This essay appears in our special web symposium on bullshit. Read the rest of the bullshit symposium: Gal Katz on his chronic bullshit anxiety and Whitney Sha on the lost standards for judging bullshit in the humanities.
Calling bullshit has a venerable intellectual pedigree. Plato first carved out a space for philosophy by distinguishing the philosopher’s search for knowledge from the persuasive speech of the sophists, the bullshit artists of antiquity. These wandering debate coaches instructed the Greek political class in the art of making the weaker argument the stronger. The rhetoric of the sophists is just fancy talk that creates the impression of wisdom, Plato tells us, but philosophy offers the genuine article.
In recent years, calling bullshit has become its own cottage industry. Debunkers like Michael Shermer and James Randi make a healthy living by exposing pseudoscience, and Harry Frankfurt scored an unlikely best seller when Princeton University Press managed to package his essay “On Bullshit” into a very small book. The mathematician Alan Sokal landed a blow against postmodern pretension by publishing a sham article in the journal Social Text in 1996, and when a more ambitious act of pomo-baiting surfaced about a month ago—a team of three pranksters had successfully submitted seven sham articles to journals peddling in what they derisively called “Grievance Studies”—the hoax came to be known as “Sokal Squared.”
Bullshitting has its obvious incentives and pleasures: you get all the kudos of saying interesting and important things without any of the work of actually thinking interesting and important things. As Frankfurt notes, there’s even an enjoyable play in concocting bullshit. Less obvious are the incentives and pleasures of calling bullshit. And yet they’re pretty much the same: you get all the kudos of asserting your intellectual superiority to the bullshitters, and it brings a certain aesthetic enjoyment with it as well. Just saying “bullshit” is deeply satisfying, its rich soup of consonants opening with an aggressive plosive and then sliding into the disdainful slurred hiss of “shit.” Where the bullshitter gets to bask in the glow of unearned wisdom, the bullshit-caller gets to strike the pose of the undeceived straight-talker bravely swimming against a rising tide of baloney.
Bullshitters pretend to a kind of wisdom that only very few people have, but that also means that only very few people are competent to challenge the bullshitters’ pretension. And here’s the rub: if bullshit clings to any undertaking that requires an unusual degree of discernment or expertise, then calling bullshit can itself become a form of bullshitting.
Consider a 2015 article from the journal Judgment and Decision Making whose title alone assured that it would do the rounds on social media: “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit.” The authors take an empirical look at our susceptibility to pseudo-profound bullshit, the kind of verbiage that masquerades as deeply meaningful. Subjects were asked to rank the profundity of a number of sentences, some drawn from New Age guru Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed and some randomly generated using Chopra-esque language. The study shows an inverse correlation between how profound people rank the sample sentences and how well they do on tests for analytical reasoning.
What makes the “pseudo-profound” sentences bullshit is never really explained by the authors beyond the claim that they involve “vague buzzwords,” helpfully if unintentionally providing a case in point. But we as readers of the study are given strong disincentive to press them on that point: after all, if we can’t already smell out the bullshit, doesn’t that cast suspicion on our own analytical thinking skills? The Twittersphere predictably echoed with endorsements of the paper’s findings, but the whole thing has more than a whiff of the emperor’s new clothes.
What would an intellectually respectable attempt to call bullshit look like? One of the most notorious instances of bullshit-calling in twentieth-century philosophy was a 1932 paper by Rudolf Carnap called “The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language.” Carnap maintains that the tools of logical analysis developed in the previous half-century now enable us once and for all to tell the difference between meaningful sentences and “metaphysical pseudo-statements” (read: bullshit). Carnap takes as one of his test cases a sentence from Martin Heidegger’s lecture, “What Is Metaphysics?”: “The nothing itself nothings” (das Nichts selbst nichtet). Not only does Heidegger invent a meaningless verb (“to nothing”), but, Carnap also contends, he misuses the more familiar noun form of “nothing.” Although “nothing” can be used grammatically as a noun, Heidegger slides into nonsense by treating it logically as the name for an object. “The rain rains” makes clear sense; “the nothing nothings” is grammatically analogous but logically incoherent. As Carnap parses it, there is no way of assigning sense to this second sentence, and, far from expressing something profound, Heidegger is simply talking nonsense.
