This essay appears in our special web symposium on bullshit. Read the rest of the bullshit symposium: David Egan on calling bullshit and Gal Katz on his chronic bullshit anxiety.
“One of the most salient features of our culture,” writes philosopher Harry Frankfurt in the opening line of his essay “On Bullshit,” “is that there is so much bullshit.” Because bullshit is almost everywhere, we assume we know how to recognize it and thus what it is. According to Frankfurt, however, few of us actually do. What we need (and what he gamely offers) is a theory of bullshit. Although most of us would agree that both bullshit and the outright lie are modes of misrepresentation, there exists a key difference between the two. Neither the bullshitter nor the liar can be relied upon to tell the truth. But in order to lie, the liar must first believe that she knows the truth; only then can she persuade her audience of what she knows to be untrue. The bullshitter, on the other hand, maintains no relationship at all with the truth: it is irrelevant to the bullshitter whether what she says is true or false, and what she is guilty of misrepresenting is precisely her concern for the distinction between the two. The epistemological indeterminacy under which bullshit is produced is, Frankfurt argues, what really characterizes bullshit as such.
If a high volume of bullshit is a mark of our culture, then “bullshitting a paper,” as anyone who has attended high school or college can attest (me included), must be one of the preeminent rites of passage in our educational system. I was already well into my compositional career when I came across Frankfurt, but as I thought back to all the bullshit I had heard about, witnessed in action, and been personally responsible for, I realized that Frankfurt’s theory was significant for academia as well. A bullshit paper intends to misrepresent, but not in the way a report sponsored by a cigarette manufacturer claims that nicotine is harmless or an embellished resume claims that I can speak fluent Russian. The bullshit paper does not misrepresent its topic; rather, it misrepresents its author. The bullshitter’s aim is not to convince her audience of anything in particular, but merely to convince them that she is saying something in particular.
That the humanities are especially hospitable to this kind of bullshit is the source of a complaint I first remember being voiced by a friend who had decided to major in computer science. He loved novels and had taken a number of literature classes, but he had found them frustrating because, it seemed to him, “you could write whatever you wanted in papers and still get an A.” He had nothing against literature on the whole, he assured me, but he preferred majoring in a discipline where the standards for genuine achievement were clear. It is a grievance I’ve heard all too often since then. What is usually considered one of the humanities’ greatest strengths—the tolerance, even encouragement, of a multiplicity of responses to a single question—can easily become their undoing. How do we evaluate these responses? If there is no one right response, who’s to say that any given response is wrong? When we say, as we commonly do, that the humanities are “subjective,” we leave ourselves vulnerable to a constant and gnawing doubt: How can we be sure that our work isn’t bullshit?
The humanities, as we all know, are in crisis. Federal funding has dried up and enrollment is on a steady decline; departments are being slashed; adjuncts labor at less than a living wage in hopes of clinging on to the periphery of academe. In response, politicians have called for redoubled investment in math and science, touting enrollment in business, computer-science and engineering as the solution. All the while, critics demand to know how studying Confucius could be more important than learning how to balance a checkbook.
According to this view, the humanities are a bad bet because they’re frivolous, impractical, self-indulgent. But this objection—the predominant one among politicians and other outside judges of the humanities—may well be related a yet more fundamental one, which is internal to the humanities themselves. The humanities, as we are constantly reminded, are “subjective”—so subjective, in fact, that the contributions of self-proclaimed fakes find company with those of chaired professors. This is a complaint we hear not only from disaffected undergraduates but, even more damningly, from other humanists: we need only to look to the recent “Grievance Studies” hoax, in which a team of humanists wrote and submitted twenty spoof articles to top journals in their own field (seven were accepted and seven more were still under review as the team was detailing their findings). If for the liar, according to Frankfurt, “there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable,” the hoax once again made explicit the challenge of deciding good from bad work in a field where there are no determinate facts. The fact that so many of the parodic articles had been accepted by academic journals, said the political scientist Yascha Mounk on Twitter, revealed that many humanists cannot tell the difference between serious scholarship and “bullshit.”
Before “Grievance Studies” (which Mounk has dubbed “Sokal Squared”), there was the 1996 Sokal hoax, in which physicist Alan Sokal set out to show that scholarly legitimacy in some “fashionable sectors of the American academic Left,” concentrated mostly in the humanities, had been overtaken by arguments from authority and homage to trendy buzzwords and theories. To prove his point, Sokal wrote and submitted to Social Text, a journal of postmodern cultural studies, a parody article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” His premise: there was no such thing as a “transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity”—which he knew because he’d made it up—and if Social Text happened to publish the article anyway, the academic community would see just how fraudulent scholarship in the humanities had become.
