshit? Yes. It is this type that my posts identify and react to.

  1. Frankfurt suggests that the bullshitter does not value truth. In some senses, he is right. However, the questions are these: what is this ‘truth’ that the bullshitter is unconcerned about? Why should ‘truth’ concern us at all? Clearly, here, the issue is what ‘truth’ is or, at least, what that word means.

There is some clarity on these questions today. Alfred Tarski, a Polish logician, was the first to work out a clear explication of one of the notions of truth that we use very often. Called the ‘semantic’ or ‘Aristotelean’ conception of truth, it captures the idea that sentences that describe what is the case (and, where applicable, what is not the case) are sentences that we call ‘true’. This conception of ‘truth’ (as we know, this is but one of the conceptions of truth we have, something which Tarski also explicitly acknowledged), thus, makes ‘truth’ into a property of sentences. Even though there have been great developments in logic during the last 70 years and many, many discussions and disagreements about how ‘truth’ should be understood or explicated, the basic consensus is this: whatever else ‘truth’ is, it is indubitable that it is connected to linguistic utterances (whether such utterances are only sentences or they also include propositions expressed by sentences). To keep it very simple: truth is a linguistic property or is a predicate applicable to languages. With this idea even vaguely in place, we can say this much accurately: a Frankfurtian bullshitter is not concerned about speaking (or writing) true sentences. The truth-teller obviously is; the liar is concerned enough not to speak (or write) true sentences. The bullshitter does not care about truth or is not concerned to write or speak true sentences. Of course, the question is, ‘why’? Frankfurt seeks answers in the following concern of the individual: ‘to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way’. But this answer is exactly the malicious and dangerous kind of bullshit that he himself is against.

  1. Obviously, ‘shaping beliefs and attitudes of listeners’ is not a problem. If it is, education, growth and transmission of knowledge are not possible. That would deny, In one sense, the only goal of culture, civilization and education. Thus, the burden falls on the phrase: ‘in a certain way’. Which is that way? The Frankfurtian answer will have to go something like this: that way expresses an unconcern about speaking (or writing) true sentences. (To use a slogan, original to Feyearbend, but in its invariable but well-known deformation: ‘anything goes’.) What is wrong with this ‘way’? Keeping only the Franfurtian formulation in mind, consider situations of the following kind: (a) one speaks helpful and comforting words to a person in distress without being concerned about speaking true (or false) sentences; (b) a medical nurse speaks kind words in the children’s cancer ward to the child and/or to its parents without being concerned at all about speaking true or false sentences; (c) a person speaks sentences to a torturer that postpone torture without any regard to their truth or falsity; etc. You could multiply many such situations indefinitely, but the point is this: they are Frankfurtian bullshitters, yes, but what is wrong with it? Do not take the easily available ‘moral route’ to answer this question; before escaping there, consider two other kinds of situations.
  2. Imagine academic courses (leading to a degree at a university) in, say, sociology, anthropology or architecture. Let us say these deal with local societies, local cultures and city planning respectively. Let us also assume that this is a major course syllabus and that it counts for half the entire course. The course syllabus and the examination consists only of this: the telephone directory (of the city, of the region, of the nation). Each entry in that book is true; it is about people in the region; it contains true sentences about names, addresses and numbers. The teacher, who teaches you, is the opposite of the Frankfurtian bullshitter: he insists that you learn to speak only true sentences. Would you or would you not say that this is ‘bullshit’? Both the teacher and the university, you would say, are ‘bullshitters’. Expand this example further, modified in appropriate ways, to all the domains you can think of.

The second kind of example. Romila Thapar, a JNU historian, is well-known to most of you. A few years ago, in an article in the EPW (The Economic and Political Weekly), she wrote the following: “Historians of the 19th century may have been searching for “the truth” about the past, but we no longer do so.”

