A Daily Response to the Daily Posts Daily Prompt: False
More of a personal reference note than anything else, but for those who are interested feel free to read and express your views.
On Kuhscheiße and the Importance of Truth
A critical consideration of ‘bullshit’, or as the German equivalent is called – Kuhscheiße. Its relation to truth, and the perceived value of said truth.
Rabble-rousers, power-hungry politicians, snake-like salesmen and demagogues – all of these people have one major overlap. They all talk bullshit. Granted, much of the time they speak the truth, but all of them cause trouble with their words because they use unconfirmed ‘truths’ about the states of affairs to incite a reaction and achieve whatever end that it is that they wish to achieve. For them, what they say does not need to be true, or false, so long as it pushes them closer to their goal.
No one can say that they themselves are not guilty of it. We all bluff, we have all lied. Certainly we are genuinely wrong on many occasions. We accept these as generic human flaws. All of these involve some aspect of truth – be it the hiding of truth like a liar, the suspension of truth like in a bluff, or the mistaking of untruth for truth like one who has fallen into genuine error. But there are more issues of our lives (in relation to language and opinions of truth) concerning truth that need some attention. Among those, are the terms humbug, and bullshit.
The following essay is split into three parts. In part one, I shall be examining an extract from Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf (see appendix A) and explaining why the particular piece concerned is evidence on bullshit as Harry Frankfurt lays it out. In part two I will critically examine Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit and discuss where he goes wrong in his defining of bullshit simply as indifference to the truth (Frankfurt, 2005). In part three I will look towards truth. I will lay out the different levels of the word ‘truth’ and examine why truth (in the full sense of the word) is nothing more than an ideal to strive towards.
There are numerous things wrong with the claims Hitler is making here, although it is evident that he uses his thoughts throughout the book to arouse support for his goals. I leave the term goals open here to include all his possible motivations, ranging from political support to convincing people of his ideals, to financial and literary success. And it is evident to see by his actions over the course of his political career that he did use the ideas pertained within his book to justify his ideas on Aryan superiority.
In this extract, Hitler is trying to convince us that it is the Aryan race that is the sole supporter of Japanese (and possibly all) culture. Indeed, it is true that the ethnic origin of the Aryan race matches that of, arguably, the most influential culture. Western society has indeed permeated through the structures of every modern, international country. But that does not mean that they are without a culture of their own, that they could not develop and aintain their own culture without the Aryan race. It could never be the case that it is the Aryan race that is the sole structural pillar of Japanese culture (or any culture) because culture does not work tht way.
Culture is not something that can be divided into the categories that Hitler tries to divide them. One may assume that he is genuinely wrong here. I wish to argue that that is not the case. I believe that Hitler does not care whether or not cultures work in this manner. One can only be genuinely wrong if one is genuinely concerned with the truth. We do not tell the liar that he is genuinely wrong if he has told us a lie we just tell hi that he lies. Here, Hitler tries to convince us of his truth – or rather, his truthiness, an apparent feeling of truth (Colbert, 2006). Hitler, although clearly mistaken, does not fall into genuine error as he is – much like the liar – trying to convince us of his truthiness. And being the remarkable speaker that he was, he certainly did make many people feel as if this were the truth, or if not the truth, something very much like it. This is also why Hitler cannot be lying, for his intentions are not to hide away the truth but to push forward his truthiness for his own benefit.
The extract I am concerned with may have been a bluff at some point in its history. Hitler might have used Aryan superiority as a bluff to fool people into advancing his career. We expect the likes of politicians and salesmen to bluff to us. We know that they have some other goal and that they are just saying what they need to say in order to achieve that goal. In cases like this, truth is suspended, not disregarded, but lifted off the table to allow for a more convincing argument to take place before we return it. The extract does not meet this criterion for bluffing. Although Hitler was a politician who held the power to decide who lived and who died, one would not (or rather should not) ever suspend the truth when lives are at stake. Hitler cannot be bluffing here because bluffing is a communal agreement to temporarily suspend the truth, traditionally in a light-hearted fashion. Human life should never be taken lightly, nor did we all agree to laugh off his arguments due to their serious implications.