Social Text fell for it. After “Transgressing the Boundaries” came out in print, Sokal confessed to the hoax in a separate journal, declaring that his article was nothing but “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense.” In “Transgressing the Boundaries,” which argues that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct, Sokal denies science’s claim to objective truth (left-wing cant), invokes Deleuze and Derrida (fawning references), and cites Lacan’s claim that the human psyche can be modeled by a Möbius strip (grandiose quotations). Most importantly for our purposes, though, the article succeeds as a caricature, offering a ready example of what we talk about when we talk about bullshit:
One characteristic of the emerging postmodern science is its stress on nonlinearity and discontinuity: this is evident, for example, in chaos theory and the theory of phase transitions as well as in quantum gravity. At the same time, feminist thinkers have pointed out the need for an adequate analysis of fluidity, in particular turbulent fluidity. These two themes are not as contradictory as it might at first appear: turbulence connects with strong nonlinearity, and smoothness/fluidity is sometimes associated with discontinuity (e.g. in catastrophe theory); so a synthesis is by no means out of the question.
One popular answer to the question of what makes bullshit bullshit is gratuitous jargon. What is the “theory of phase transitions”? Or “turbulent fluidity”? “Nonlinearity”? “Discontinuity”? The best defense, the bullshitter knows, is a good offense, and she flashes complex terminology in order to mask her own ignorance. But does this answer really grasp what’s essential to bullshit—or jargon, for that matter? If I flipped to a random page in a middle-school biology textbook I could read about “heterotrophism” or “anaerobic respiration” or “independent assortment”; in a math textbook I could find sections on “prime factorization” or the “multiplicative inverse.” Yet few call bullshit on math or biology, even though journal articles in these fields are often packed more densely with jargon than Sokal’s parody article.
Besides, we call bullshit even on texts with relatively simple wording. Take for example one passage from Heidegger’s essay “What Is Metaphysics?”:
Where shall we seek the nothing? Where will we find the nothing? In order to find something must we not already know in general that it is there? Indeed! At first and for the most part man can seek only when he has anticipated the being at hand of what he is looking for. Now the nothing is what we are seeking.
None of the terms in the passage would be unfamiliar to the average middle-schooler. Nevertheless, Heidegger’s contemporary Rudolf Carnap descended hungrily upon this passage in his critique of metaphysical writing, arguing that Heidegger’s terms were “meaningless,” his statements “pseudo-statements,” and his pretensions to philosophy better suited to a creative medium like poetry. But if the presence of jargon does not guarantee that something is bullshit and the absence of jargon does not preclude it, then jargon alone cannot explain what makes bullshit objectionable—or indeed what makes it bullshit.
Carnap, however, had a larger point to make. In denouncing Heidegger and other metaphysicians, he argues that there exist certain “words without meaning”—words that philosophers have been perplexing themselves over for millennia without realizing that they do not refer to anything at all: “the Absolute,” “the Infinite,” “non-being,” “essence,” and Heidegger’s “nothing.” Statements in which these words appear cannot be judged true or false, Carnap says, because they lack determinate referents and therefore do not claim anything at all. Might this be an adequate criterion for judging bullshit? It is “not just false,” as Sokal writes of his use of technical language in Fashionable Nonsense (his book-length follow-up to the Sokal hoax), “it is gibberish.” The trouble with the phrase “turbulent fluidity,” Sokal might say, isn’t that it means the wrong thing, but that he doesn’t know what he means by it. And if he doesn’t have to commit to a certain meaning, his work is above reproach: any attempt at criticism can be brushed off as the critic’s failure to grasp what he is really trying to say.
The problem with this approach to defining bullshit is that humanists often disagree about which words have determinate referents, and even about the acceptable threshold for terminological vagueness. To a Hegelian, for example, it is indeed possible to have serious discussions about “the Absolute”—the term refers to a specific concept within Hegel’s philosophy, and one can distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate uses of it. But Hegel, while a cornerstone of philosophy departments in continental Europe, is systematically passed over in Anglophone ones (my undergraduate institution offers one class on Hegel every two years in the religion department). To a philosopher working in the latter tradition, a discourse on “the Absolute” is utterly meaningless, and Hegel and his exegetes complicit in an industry of what Sokal denounces as “superficial erudition.”
The notion of erudition unmerited—erudition that is no more than superficial—is what lies at the heart of bullshit. This is what makes the problem of bullshit a psychological and sociological question as well as a linguistic and philosophical one. Only great work, we believe, deserves our consideration and praise, and great work in any field presupposes great skill and great effort. Accusations of bullshit, therefore, call into question the existence of a hierarchy of expertise: is there any difference, in the humanities, between being an amateur and being an expert?
What does it mean to study the humanities? If you, like me, were educated in the American public-school system, you were probably treated early on to a version of the claim that “the wonderful thing about literature is that there can be many right answers!” If you had art or music or drama classes, you were graded based on participation. Perhaps later, in middle school, you came across a more sophisticated formulation of the difference between the sciences and the humanities, something like, “The sciences study the world outside us and the humanities study the world within us.” But the human condition can’t be quantified. What metric can tell us if Raphael or Michelangelo is the better painter? How do you calculate the effect of a poem?
