Why is there so much bullshit? Of course it is impossible to be sure
that there is relatively more of it nowadays than at other times.
There is more communication of all kinds in our time than ever before,
but the proportion that is bullshit may not have increased. Without
assuming that the incidence of bullshit is actually greater now, I
will mention a few considerations that help to account for the fact
that it is currently so great.
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk
without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of
bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or
opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his
knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This
discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently
impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of
others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some
degree ignorant. Closely related instances arise from the widespread
conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy
to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that
pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs. The lack of any
significant connection between a person’s opinions and his
apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for
someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral
agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.
The contemporary proliferation of bullshit also has deeper sources, in
various forms of skepticism which deny that we can have any reliable
access to an objective reality and which therefore reject the
possibility of knowing how things truly are. These “anti-realist”
doctrines undermine confidence in the value of disinterested efforts
to determine what is true and what is false, and even in the
intelligibility of the notion of objective inquiry. One response to
this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline
required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite
different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an
alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to
arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual
turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.
Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to
identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true
to his own nature. It is as though he decides that since it makes no
sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to
be true to himself.
But it is preposterous to imagine that we ourselves are determinate,
and hence susceptible both to correct and to incorrect descriptions,
while supposing that the ascription of determinacy to anything else
has been exposed as a mistake. As conscious beings, we exist only in
response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without
knowing them. Moreover, there is nothing in theory, and certainly
nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it
is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.
Facts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to
skeptical dissolution. Our natures are, indeed, elusively
insubstantial — notoriously less stable and less inherent than the
natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity
itself is bullshit.
Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press, pp. 62-67