Could it be humbug? No. Humbug, as defined by Max Black (in Frankfurt, 2005), is “A deliberate misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings or attitudes.” In the text Hitler is showing his ideas and feelings towards all other race groups but his ideas of the Aryan race being the sole culture bearer cannot be humbug as, although it fulfills almost all of the definition, it is not a misrepresentation of one’s own mental state but a misrepresentation of the way things actually are. Hitler misrepresents reality, that is why his ideas here cannot be humbug.
Although I do not think Frankfurt settles on an accurate definition of the word bullshit, I believe that, at the very least, he touches on the core of what it is. Bullshit is a representation of the states of affairs when its speaker has no regard for the truth (Frankfurt, 2005). The speaker need not know the truth like the liar, they need not be mistaken of the truth like he who falls into genuine error. The speaker is not engaged in a social convention where truth is suspended, so it cannot be a bluff. Nor is the speaker here engaging in a misrepresentation of one’s mental state. The speaker is often trying t convince us of something that is not necessarily the truth but it is the lack of concern for the truth of the bullshitter that differentiates him from the liar. The liar knows thinks he knows the truth and cares enough about the truth in order to deliberately hide it. As discussed in paragraphs 1-3 of section I, Hitler did not care for the lack of truth in his words and therefore cannot be trying to hide it, therefore he is not lying to us here.
Hitler’s lack of concern for the truth on the matter on which he spoke, using unconfirmed claims to support his clearly false statements, makes him a prime candidate for bullshit. He certainly achieved, at least, part of, his goals with due credit to his ideas written down in the book from which the extract comes. And since this idea of Aryan superiority, which was one of Hitler’s most prominent ideas, has been shown to be bullshit. We can see the danger of how this can affect the political realm and even the whole structure of society.
I think that being indiffererent to the truth is essental to the definition of bullshit. We can easily see that when those same words are said by someone else, it is just a load of codswaddle. Take the following example statement, if someone were to walk up to you and say; “I sincerely believe that Hitler was right when he spoke of Aryan superiority. The Aryan race should be put in all positions of leadership so that we can eliminate the world’s problems and look to the future as one united people. The reason the Aryan race should be in power is because they are the sole race of culture bearers and therefore are naturally fit to rule.” He speaks of the exact same idea that Hitler spoke of and uses all the same supporting arguments. But is he still still bullshitting us?
He can’t be. It is clearly not true that any one race is ‘superior’ to any other if there even is such a thing as race. The speaker of the example statement has just got it wrong. He has been convinced by bullshit. Provided he is willing to accept the fact that he is wrong, he has fallen into genuine error per definition. But if the speaker were not to care about what the truth was, it changes what we define his utterance as. It is still about the states of affairs and therefore not humbug, nor is it lying as there was no attempt to hide the truth. And ths could only be bluffing if we assume this to be said in a situation where truth really has been suspended. This was a mistaking of someone else’s ideas that gave off the feeling of truth, for actual truth itself.
We find ourselves in need of a word to define this kind of speech act. A speech act in which ‘indifference to truth on behalf of the speaker’ and ‘a representaion on the states of affairs in situations when truth matters’ define the act. The word we would need to choose, or make up, as a definer of the described speech act, needs to be something sharp, something that will hit people hard (although we do not want it to become merely an insult). We need this word to have some foul connotations as well. I think that bullshit suits it perfectly and if the example statement given is not genuine error then this too is bullshit due to the presumable indifference to the truth present on behalf of the speaker.
