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24 August 2005 @ 15:28
Bullshit: A Gricean perspective (part 2 of 2)  

An audience member wears ear protection during George W. Bush's recent address to the VFW convention in Salt Lake City.
Photo by Douglas C. Pizac (AP)

Having dispensed with a bit of etymological confusion at the beginning of Jim Holt's article "Say Anything," I am now ready to turn to the substance of the essay, which is an examination of three recently published works on bullshit. On the whole, I think Holt makes some good points, although he gets distracted by the philosophical question of whether there is such a thing is truth—which is, I think, largely irrelevant. What I'd like to do here is to consider some of Holt's observations from a more or less linguistic point of view, informed by H. P. Grice's "Logic and Conversation." Holt and the various authors he cites are concerned with identifying the quintessence of bullshit, and I think Grice can help us here: "Logic and Conversation" presented a set of maxims which define coöperative discourse (and by which speakers interpret one another's utterances), and bullshit is a kind of uncoöperative discourse. The question is, which kind?

1. Wittgenstein and the tonsillectomy patient

Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit, one of the works Holt discusses, draws inspiration from a story about Ludwig Wittgenstein, which Holt retells as follows:

Ludwig Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein had gone to the hospital to visit a friend whose tonsils had just been taken out. She croaked to Wittgenstein, "I feel just like a dog that has been run over." Wittgenstein (the friend recalled) was disgusted to hear her say this. "You don't know what a dog that has been run over feels like," he snapped.

I guess Wittgenstein had a point, although I think it was essentially an æsthetic one; I can imagine one of the great defenders of poetic rigour (Vladimir Nabokov, say, or Seymour Glass) denouncing an ill-considered simile on such grounds. But it's hardly fair to the woman with the aching throat. I would understand her to be saying not that she felt the way a dog feels that has been run over, but rather that she felt in such a way as to make her imagine that she might be a dog that had been run over. That is a quite different assertion, and you don't need to be a canine psychologist to make it.1

H. G. Frankfurt

Anyway, what Frankfurt gets out of the story is that Wittgenstein's friend's simile is bullshit, and that what makes bullshit bullshit is an indifference to truth. Liars, selon Frankfurt, pay truth the backhanded compliment of denying it; bullshitters just don't care whether what they say is true or false. Wittgenstein's friend might in fact have felt exactly the way a run-over dog feels; the point is that she could not possibly have known whether that was so when she asserted it. For Frankfurt, this makes the bullshitter more reprehensible than the liar: the bullshitter, as Giovanni-Francesco Loredano says of Fame in La Dianea, by "mixing Truth with Falsehood, renders the one and the other equally mendacious."2

H. P. Grice

This suggests that a very straightforward distinction between the liar and the bullshitter can be made in Gricean terms, viz. that the liar violates Grice's first maxim of quality, and the bullshitter the second:

Grice's Maxims of Quality
  1. Do not say what you believe to be false.
  2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

As Holt observes, though, Frankfurt is probably overestimating the moral consistency of liars; most liars lie because it is expedient to do so, not because they are systematic opponents of truth. (This is the real world, after all, not the famous Island of Knights and Knaves on which so many logic puzzles have been set.) Unfortunately, this observation eventually leads Holt into his extended digression on Whether Truth Exists. It really doesn't make any sense to set up an opposition between lies and capital-T objective Truth. A lie is crucially a violation of Grice's first maxim of quality, which proscribes not falsehood, but insincerity, so in order to distinguish between lies and non-lies (which include not only true statements but honest mistakes), we need only consider the speaker's beliefs, not the Ultimate Reality.

2. The Labov–Cohen Test

Grice's maxims of quality will not help us with a second kind of bullshit, which Holt turns to in discussing Gerald Cohen's article "Deeper into Bullshit." The maxims of quality deal only with the propositional content of an utterance; they thus have nothing to say about the sort of bullshit that simply has no meaning at all. Bafflegab, or gobbledegook, is not falsehood or speculation purporting to be truth, but rather a sort of thick vacuum masquerading as substance. For the sort of academics who call themselves theorists but look at you blankly if you ask them what their theory is a theory of, the purpose of bafflegab is to make the reader exclaim something along the lines of:

George Grossmith as Bunthorne
If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
This deep young man must be!

...as Bunthorne sings in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience. For other bafflegabbers, obscurity is not an end in itself; for the politician, it is a means of appearing to coöperate with journalists without actually having to answer their questions.

Cohen suggests a test for this variety of bullshit that, as Mark Liberman notes on Language Log, has been independently proposed by Bill Labov. The test works like this:

The Labov–Cohen Test, as stated by Holt
Add a not to the statement and see if that makes any difference to its plausibility. If it doesn't, that statement is bullshit.

That's an oversimplification, of course; you have to be careful to position the not so that it reverses the meaning (if any) of the whole sentence. For example, consider the following pair of sentences:

  1. It might rain tomorrow.
  2. It might not rain tomorrow.

If the best meteorological forecast available indicates a fifty-percent chance of rain the next day, then these two sentences are equally plausible—but I wouldn't say that either of them is bullshit. What we need to do is give the negation scope over the possibility modal:

  1. There is a chance that it will rain tomorrow. (=1)
  2. There is no chance that it will rain tomorrow.

Sentence 4, unlike sentence 2, really does say the opposite of sentences 1 and 3. It is difficult to imagine a situation in which 3 and 4 would be equally plausible, and so the Labov–Cohen test predicts, correctly I think, that neither is bullshit.