Your high school English teacher asked you for your interpretation—or if the class was feeling collegiate, your “reading”—of a passage. In fact, your English class abounded with interpretations, and if you had a string of especially uninspired experiences you might have concluded that literature consisted of nothing more than extracting as many interpretations from a text as possible. (There’s a satirical internet meme that goes “‘The curtains were blue.’ What your teacher thinks: ‘The curtains represent his immense depression and his lack of will to carry on.’ What the author meant: ‘The curtains were fucking blue.’”) At the same time, you were writing essays and short responses, hundreds of them, from book reports to historical analyses. And you were realizing that “many right answers” might actually mean “no wrong answers.” Your teachers were now telling you that it didn’t matter what your thesis was as long as you defended it well. You learned how to find reputable sources, to organize your argument persuasively, to cite and then refute opposing viewpoints. At some point in your writerly development you grew conscious of your ability to argue persuasively as a form of knowledge in itself. After all, until very recently the SAT writing section featured an essay prompt with which it was equally possible to agree and disagree. The side you chose, multiple practice books assured you, made absolutely no difference; the College Board simply wanted to test you on how well you could justify your position with critical reasoning.
One might find a more regimented vision of humanistic study at the university level, but there a different foe rears its head: if the purpose of a university education is to prepare young people for their careers (the argument from practicality), then the university should teach employable skills. Understandably, a number of humanistic commentators have worked to turn this argument back upon itself. The value of a humanistic education—or liberal-arts education in general—is precisely that it isn’t directly practical, they contend. Rather what the humanities cultivate is “critical reasoning,” that mystical and omnipotent faculty that gives rise to all our applied abilities. In our globalized economy, the comparative-literature major who understands the cultural and historical forces driving a particular foreign market as well as the classics major who writes clearly and convincingly thanks to her training in textual analysis have immense advantages over their business- and science-major peers. Anyone, anytime can learn how to make a spreadsheet or use a pipette; it is in unquantifiable skills that we need special instruction. In an elegant twist, the humanities actually turn out indirectly to be the most practical choice because the knowledge they impart is lifelong and universal.
But if this defense is meant to save the humanities from their critics, its means are quietly subverting its ends. What we suggest when we invoke it is that the humanities have a form but no content, that their value lies not in what they can teach us about art or religion or philosophy itself but in how a distilled understanding thereof will enable us to achieve our immediate goals. An education in the humanities, in short, is an education in rhetoric. But an all-purpose rhetoric, one that allows its practitioners to sweep aside knowledge of particulars with their superior ability to debate, persuade and negotiate their way to what they want. It is the singular talent for which the Ancient Greek sophists, who Socrates says knew how to “make the stronger argument the weaker and the weaker argument the stronger,” were notorious. When we promise students that the humanities lay the foundation for any and all career paths and will make them far more successful than their vocationally oriented peers, we promise that we will teach them how to bullshit well.
This conclusion is rarely discussed on a systematic level, although humanists have proposed individual responses to it. Some, for starters, play the “no true humanist” card: there may be bullshit in some humanistic disciplines or by some humanists, but real work in the humanities is just as rigorous and legitimate as work in the sciences. Classicist and philosopher Martha Nussbaum, for example, has accused literary scholar Stanley Fish of radical relativism and gender theorist Judith Butler of deliberate obfuscation; philosopher John Searle has combed through Jacques Derrida’s work to reveal that, for all its ambition and difficulty, it is ultimately “unintelligible.” If Fish and Butler and Derrida have somehow failed in their charge as humanists, then the humanities as a whole don’t have to be responsible for justifying their work.
Meanwhile, others deny the humanities’ need for “objectivity” altogether: So what if there are multiple ways to write a history or if no one can tell you what a line of Cavafy means? The humanities are qualitatively different from the sciences, and as such they call for different methods; it would be unsound to condemn humanistic work just because it doesn’t conform to the scientific model that has come to dominate our assumptions about the production of knowledge. This is an attractive claim, and to a certain degree I am sympathetic to it. But it does less to settle the underlying question than to raise it in a different form: if the humanities do not conform to scientific standards, what standards do they conform to?
Perhaps the question of standards, then, is the first question a comprehensive defense of the humanities must address. Is it true that there is no hierarchy of expertise in the humanities at all? I often think back to the first time I opened a calculus textbook and compare it to the first time I opened Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I understood neither, but I was inclined to believe that with enough time and effort I would eventually grasp calculus, whereas with Hegel I was far more pessimistic. But why? A student who wants to learn calculus will attend class, read the textbook, do the practice problems and approach her teacher with any struggles she might have. A student who wants to learn about Hegel, or any other “obscure” author, is advised to take a similar path. And many students do eventually understand Hegel—or at least understand him better than they did at first—provided they put in the time and effort. Of course, since there is little consensus on what counts as bullshit, drawing the line between bullshit and work that is genuinely difficult is, at least for now, an exercise left up to the individual humanist. The fact remains that humanistic work does admit of its own kind of difficulty, which most humanists know well—and describing the nature of this difficulty is where, it seems to me, the most productive defense of the humanities can start.
Read the other two pieces in the bullshit symposium: David Egan on calling bullshit and Gal Katz on his chronic bullshit anxiety.