In so far as Frankfurt defines bullshit as indifference to truth and a representation of the states of affairs, he got it right, as if one of the charactertics were to not be fulfilled, then it falls into the domain ofsomething else; genuine error, lying, bluffing, or humbug. But Frankfurt overapplies the definition of bullshit so that it inculdes all situations, leaving no room for bluffing if truth is all important. Frankfurt is essentially saying that truth matters everywhere and this is clearly false as bluffs are accepted and encouraged. If truth can be suspended then it is not as important as Frankfurt claims it to be. Bullshit can be better defined as indifference to truth, on behalf of the speaker, when representating the states of affairs in a context when truth actually matters.
The word truth is thrown around all the time as if it is something that always matters as if it is something sacred that should never be tread upon. Should we really care about the truth all the time, though? Already we have seen that the truth does not always matter, that is why we have bluffs (social conventions in which the truth is suspended) and by the fact that we are able to suspend truth and have good consequences result from it, we can see that truth is not always as valuable as previous philosophers (like Frankfurt, Socrates, Descartes, Kant and Popper) would like us to believe.
The truth is very often brutal and has vast amounts of destructive potential to one who holds many false beliefs dear. Personally, nine times out of ten, I would rather know the truth. I find that it keeps me in touch with reality if I know many more truths than untruths. That said, I am willing to go so far as to say that the bare minimum amount of truth that matters, is as a tether to reality. If we do not have some true beliefs to root us in the world, we may drift off like ash in the wind. Truth is helpful to a person as it enables them to concentrate on an objective reality. Arguably, as Loewer (1993) points out, a more important use of truth is that it enables us to make better decisions than if we were ignorant on the matter at hand. He illustrates a scenario in where knowing a false belief is more beneficial than having a true belief (of a Harrys plane’s departure time when that plane is going to crash) but we can see that despite a false belief being better than the true belief for Harry, as he was not killed in the crash, a fully true belief of the reason why he is taking the plane (to arrive safely at his destination) would have saved many lives. Another case where a false belief would be better than a true belief would be if Jono believing (falsely) that his holy mission was to eradicate the evils of the world by becoming a policeman, and it gave him the determination to work hard and potentially bettered his life, I would say that truth does not matter there. It has the feeling of truth for Jono, sometimes that is all we need. If a false belief can better the overall quality of one’s life, then having a true belief of that same topic is not required or even recommended.
I think that we should care about the truth, but that is not to say that we should always care for it. The truth does not always matter. It is plain to see that truth matters when (innocent) lives are concerned. Truth is also a great help when we need to make important decisions. Therefore, indifference to truth in regards to these matters is when one may call bullshit. That, at the very least, is when we should be concerned with. And it is because of his blatant disregard for this that Hitler treads into bullshit territory. He cleverly manipulated language to err people to side with him. He used the aforementioned extract as support for his belief of Aryan superiority. I think it is safe to call those ideas of his, Kuhscheiße.
Is truth obtainable and how does this relate to its value? I think that it plain to see that truth has instrumental value to us. Plane crashes aside, it is obvious to all of us that knowing what time their plane leaves the airport will make it more likely that they do not miss their flight. If I know the truth of a situation then it certainly helps me to make better decisions. However, as Mercier and Sperber (2011). point out, the evidence does not point to reasoning for the sake of better decision making; rather, it points towards the evolutionary goal of reasoning is to support our arguments, regardless of their truth value.
I am not convinced that this challenges the notion of truth. Just because the function of a chair is for it to be sat on, it does not mean that I cannot stand on the chair to change a lightbulb or use that chair in self-defence. Just because reasoning was adapted to support our arguments it does not follow that truth has no value, just because we don’t instinctively make use of it. It does, however, question the necessity of truth. If we reason to support our own convictions, then truth is not an essential component of our arguments. We use statements of unconfirmed truth as if they were true in order to support our own claims. Essentially, this means that we have a biological disposition to sprout bullshit.