Very well. Since the article was written to exhibit my total lack of knowledge of history of any kind, but is done so with laudable decency because I was nowhere referred to, let me ask: If historians of today no longer search for ‘the truth’ about the past, what exactly do they search for, when they study history? ‘The Falsehood’ about the past? In that case, all modern historiography lies. Not of any kind, obviously, No, it tells only ‘the’ falsehood. If that is the case, why criticize the BJP historians for ‘lying’ about history? Surely, it cannot be because the BJP historians tell ‘small’ lies, whereas ‘scientific’ historiography, if it is to be worth the title of ‘science’, should seek and write only ‘the’ falsehood about the past. Because she speaks of ‘knowledge’ and not of ‘science’, one has to say: modern historians have ‘the’ knowledge that ‘knowledge’ about the past can only be ‘the Falsehood’. Therefore, ‘the falsehood’ should be sold as ‘knowledge’ and that is what historians do. Etc. Such consequences must be implied because she discourses further in the subsequent sentence about inaccessibility: “We cannot arrive at the ultimate truth of what is not fully accessible to us.” What exactly does ‘ultimate’ truth, or the ‘pen-ultimate’ truth, or the ‘nth member’ of truth mean? What does ‘full accessibility’ of anything in the world mean or even suggest? Do we have ‘full accessibility’ to a single sentence we compose, or to the Euclidian definition of a ‘circle’ or to that single line in a programing code that we write? Do we have ‘full access’ to that small quantity of oxygen that we inhale in a single breath or to that sip of water that we drink from a glass? How would we recognize ‘full’ access, if and when we get it? If we cannot, what does it mean to speak of ‘full access’, when we do not have a clue what that word could possibly mean?  May be, the past is not ‘fully accessible’ to us because that word, ‘full accessibility’, is nonsensical. Etc. (Her incoherent babbling is literally mind-numbing). This is unalloyed bullshit, one would say. Perhaps, that is why she is so well-known and so greatly respected by academic historians: bullshitters, obviously, do immensely respect fellow bullshitters.

  1. The previous point that brings bullshit in connection with knowledge suggests why ‘truth’ is an important ‘value’ in our case. In a cryptic, if in a rather familiar form: because knowledge is true, truth is valued. The ‘value’ of truth, here, is a derivative. Knowledge is ‘valued’ and because knowledge is truth, the latter is also ‘valued’. It is this connection that allows us to resonate with the quest for ‘knowledge’ or, often used as its synonym, ‘for truth’. This quest resonates deeply in both India and the West. We believe that when one seeks knowledge, one seeks truth. Or that if one seeks truth, one has to know. Ignorance never finds truth, but knowledge is always true. These common-sense formulations, which are very deeply alive in cultures, bind truth and knowledge together in a very tight way. The thought is millennia old: today we can be more subtle, more sophisticated in its formulation than when it is unreflectively spoken. However, the task at hand is not that.
  2. What happens when this idea of ‘knowledge’ gets trivialized? In the West, both Truth and Knowledge were primarily seen in terms of God: He was Knowledge and He was The Truth. Without going into how or why it happened, we need to notice where we are today. In the West, knowledge is ‘justified true belief’ (in its Anglo-Saxon formulation that the famous Gettier’s Paradox undercut). That is, knowledge is about belief (generally, about the world). In simpler terms: knowledge is a set of sentences. That set of sentences could be called a ‘theory’, or a ‘hypothesis’; it could be seen as an object of ‘belief’ or it could express ‘meaning’; or whatever else that sentences are supposed to do.

