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#22: On Bullsh*t & Sophistry
continues the investigation begun in
#9: Philosophy Weeps.
On Bullshit & Sophistry
reflections upon a notorious book
and a missed opportunity
On Bullshit & Sophistry

Aficionados of the outré will remember 2005 as the year a distinguished professor at an Ivy League university authored a sliver of a book titled “On Bullsh*t” (but without the asterisk). People winced and tittered. Reviewers scrambled to find clever ways of exploiting this use of a naughty word, and to show their immense worldliness, and per usual to slap around the bourgeoisie. Well, no bull, this book puts me in an uncomfortable situation. The famous professor taught at Princeton. I went there. I’d like to be a loyal alumnus. Sadly, I don’t have too many compliments to offer about “On Bullsh*t.” More crucially, I am disappointed that Professor Harry Frankfurt did not write about something worthy of his intellect, namely sophistry, which might be roughly defined as bullsh*t when it shifts into high gear.
Let me give you a sense of the book by telling you about the often-entertaining comments left on The critics typically had strong opinions, and broke 75 in favor, 60 against (I’m ignoring a small number of muddled comments). The negative reviews were uniformly brutal: “Waste of time!” The positive reviews were more varied. Many said the book was a clever academic joke and if you too are clever, you’ll join in the fun. Isn’t that pretentious? The others were even more unsettling (to me). They said this was philosophy, deep and serious. Sure, it’s philosophy. Some interesting points are made. But deep and serious?

Honestly, I might not be smart enough to debate the book’s airier pensees. I’ll just record my primal reaction. The professor goes 67 pages and never manages to confront what is surely the obvious center of all bullsh*t: excess. In the majority of cases, the excess is simple exaggeration (tending toward dishonesty) as when somebody says, “I’ve got a lover in every major city on this planet.” The conversation might continue:
“What bullsh*t! Not counting Newark, you haven’t been in any of the major cities.”
“You forget I was in the Peace Corps? I’ve traveled.”
“Still sounds like bullsh*t to me. Name these major cities.”
“Cairo. Istanbul. Athens. A lot of them.”
“So what are we talking about here? Pen pals?”
“Bullsh*t. I said lovers.”
“You said every major city. I heard three. You actually know anybody in these places? Now?”
“Okay, I once had a lover. No bullsh*t. And Paris! That’s four.”
Point is, people posture, brag, joke. We know it when we hear it, and we pounce on it. We haggle and subtract and sometimes wager. Finally we close in on the truth. Every discussion is different, depending on the speaker, the claims, the audience, the motivations, the amount of alcohol, etc. But the underlying motif is that somebody exceeds the truth.

Most other cases involve somebody exceeding what is reasonable. Typically, a boss requires you to work over the weekend; or a cop won’t let you park where you want to. The generic response is: “That’s bullsh*t!” The speaker is saying that a reasonable person would not interpret the rules in that expansive way, or extend what might be a fair request until it becomes an unreasonable request. (Many Amazon reviewers said that “On Bullsh*t” is itself bullsh*t. They were saying that this tiny tome exceeds--falls outside of--those things that can reasonably be called works of philosophy, objects worth $10, or items that should be published by a university press.)

Here’s a thought. The professor writes about bullsh*t the way a moral man might write about sin. He’s sort of removed from it and handles it with long forceps. I don’t think he mentions the words excess, exaggeration or unreasonable, and thus misses the essence of the matter. Further, when bullsh*t is really ingenious, it’s more correctly called sophistry--another word he never mentions. I believe I detect a class thing here. Bullsh*t is what ordinary people do. Naturally a professor from an elite university would feel comfortable looking down at this foolish behavior and dissecting it with a sharp scalpel. Sophistry, on the other hand, is what intellectuals excel at. Had the professor sliced into this big cancerous mess, he might injure some colleagues.

So, my lament is not that our professor made a lot of money with a slim, overpriced essay. No, I’m unhappy because the professor--with his tenure and prestige--wasted an opportunity. He should have investigated what is really a dangerous epidemic in our society. Namely, sophistry. Today, Shakespeare would recommend: “First, let’s kill all the sophists!” Herewith a quick sketch of what I wish the professor had written about:

The simplest definition of sophistry is: arguing to win. Saying anything to make the other person seem foolish and yourself wise. Saying anything to persuade or deceive. Sophistry, at the highest level, sounds as if it might be true, unlike bullsh*t, which sounds as if it might be untrue.

Lawyers in court, unfortunately, are too often a case of sophists wrestling. I don’t want this article to be one long lawyer joke, but it’s fair to say that lawyering and sophistry can be synonymous.

Sophistry is also very close to salesmanship. When land under water is said to have beautiful river views, that’s sophistry. Note that it’s true. You will surely have great river views all year long.

Sometimes it seems to me that way too much of what is produced in our media is naught but sophistry. Ditto, alas, in our universities. Here’s what they ought to be doing in college classes--examining the major isms and alleged profundities of the last 50 years. Delve deeply and you’ll often find the squish of decay. Half the ultimate truths taught when I was at Princeton now seem to me empty wisps of sophistry. (#9: Philosophy Weeps is about these.) Good sophistries are a lot like Turk, that chess-playing machine which defeated Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. Geniuses both, defeated by a hoax. And so are we all, every day, defeated by the hoax of sophistry.