Carnap’s paper has divided philosophers ever since. Some see it as a clear-headed defense of rational thought against turgid pretension at a time when the political stakes couldn’t have been higher—Carnap was a leading figure in the predominantly Jewish and left-leaning Vienna Circle and Heidegger would soon join the Nazi Party. Others see it as a peremptory hatchet job that forecloses the kind of searching inquiry for which standard forms of expression are inadequate.
Carnap takes as his model of significance the sort of factual statements about the world that the sciences do such a good job of producing. His paper is in part a manifesto for the brand of “scientific philosophy” that he and his fellow members of the Vienna Circle advocated. And indeed, the anti-bullshit crusaders of the last hundred years have often waged their campaigns under the banner of science. But it’s a small and sometimes unperceived step from saying that science furnishes us with clear, systematic, manifestly non-bullshitty knowledge to saying that anything worth saying can be held to the standards of empirical science.
Heidegger’s play on “nothing” engages at just this point. Heidegger agrees with Carnap and the cheerleaders for science: the sciences tell us all about the things the world is made up of—and leave nothing out. What the sciences fail to uncover isn’t a something—there are no supernatural truths that scientific investigation is somehow unequipped to handle—but rather this “nothing” that allegedly nothings.
What on earth is Heidegger talking about here? Part of the trouble is that he’s trying to get behind the world of facts that Carnap’s logically respectable language describes. For the most part we just get on with the business of life, immersing ourselves in a world full of work to do, people to love, buses to miss, tweets to retweet. But occasionally, just for a brief moment, all this stuff can suddenly seem pointless and strange, the way a familiar word starts to sound like meaningless babble if you repeat it enough times. That people are people and trees are trees, that life has rules and goals and structure, all this comes to seem like an arbitrary mask spread over an existence that has no underlying significance. Behind our world full of somethings, we momentarily apprehend an underlying—nameless and unnameable—nothing. Heidegger gives this uncanny experience of defamiliarization a name that has since become a cliché of chain-smoking existentialists: anxiety, or angst.
The experience of anxiety teaches us not to take for granted that the world makes sense. That things make enough sense to show up to us as somethings in the first place depends on an underlying basis that isn’t itself a thing. And, not being a thing, that basis doesn’t act on things in the way that normal verbs convey. “The nothing nothings” is Heidegger’s attempt to give voice to this unsettling discovery.
The natural thing to do in the face of anxiety is to shudder and turn away, to escape back into a world full of somethings that make sense. Heidegger extends his wordplay by giving voice to this turning away: what unsettled me there was really nothing. If you want to block out anxiety and the existential questioning it thrusts on us, if you want reassurance that the world is as it is as it is, one very effective strategy is to rule out any language that suggests otherwise. Impatience with obscure language might be symptomatic of the subtle but persistent gnawing of anxiety.
The line between profundity and bullshit can be faint, and distinguishing the two requires patience and imagination. Carnap at least exhibits the virtue of patience: he goes to considerable trouble to spell out a method for distinguishing meaningful statements from pseudo-statements. But serious thinking also requires the imagination to allow for exceptions, or at least challenges, to a method. People can disagree about whether Heidegger was on to something, but the only responsible way to decide the matter is to make an honest effort to see where Heidegger’s words can lead you.
A lot of bullshit-calling exhibits neither patience nor imagination. There can be a smug and even arrogant attitude with which people dismiss ideas that resist easy assimilation. Calling bullshit puts an abrupt stop to the conversation: like bullshitting itself, it can encourage us to stop thinking rather than to think further. This strategy is rhetorically seductive: it makes you feel that, if you agree with the bullshit-caller, you’re in on the joke, you’re not being hoodwinked. This kind of seductive speech, the kind that makes its hearers feel virtuous without actually making them virtuous, is part of what Plato described as sophistry. Calling bullshit might be one of the most insidious forms of bullshit.
Read the other two pieces in the bullshit symposium: Gal Katz on his chronic bullshit anxiety and Whitney Sha on the lost standards for judging bullshit in the humanities.