Historically, this move occurs first. That is, knowledge was first identified with sentences. Which ‘property’ makes sentences into knowledge? ‘Truth’, of course. As a result, knowledge begins to conceptually disappear, while remaining as a word-in-use (yet, it retains its intuitive connotations). Thus, truth of sentences acquire priority and ‘knowledge’ begins to become a derivative of the truth-property of sentences. Because not every sentence is knowledge and only true sentences could claim that status, and also because ‘knowledge’ cannot so easily disappear through fiats of whatever kind, some kinds of sentences end up becoming the best and the most prototypical exemplars of ‘truth’ and, therefore, ‘knowledge’. These are called ‘Facts’. Facts are True and fact is Knowledge. Fact vs Fiction is the fight between Truth and Falsity and between Knowledge and Ignorance and between Science and Religion and between Science and Superstition, and so on and so forth. Tarski’s notion of truth tried to tell us what ‘truth’ in sentences mean. Our incoherent jumble of common-sense ideas about science embody this situation: ‘Science is Knowledge’ means (a) science=the truth; (b) science=facts; (c) science=theory=a set of sentences=(relative) truth=knowledge. And so on and so forth. However, despite being abolished to the periphery, knowledge continues to grow: yes, science is knowledge but it is not a set of theories; experiment is an essential component of science and thus knowledge; science can be understood without any reference to the ‘truth’ of sentences; science does not seek truth nor should its descriptions be seen as true descriptions of the world; there are no ‘facts’ to function as the furniture of the world, and so on.

  1. Hopefully, this is sufficient to say that trivialization of knowledge involves seeing it as a set of true sentences. Then every true sentence, which is a fact by definition, becomes knowledge. A telephone directory, then, is one of the best exemplars of such ‘knowledge’. These ‘factoids’, as I call them, is modern day historiography (for example). A database (with all facts) together with the sorting criteria is the most ‘complete’ exemplification of what knowledge could possibly mean. Bullshit is this, fundamentally: trivialization of knowledge. This trivialization takes the following form: a collation of factoids connected randomly to each other is sold as knowledge today. Because it is basically the sale of a fake product, different people use different techniques to con people: one uses Foucault and Marx; the other appeals to Derrida; the third seeks game and choice theories; the fourth combines some literary theory with post-colonialism; the fifth cites Shankara and Allama; and so on and so forth. This is exactly what Frankfurt does: Trump is a bullshitter (and, of course, a liar) because he is not concerned about speaking ‘true’ sentences. How could Frankfurt and his ilk even know what Trump’s concerns are, when they do not even know why they themselves present these four words, ‘in a certain way’, (which is a ‘fact’) as knowledge?

Most of us on this board have no knowledge of what science is, what knowledge is, what truth is, and so on. Many of us who hold forth on ‘science’ and ‘knowledge’ on this board have not done even a basic reading of the literature that has tried to do research on these issues. Yet, they have no problems in criticizing ‘science’, ‘knowledge’, etc. and present their writings as ‘knowledge’. Many of us have little or no understanding of ‘adhyatma’ or of Christianity; yet, some from among these, while expressing ‘deep modesty’, have no compunctions in writing ‘learned’ pieces that present rubbish (that are not even factoids) as knowledge. This is bullshit, as I use the word. It trivializes both knowledge and truth. It parasites upon the desire (present in everyone on this board) to acquire knowledge and gifts rubbish and trash as knowledge. To such people, my most sincere request: please do not do this. You might have no idea how pernicious and poisonous this bullshit is. In that case, please trust me: it tortures the living before it kills them.

However, this does not mean that you cannot write till ‘you know’. If you seek knowledge, you have to ask questions; you have to formulate hypotheses; you have to be wrong; you have to make mistakes, etc. It does not mean that you have to ‘read everything’ before you write: knowledge will not be yours just because you have read. (If that were to be the case, reading the Buddha or the Gita should enlighten you). However, when you say that this shows (or proves or demonstrates) that ‘theory’ alone is not knowledge (or that ‘theory’ or ‘science’ is not ‘knowledge’) and that you seek ‘non-theoretical’ knowledge, then you are bullshitting. To you, knowledge has become a mere word. In that case, do not seek it (you will also not get it) because you will not be able to recognize knowledge when you ‘find’ it.

In the deepest sense I know, Matthew (7:7) was right when he so beautifully said: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you”. The only questions you need to ask yourselves are these: ask ‘what’; seek ‘what’; knock ‘where’?

To us heathens, the questions suggested by the Gospel are very important. We know the answers of the Evangelists; what are our heathen answers to these profound, Christian questions? The absolute precondition even to begin finding an answer is this today: stop bullshitting.

