Another perspective on Palin

Is Sarah Palin a prophet, a liar, or a bullshitter? This reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog argues for the last mentioned:

I’d argue that what [Sarah Palin] says has no relation whatsoever to the truth — you can’t count on it to be false anymore than you can count on it to be true. […] I know you’ve invested a great deal of time proving her to be a liar, but to my mind Palin’s a bullshitter, as defined by Harry G. Frankfurt in his book, On Bullshit.

According to Frankfurt, a bullshitter is the greater enemy of truth than a liar. The liar, by acting in opposition to truth, at least has some sense of what it is. The bullshitter, on the other hand, says only what he or she thinks will serve their immediate agenda and therefore pays little attention to what actually “is.” Over time their ability to recognize truth becomes attenuated.

Here is Frankfurt’s own description of the distinction between liars and bullshitters.

At the beginning of the excerpt, Frankfurt alludes to an obscure (to me) dispute between Wittgenstein and Fania Pascal:

Pascal’s statement is unconnected to a concern with truth: she is not concerned with the truth-value of what she says. That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true.

It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit. […]

Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. […] The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. […]

[The bullshitter] does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose. […]

Telling lies does not tend to unfit a person for telling the truth in the same way that bullshitting tends to. Through excessive indulgence in the latter activity, which involves making assertions without paying attention to anything except what it suits one to say, a person’s normal habit of attending to the ways things are may become attenuated or lost. […]

[The bullshitter] does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

That’s why Andrew Sullivan refers to Sarah Palin as a postmodern conservative, and to Going Rogue as a postmodern book. Postmodernism has been defined as follows:

“A worldview characterized by the belief that truth doesn’t exist in any objective sense but is created rather than discovered.” Truth is “created by the specific culture and exists only in that culture.”

If that perspective were true, we would be justified in disregarding truth and falsehood as meaningful categories. Truth is whatever my tribe and I construct it to be — nothing more and nothing less than that.

In this concluding excerpt, Frankfurt might as well have been writing with Sarah Palin uppermost in his mind:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled — whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others — to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. snaars
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 22:47:28

    Ha! I have Frankfurt’s book! He is a moral philosopher and Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at Princeton University. It’s a tiny book – I think the excerpts amount to virtually the whole thing. 😉

    The next edition should be illustrated with Palin sketches.


  2. Stephen
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 22:53:26

    Wow, Snaars, that was fast. I was still making final edits to the post when I discovered your comment.

    “On Bullshit” sounds like a joke title — surely not worthy of a work of philosophy at Princeton. But I think Frankfurt offers a useful insight here.


  3. billarends
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 08:46:34

    I like Jon Stewart’s (the Daily Show) perspective on Sarah Palin…–60-seconds


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