Okay, so how do we deal with bafflegab in Gricean terms if the maxims of quality are not relevant? Since the most salient feature of bafflegab is its obscurity, we might look the the maxims of manner, which Grice summarizes collectively as "Be perspicuous":3

Grice's Maxims of Manner
  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

The bafflegab subspecies of bullshit seems to violate the first maxim of manner in particular, and frequently also the third and fourth.

3. Faust's Test

But there's a difference between merely being unclear and uttering Bunthornian or Derridean bullshit. If a young child asks you why the sky is blue, and you answer that it's because of how Rayleigh scattering affects electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths (without first explaining what all these things are), then you have certainly not been perspicuous, but you have uttered a meaningful and even true proposition. You are not a bullshitter. So I think the real distinguishing feature of bafflegab is its violation not of the maxims of manner, but of the first maxim of quantity:

Grice's Maxims of Quantity
  1. Make your contribution as informative as required.
  2. Do not make your contribution more informative than required.
Faust and Mephistopheles

What makes bafflegab bullshit is that it doesn't carry any information. The victim of bafflegab may complain, as Goethe's Faust does:

Da steh' ich nun, ich armer Tor,
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor!

(Here I stand now, poor fool I,
And am no wiser than before!)

This predicts that it should be possible for a true proposition, clearly stated, to be bullshit if the information it contains is not new to the recipient. I think this is true: consider the hypothetical case of a student of linguistics who has three pages' worth of stuff to say about Grice's maxims and pads it out to five by reminding the professor that language is a uniquely human phenomenon, and very useful for communication, and so on. The student is bullshitting. (Of course, none of the information in the paper is likely to be new to the professor, but the useful information can be distinguished from the bullshit by the fact that the professor needs to know that the student knows it.)

The bin-so-klug-als-wie-zuvor test (hereafter BSKAWZ) captures both the term-paper-padding variety of bullshit and the Bunthornian bafflegab variety. If we stretch it a bit, then maybe we can make BSKAWZ work for the first variety, too—the one involving a reckless disregard for truth. After all, a random mixture of falsehood and truth is not exactly what one would call informative. But this involves a departure from Grice's implicit definition of informativeness; if it didn't, Grice would not need separate maxims for quantity and quality. Also, a too-loosely interpreted version of BSKAWZ will generate false positives: the child who asks about the sky and is given an incomprehensible answer about Rayleigh scattering can complain "bin so klug als wie zuvor," but the answer is not bullshit; it's just poorly expressed.

So is any really unified definition of bullshit possible? All bullshit is uncoöperative, although not always in the same way. The other unifying element seems to be pretence; the various kinds of bullshit involve

  • unfounded assertions pretending to be known truths,
  • meaningless strings of words pretending to be sense,
  • and truisms pretending to be new information.

So it seems that the best definition we can give is still a disjoint one: bullshit is any utterance that violates Grice's second (and sometimes also first) maxim of quality and/or his first maxim of quantity while pretending not to. Now, do you know any more about bullshit than you did when you started reading?

1. Aside: It's really quite astounding how figurative language works, when it does. If the tonsillectomy patient had been talking to anyone less literal-minded than WIttgenstein, then her remark would have helped him to understand the feeling of a woman who has had her tonsils out by likening it to something even further removed from his own experience.

2. Moralistic excursus: It is perhaps instructive to see what happens when we substitute "life" for "truth": Frankfurt's notion of the liar maps onto somebody like Osama bin Laden, who is deeply committed to murdering people, and Frankfurt's bullshitter maps onto somebody like George W. Bush, who simply doesn't care whether his actions cause people to die. Or, if you'd prefer a less politically charged analogy, the liar is a generic murderer, and the bullshitter is a drunk driver. Looking at these analogues, I find it impossible to agree with Frankfurt that "bullshit is a greater enemy of truth than lies are." On the other hand, I'm not so sure the analogy is valid, partly because I'm not sure that truth is ever a moral goal purely in and of itself. Obeying Grice's maxims of quality is usually the right thing to do, but there are situations in which it is better to lie. Holt gives two of the canonical reasons for righteous lying: "to make someone feel good about himself," and "to mislead Nazis who are looking for Jews."

3. Does anyone know why Grice said "perspicuous" instead of just "clear"? I'm only asking.

parodieparodie on 25. August, 2005 20:58 (UTC)
I do know more than I did.
And I bet Grice said "perspicuous" because that sounds much more scholarly. "Make it clear" doesn't quite have the same ... academic weight, neh? Sounds much too colloquial.

Also: b.s. cows? Now, really. :-) That's ridiculous! Leave the cows alone - they deal with enough bull shit. (heh. I crack me up.)

One last comment - the image of the vet at the top is absolutely priceless. Thank you.
Q. Pheevrq_pheevr on 28. August, 2005 18:46 (UTC)

Well, the 'b.s. cows' bit was fortuitous rather than intentional—I looked at the words bin so klug als wie zuvor, and there it was. Besides, it's a diagnostic, and who could possibly be better at recognizing bullshit than a cow?

Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post. And I suspect you're right about Grice.