II. Indian ‘words’ or Indian roots

A comment: Unfortunately, I find the introduction of the word “bullshit” into intellectual discourse to be far more disgusting than the use of the American term “takeaway.” I cannot stop cringing.  “Bakwas” would have been so much better. A golden opportunity has been squandered to elevate “bakwas” to serve a higher intellectual purpose than it normally does.

Your comments on ‘bullshit’ and ‘bakwas’ make for a very, very interesting reading. They are far more thought-provoking than might appear at first sight. You speak of ‘disgust’, ‘cringing’ and ‘squandering a golden opportunity’. The focus is on these three.

  1. To begin with a minor autobiographical point. As a South Indian, I learnt of ‘bakwas’ only through Hindi films. Consequently, its connotations are tied to their use in the situations portrayed in such films. The associations are all with speech (and derivatively with writing): nonsense, insane (related to some uses of ‘paagal’), inane, outrageous, downright wrong, deliberate lies, etc. I have no idea whether one could be a ‘bakwasi’ (?) in the sense of being a ‘bullshitter’. However, I learnt the use of the English word after leaving home and was taught to speak ‘convent English’ (as we called it those days) by those educated in such schools. In this sense, the word became a part of speaking ‘sophisticated English’, a desirable version of the ‘Kannada-English’ that I knew before living in the Bangalore cantonment that was far, far removed from the Brahmin Basavanagudi area. Thus, intuitively, ‘bullshit’ connoted many more things than ‘bakwas’ did and its use was also an expression of ‘sophistication’. Until I heard Akeel relate these two words, it had never occurred to me that they could be translations. Visually, the sentence ‘bakwas mat karo’ or ‘ye to bakwas hai’  generated an imagery of people ‘barking’ (‘bogalu’, as we call it in Kannada). Akeel’s reference to Frankfurt and the later reading that accompanied it added intellectual depth because it became obvious that the English word (a) had a clear technical meaning; (b) picked out a social and cultural phenomenon of great importance; (c) indicated that there was something pernicious and insidious about that phenomenon; (d) identified something that one should ‘fight’ against. The Hindi word lacked this depth and specificity. Today, as I use the word, more is added. One of that ‘more’, which I will soon talk about, identifies much more precisely the ‘disgust’ that you talk about.
  2. Consider the following thought, which might help you put your sense of disgust into productive use. The excrement of the bull is not only natural but it is also an indication of the health of the animal. It is an essential and vital part of living. As a natural fertiliser, it is also productive if used on earth. However, when it is brought into an arena where it should not be present, it becomes ‘filth’. Then, it generates disgust. The question now is this: which is that arena in our case? You identify it as the realm of intellectual discourse. Very well. Why should the use of this word generate disgust, when used in intellectual discourse?

One route is to assume as true that the disgust is generated by the word itself (in some fashion or another). That is, the use of the word in a specific kind of situation generates the feeling of disgust. When pressed, there are not many options open to explicate this sense further: one can only appeal to some idea of appropriateness.

Let us try out this possible scenario (something that a philosophy professor at EFLU, Hyderabad, in response to my repeated use of the word ‘bullshit’ in my talk, enacted in an international conference there in 2015). Disgusted or enraged or both by the use of this word, he wanted to know the reasons for its use in the conference. He compared it to how some or another artist (or writer) used the word ‘fuck’ in public talks about art. That person, apparently, explained its use in terms of some kind of ‘resistance’ (against ‘establishment’ or ‘elitism’ or something like that). My recollection of this event is not accurate, but it was clear that he felt that what I did was somehow ‘inappropriate’ and simply ‘not on’. The only way I could understand our further ‘discussion’ on the topic is this: this man felt that I was violating intellectual decorum (of sorts) by bringing ‘slang’ into academic discourse. Expressions of ‘vulgarity’ (in the presence of ‘genteel folks’) could be ‘defensible’, if seen as an expression of resistance by the ‘democratic masses’ against the ‘elites’. (Hence his reference to why the word ‘fuck’ was used.) Otherwise, it is not. Elements in this situation: this man is ‘civilized’ and ‘cultivated’ (belongs to the ‘genteel folk’ or the ‘nobility’, perhaps); this state involves using ‘respectable’ phrases; ‘slang’ is how ‘the vulgar’ speak; their speech (and their choice of words) express their lowly status (either ‘ignorance’ or ‘lack of cultivation’ or both); belonging to the ‘nobility’ includes ‘delicately shuddering’ at such expressions of ‘vulgarity’: Additionally, this man belongs to that very small group of ‘exceptional’ people: the ‘enlightened’ nobility that ‘understands’ (and even ‘sympathizes’) with the ‘justified resistance’ of the ‘masses’ (read: ‘the commoner’) against the ‘pompous elite’. Whew!