The reason I call this a danger is precisely the reason why I have used this piece of text by Adolf Hitler as my example of bullshit. If those who have great influence on others – in this case, influence on a global level – use unconfirmed statements as if they were true then it can cause countless numbers of people to hold false convictions, to fall into genuine error as they have some sense of trust in the person because they believe that the person would only give the sincere beliefs. One objection to this is to say that it is not always the case that these unconfirmed statements, which we treat as true without even checking, are bullshit. So why do I say that this is so dangerous?
I’ll submit, it is plausible that we use unverified statements in place of truth when we have no means of obtaining truth and that yes, many of us do verify the truth at a later stage because we have at least some concern for the truth on the matter. But all this objection does is show us that bullshit is not as common as previously claimed by Frankfurt. It does not detract from the danger of bullshit. I think that Frankfurt is wrong when he says that bullshit is dangerous because the person does not care for truth, rather it is dangerous because the bullshitter can cause others to have sincere beliefs about his bullshit. He can cause others to fall into genuine error because of his lack of concern for the truth at hand.
Take the aforementioned case of Hitler. What he said was used to justify his beliefs and he influenced the actions of an entire nation, effectively adding fuel to a global fire. Could this have been avoided if the public had been adequately informed on the issue (Aryan superiority and Jewish cause for blame)? Yes, quite easily indeed. And by just speaking around we can find people who did just that and tried to convince others of the truth that they found. Clearly, it was not that effective. This is another factor of reasoning that Mercier and Sperber pointed out. We tend towards convictions that are (a) our own or (b) convictions given to us by those whom we trust. There are numerous examples of knowledge that we are unable to comprehend the facts and the truth (despite its coherence) and we have to rely on the information of others to be true. Those are typically the ones in positions of importance and power (scientists, mathematicians and politicians). Who should we trust more than those in power? Who should we trust to take care of the, communal, us, more than those that we elect to take care of us? If we do find someone, then let’s quickly elect then into the right position for them to be the ones to take care of (the communal) us. Whether or not they presently do, because of the power that they hold and the influence that they have, politicians should always be concerned with truth. Judging by his actions, Hitler did not. He influenced others into agreeing with him and this is just one case of why truth has instrumental value.
It is not always this way, though. There are several cases, in which, we can see that bullshit is more valuable than truth. The realm of entertainment and advertising. Advertising has use of bullshit in order to convince of us that their product is the best. Entertainment has value for bullshit precisely because it allows us to be released of the serious nature of truth. Bullshit is a much easier pill to swallow. The truth is often like an oversized but perfectly rounded sphere – it hurts when you swallow.
One objection that causes severe harm to the value of truth is a differentiation between the kinds of truths that we encounter. The common idea of knowledge is Justified True Belief (JTB). The common idea of truth is correspondence to reality. Richard Rorty speaks of mild, uncontroversial truths as vegetarian truths (in Dennett, 2000). These would include things that are true by definition, a bachelor is an unmarried man. By definition, it cannot be anything else. True of social convention (like time telling) and things that are true of our apparent reality (like history and the scientific theories the Karl Popper (2009) praises as truth) would also fall under the category of vegetarian truths. These are more like facts than of truth. They are some of the closest things we can get to truth and there is hardly anything we can do to falsify them. But without having a method of getting to truth, we end up with only really well-justified beliefs.
Using this view, we can draw a nice line through the truths of social convention (like time, political statistics, and society). These are just truths that help us all get along and coordinate our lives (they can be better called facts – things evident of our apparent reality) and they matter for precisely that reason as well. The truths that I am concerned with, are things like consciousness, knowledge, physical reality or lack thereof. Is it in violation to the caring for these truths that bullshit matter? Do these truths matter? Can we even attain them? What are the consequences of one not caring for them?
I think that these truths (facts), or, at least, the search for these truths, is valuable because they help to satisfy our curiosity. In the case of physics, knowing the facts here can help us build a better model of the universe and use the various aspects of said model, in other fields to help us develop things like better entertainment systems and satellites. Knowing the properties of gravity and dark energy can help us build better technology to benefit us in the pursuit of galactic colonization.