For my money sophistry is twice as interesting as bullsh*t and much more deadly. People often say that Bill Clinton is a great liar. I think it’s truer to say he’s a great sophist. Smart guys, especially lawyers, don’t lie when they can drop sophistical goo into the gears of a discussion. Let me switch metaphors and state: sophistry is best described as a toxin; it paralyzes thought. Which is why I say, talk about sophistry in our schools, early and often. Give children a chance to defend themselves.

Zeno invented his great paradox to make a point. Namely, that a clever sophist could prove ANY thing. Look, he said, here’s irrefutable proof that a fast runner can never catch up with a tortoise. Taken on its own terms, the argument is flawless; and that is why it still fascinates mathematicians 25 centuries later. To run from A to B (where the tortoise is), you first have to go halfway. Obviously. Then you have to go half the remaining distance. Then half the remaining distance. Then half the remaining distance. And so on forever. Ergo, you never reach B. Is that pretty or what? Death by infinite regress.

Tortoises Always Win
Remarkably, Derrida pulls the same stunt in his sophistry called Look, ma, no truth. The Frenchman argued that to know what a statement means, you need a definition of each word in the statement. But to know what each definition means, you need a definition of each word in the definitions. And so on forever. And therefore, said the sophist, we can never know what any statement means. This fluff was broadcast to the world with headlines: Truth is impossible. In the real world, each new set of definitions serves to bracket truth ever tighter. Furthermore, human life rarely consists of perfect truths. It consists of working definitions and knowing enough (what might be called operational certainty) to keep forging ahead.

Relativity and uncertainty, abstruse concepts from theoretical physics, have been dragged into philosophy to prove that Truth is impossible. Academia is full of people asserting that objectivity is impossible, and that no statement can be labeled true or false. Really? I say that’s nonsense. Think back over your day so far. You got up at a certain location, did certain things (but not others), reached the next location by certain streets and certain modes of transportation. Thousands of facts. All of life and history are like that. Facts, facts and more facts. That we can’t recall or prove a fact in court does not mean the fact does not exist. That we can’t pinpoint the exact second you arrived at the last location does not prove you didn’t arrive. But sophists will say so. Even though you are now there.

I track sophistries the way some people track hopelessly bonkered celebrities. Hear about X? Rehab again! Let me mention a few of my favorites:

The Menendez brothers, having murdered their parents, pleaded for clemency on the grounds they were orphans. Most people, hearing this the first time, laugh deeply and loudly. But this is wonderful stuff and deserves greater reverence. The brothers, you see, are telling the truth. They are orphans. Never mind how they got there. They are forever without the companionship and support of their wonderful parents, etc., etc. It’s so sad.

The US Constitution mentions capital punishment or capital crimes (meaning “off with their heads”) in several places. Capital punishment was, in other words, commonplace; it was routine; it was usual. When the Constitution speaks of cruel and unusual punishment, it refers to torture and exotic ways to make people suffer (i.e., feel pain over time). Capital punishment (by firing squad or guillotine, for example) was not considered cruel because death was instantaneous. But ACLU lawyers argued a brazen piece of sophistry. Capital punishment, they said, is cruel and unusual punishment. Even though all of them knew that their suit was prima facie a non-suit.

More recently, the New York Times, by the simple device of redefining a word, alleged, in at least a million stories, that the US government commits torture every minute of the day. The whole world defines torture this way: extreme suffering. Blood is almost mandatory, as are broken bones or at least broken skin. I read a hundred stories and saw hardly a reference to injury or physical pain. What the Times did was to redefine the relationship between prisoners and jailers: if a prisoner is uncomfortable, that’s torture. Aren’t prisoners usually uncomfortable? If you go with the Times, you will have to outlaw most police interrogation. So long Good Cop, Bad Cop. Indeed, imprisonment itself can obviously be described as torture. (I would certainly find it so!) Everybody can go home.

Communism always presumed to speak for the Masses, the People, the Workers. Funny thing. More than anyone else, the Workers in this country rejected Communism. What to do? The Party’s big thinkers came up with the phrase “false consciousness.” It’s so delicious. Roll it around. Translation: if you don’t agree with us, you’re crazy. (The theories aren’t false. You are false.)

For a tribute to Rudolph Flesch, I have been studying the history of look-say. Briefly put, this silly thing was a monstrous sophistry. Experts said, deaf people and mentally handicapped people learn better with pictures and sight words. Okay, but so what? Other experts said, skilled readers gobble up whole words and phrases. Okay, but so what? The sophistry occurred when they took research on handicapped people and experienced people and said, well, that’s how you should teach a normal child! As though the things a NASCAR driver does at 200 MPH have even the slightest relevance to teaching a teenager to drive.

My theme here is that sophistry is intellectually fascinating, and lethal. You need skill and even genius to make the stuff. And to defend yourself against it. Sophistry is close to art. At its best, sophistry is not easily recognized as what it is. It is not easily refuted. Sophistry tells us that tortoises always win! They do. I can prove it. And that’s no bull.


The Flesch tribute mentioned above became Article #21.
Essay #9 deals with academic sophistry,
as does, in a very different way, #14: Theoryland--
"If only! From teeny, tiny sophistries,
I could grow gigantic mysteries."

"On Bullshit" was published by the Princeton University Press


© Bruce Deitrick Price 2011