  1. If you do not want to tread this route, re-examine the assumption we began with, namely, the use of the word in intellectual discourse is generating disgust. Consider, instead, the following: in Indian traditions, knowledge is ‘pavitra’ (let us use ‘sacred’ and associated words as English equivalents, for the time being). It is sacrilegious to bring the profane into this domain. This domain of knowledge (gyaana, vidya, or whatever) is the abode of Saraswathi. When what does not belong to this domain enters it, the ‘paavitrya’ of the domain is damaged. The entrant becomes the ‘a-pavitra’ in that domain and pollutes it. How can anything enter a domain, unless it is a member of that domain? It cannot. If anything enters a set, group or a domain, it becomes a member of that domain. It becomes a member because it has properties that qualifies it to become one.

Now, consider the possibility of ‘fake’ memberships. Things not belonging to a domain become members of that domain because the property they ‘show’ to become members of that domain are not genuine but fake. Because we are not talking about someone ‘wrongly’ or ‘mistakenly’ construing an item as a member of a set but about ‘fakes’, we are talking about dissimulation, cheating, forgery, deceit and such like. The item in discussion, in and of itself, is not a ‘fake’; as an item, it is also a member of some domain or another. However, in this particular domain, it is a fake member.

‘Facts’, ‘true sentences’ and such like are genuine and authentic members of multiple domains. However, what if these are fake-members in the domain of knowledge? (We have any number of reasons to believe in this possibility and very few to doubt it.) When such fake members are deliberately introduced as members of the domain of knowledge, is there not deceit at work here? When intellectuals do this, are they not dissimulating? What kind of a phenomenon is it, when something that is not and cannot be knowledge is presented and sold as knowledge?

The ‘Paavitrya’ of Knowledge is deliberately damaged. Saraswathi is knowingly, violently and forcibly raped. What else can you feel except disgust and rage at the ‘filth’ that does this?

The disgust that you feel can be put into productive use, if you are able to see that what you feel might have deeper roots in the Indian attitudes towards Gyaana than it has in some idea of intellectual decorum. You can choose either the way of this EFLU professor or choose to retain the disgust but give it a proper focus. In some senses, I am very glad that the word ‘bullshit’ generates disgust and makes you cringe. Please retain both. The situation justifies both. Hence also my rage and pain.

Thus, the question we began with, namely, ‘why should the use of this word generate disgust, when used in intellectual discourse?’ gets answered. Intellectual discourse produces (and should produce) knowledge. When that is prevented and the ‘fake’ takes its place, disgust is inevitable. ‘Filth’ in intellectual discourse violates the purity of the domain. Hence the disgust.

  1. ‘Bakwas’, as I understand the word, cannot generate any of these feelings. Irritation, mild anger, frustration, etc. are hardly the right feelings to have towards the situation talked about. The bullshitters are rapists; bullshit is rape that violates the sacredness of the knowledge domain. In the same way rape can never be unintended, neither can bullshit be. ‘Bakwas bolna’ is often innocent, harmless, wrong and is a result of ignorance. The harmful effects of Bakwas, often, have little to do with the nature of ‘bakwas’ but more with the person and his goals. Therefore, I cannot believe that a golden opportunity has been squandered by not using ‘bakwas’ as an alternative to ‘bullshit’.