Do these truths matter? Yes, to the extent that they make our lives more interesting and provide a way to advance humanity as a whole or even just one person, they have instrumental value. Popper’s (2009) belief in science as a means to get to truth rears its head again. Through the survival of us trying to falsify a theory it only shows that we have not falsified it yet. Everything points to it being true and it certainly gives us the feeling of truth, but if knowledge is true justified belief, then we cannot call this knowledge because we have no way of obtaining truth as science can only give us really well-justified beliefs, not true beliefs.
Does this mean that we should not care for the truth? Or that we should not attempt to try to obtain the truth? No, because I am curious and want to know what the true nature of reality is or what justice is, I will search for truth in the hopes that someone may eventually find out what it is and how we get it. Does truth matter to our everyday lives? Mostly no, it doesn’t matter if I know about the fabric of reality in order for me to eat my breakfast and go on to work. It does not matter if do not have knowledge (in the full sense of the word) in order for me to pay for my groceries. One can live a perfectly satisfactory life without knowing, or even caring for the truth. I would not even say that the truth is essential for a great life. Provided one knows enough vegetarian truths (facts) to get by, truth is not valuable to one’s life and one need not care for truth at all.
In conclusion: There are many who argue for the intrinsic value of truth, I do not wish to make this argument. We can see that Truth (on all levels) has some instrumental value because it satisfies the end of the curiosity of those who want it and vegetarian truths help us to get along and coordinate our lives. Truth, or, at least, the pursuit of truth, has instrumental value even though it is unattainable to us at present. Of the different kinds of true beliefs, the ones that relate to our apparent reality are the ones that directly matter to all of us. But truth as correspondence to reality only matters to those who are curious.
If one were to divide mankind into three groups: culture-founders, culture-bearers, and culture-destroyers, then, as representative of the first kind, only the Aryan would come in question. It is from him that the foundation and the walls of all human creations originate, and only the external form and colour depend on the characteristics of the various peoples involved. He furnishes the gigantic building-stones and also the plans for all human progress, and only the execution corresponds to the character of the people and races in the various instances. In a few decades, for instance, the entire east of Asia will call a culture its own, the ultimate bases of which will be Hellenic spirit and Germanic technique, just as is the case with us. Only the external form will (at least partly) bear the features of Asiatic character. It is not the case, as some people claim, that Japan adds European techniques to her culture, but European science and techniques are trimmed with Japanese characteristics.
But the basis of actual life is no longer the special Japanese culture, although it determines the colour of life (because outwardly, inconsequence of its inner difference, it is more visible to European eyes), but it is the enormous scientific and technical work of Europe and America, that is, of Aryan peoples. Based on these achievements alone, the East is also able to follow general human progress. This creates the basis for the fight for daily bread, it furnishes weapons and tools for it, and only the external makeup is gradually adapted to Japanese life. But if, starting today, all further Aryan influence upon Japan should stop, and supposing that Europe and America were to perish, then a further development of Japan’s present rise in science and technology could take place for a little while longer; but in the time of a few years the source would dry out, Japanese life would gain, but its culture would stiffen and fall back into the sleep out of which it was startled seven decades ago by the Aryan wave of culture. Therefore, exactly as the present Japanese development owes its life to Aryan origin, thus also in the dim past foreign influence and foreign spirit were the awakener of the Japanese culture. The best proof of this is the fact that the latter stiffened and became completely paralyzed later on. This can only happen to a people when the originally creative race nucleus was lost, or when the external influence, which gave the impetus and the material for the first development in the cultural field, was lacking later on. But if it is ascertained that a people receives, takes in, and works over the essential basic elements of its culture from other races, and if then, when a further external influence is lacking, it stiffens again and again, the none can perhaps call such a race a ‘culture-bearing’ one but never a ‘culture-creating’ one.
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