Saturday, March 08, 2008

Bullshitting and Brainstorming

Thanks again to Philosoraptor for recommending an article on BS’ing by Kerry Walters in Teaching Philosophy.

The article does discuss the doubts that were raised for me in reading Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” with my class. I was disturbed that the students 1.) thought that philosophy was a perfect example of bullshit; and 2.) thought that all the writing assignments they are expected to do in their liberal arts classes are best satisfied by bullshit—in fact, that they can only be satisfied by bullshit.

My interpretation of this second claim was that Frankfurt defines bullshitting as speaking about something that you know little about or giving an opinion about something when you aren’t really committed to what you say. When you aren’t an expert on a subject, you just spin together the few thoughts that you do have and try to construct them so that they satisfy the questioner. BUT that is exactly what learners have to do all the time. They try out views before they are experts, and this exercise is part of what helps them build skills while increasing their expertise.

Moreover, this applies to a lot of original thought—not just for college students, but for professionals, too. Say I have an idea. In order to test whether it’s a good idea or not, I often have to put quite some amount of work into writing it up. Along the way, the idea changes. This does not mean, though, that I was bullshitting all along. It’s the normal course of development for new ideas—a writer goes through stages from less to more commitment. Hopefully, by the time I’m done, I’m convinced. And this development is true not only of philosophy or only of the liberal arts. In science, too, an experiment may start with one hypothesis, but as the data are collected, they suggest a slightly different and more interesting question.

Walters describes how the bullshitter and the brainstormer can appear, at the level of behavior, to be identical. The bullshitter may even be better at philosophical discussion—precisely because there is no inner conflict. She is what Walters calls a “rhetorical robot.” Both are ready to defend a position and then to change their minds. Both can appear to be engaged and excited and enjoying themselves. But the bullshitter has a (merely) rhetorical aim, while the brainstormer is engaged in a deeper intellectual challenge.

In my class, I struggled to reconcile two kinds of bullshit. On the one hand, there are students who bullshit. (Now, I’m not talking about the ones that feel as though they have to bullshit no matter what they do, but the ones who knowingly, intentionally, write fluff with as little intellectual effort as possible.) On the other hand, I have colleagues whom I know—without a doubt—are bullshitting. Some of them have bullshitted their way to elite academic careers.

These are the ones who disagree with my commitment to philosophy’s practical use in problem solving. To them, philosophy is a game. A difficult but thrillingly competitive rhetorical game. They excel at strategy but could just as easily have taken philosophical stances opposite to the ones they've published.

What I didn’t understand was the connection between these two kinds of bullshitters. The student type—typically—bullshits because it's easy but would rather be doing just about anything besides philosophy. On the other hand, some of my colleagues (at other universities, I should add) are very passionate about philosophy. They work long, hard hours at it. They speak with delight about what “shark tanks” their departments are. Though their product is insincere, they are not taking the easy way out!

Walters connects the dots. He says these kinds of philosophers are “intellectual robots”:
“…it may be the case that habitual bullshitters who wind up buying their own rhetoric graduate from rhetorical to intellectual robotry. After all, young bullshitters must grow up sooner or later. When they do, we sometimes call them academics.”


Noumena said...

These are the ones who disagree with my commitment to philosophy’s practical use in problem solving. To them, philosophy is a game. A difficult but thrillingly competitive rhetorical game. They excel at strategy but could just as easily have taken philosophical stances opposite to the ones they've published.

All I have to add is a sigh and a question: I wonder what percentage of philosophers fall into this camp?

Khadimir said...

... and who do not know it?

That is, to be less cynical, I have run across too many people who do not understand--have not come to own--the philosophically technical language that they use. Usually it is poor scholarship, but regardless often looks like the BS.

Noumena said...

That's a good point, khadimir. In certain quarters of contemporary metaphysics and epistemology, a breathtaking ignorance of the history of philosophy is a point of pride. That leads, on the one hand, to the weirdness of doing metaphysics like Leibniz and epistemology like Descartes as though the critiques of these projects in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Kantians, neo-Kantians, pragmatists, logical empiricists, and so on) never happened. And it leads, on the other hand, to trying to appropriate specific philosophical tools and ideas (possible world metaphysics and the method of doubt, for example) with almost no real understanding of them.

Does Frankfurt require the bullshitter to know s/he is bullshitting? If not, then maybe the contemporary philosophical propensity for bullshit (and the propensity to be perceived as bullshit) can be traced back to this historical ignorance.

Evelyn Brister said...

I think that Frankfurt implies that bullshitters do know that they're doing it. The main thing is that they don't care one way or the other about the truth of their claims--they have other concerns. To appear to be the smartest guy in the room, to build political consensus, or whatever. Bullshitting, in other words, is sophistry.

I knew a fellow graduate student in my program who bragged that he never had and never would read Plato.

Still, I think historical ignorance is more a symptom than a cause.

Andrew said...

I appreciate your careful response to Frankfurt's overly ambitious "accusation."

Perhaps he doesn't realize or care that to essay is to attempt, to experiment, to test an idea.

Or maybe we don't teach our kids that. They are not becoming masters, they are learning how to think by testing ideas. Mastery comes when they get a Masters Degree.

At least, once upon a time in Arcadia...

Andrew Kern