In a peculiar sense of the word, you can choose two ways of being ‘an Indian’. One way, useful at times, is to seek ‘Indian’ words for English ones and thus ‘upgrade’ their status. In so doing, one might or might not elevate ‘Indianness’. The second way, also useful at times, is to interrogate one’s responses and try to seek their Indian roots. This would help one understand that such feelings are reasonable too: not because some western decorum and ‘manners’ has been learnt well but because they have very good foundations and are very deeply grounded in nourishing and life sustaining mother’s milk and in grandmother’s kind and loving admonishments.

III. How to stop bullshitting?

A comment: How one can refrain from bullshitting when one is living in an environment that generates either that or trivia. Indeed, I have no clear idea of the social and cultural life in America. My impressions are limited to seeing its effects on some types of intellectuals living there, the language of those enamored (directly or indirectly) by the US and its impact on some parts of the world, including Europe. These make it impossible to respond to you in any adequate fashion. Therefore, only a general and abstract heuristic that one could try to use anywhere can be offered. Here it is: when something in the world strikes you or draws your attention (whether that something is about yourself or about other human beings or whatever), try to describe and think about it in a way that can be improved upon either by you or by others. When those are your impressions, feelings, thoughts, opinions, etc., try not to use these words as ‘hedges’. (They function as hedges when (implicitly) they justify your ‘human right’ to say or write such things: it is ‘my experience’; this is ‘how I feel’; in ‘my humble opinion’; etc. signal that you are probably hedging.) Unless impossible, build ‘improvability’ into whatever you say or write. (When discussions of your formulations lead to better ones, either in the sense of helping build alternatives or in the sense of suggesting modifications, there is ‘improvability’.) When the only way to do that it is by showing inconsistencies or falsities, know too that what you have said could not have been any kind of explanation or any kind of knowledge. If, instead, the discussion helps generate an alternative, you can be sure that you are not bullshitting.  This a rule of thumb and not a mechanical or infallible rule of any kind. Like all heuristics of this kind, it works only at certain times and in certain circumstances. In one sense, you can put it in this simple way: think before you write or speak. Do not seek anything other than understanding, when you write or speak. Try not to show your ‘learning’, your ‘intelligence’, your ‘originality’ or your ‘knowledge’ etc. in what you write or speak. When you speak or write only because you seek (and want) to know, the probability that you could be bullshitting is very low.

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  • Arun

    Imagine I go to Ikea and buy some furniture that needs assembly; and when I open the box at home, I find that the assembly instructions and diagrams have been produced by a bullshitter.

    Now imagine, in the realm of politics which attracts bullshitters like bullshit attracts flies, say, the activities of my town council, and they are trying to come to some decision, say, whether to spray a certain insecticide in the town to curb mosquitos carrying the West Nile virus. We all have to consider the possible cost – the side effects of the insecticide in wiping out beneficial insects, for instance; versus the benefit; how lasting are the benefits? How soon will mosquitos return from the neighboring towns, or does there need to be a coordinated program? and so on. Imagine now we have only bullshit. How can we come to a wise decision?

    Whether knowledge and truth are only dimly reflected in true sentences, or whether true sentences are our only approach to knowledge is a bit irrelevant in this situation. If there is pure bullshit, the town council and town can’t operate properly.

    Normally, there would be some bullshit in the situation described above, but it is possible for people to sift through it and discard the bullshit.

    What happens when bullshit and the habit of it have risen to such a level that people, on the whole, can no longer discern bullshit from non-bullshit? When the more thoughtful and knowledgeable who can shovel aside mounds of bullshit are no longer trusted or even given a hearing, because the bullshitters have bullshit that trust out of the people? What happens to such a society?

    I think that is what we’re witnessing in the US of A. It didn’t start with Trump, it culminates with him. Years of talk radio, Murdoch media and such have overwhelmed the country with bullshit so that people don’t know between bullshit and not any more.