Intellectual labour – on bullshit

As we get out of lockdown, and my PhD comes to an end, I will share a short series of posts, write-ups from past notes and drafts, on the art of writing and the nature of intellectual labour.

The English languages likes a certain fuzziness in its use of words. The French are more literal: language must stick to the world. Is it because the French study philosophy, and philosophy is all about defining the properties of things, elaborating the clearest possible language? It is a general trait of French thinking then, that things have to be “clear” – what people sometimes call Cartesian?

When my Ozzie partner and I were living in Paris, he used to say “French people are so earnest”. He was giving English classes then, as Australians do, helping insurance brokers speakers better English. This took the form of simple small talk, with questions like “do you like the mountain or the beach more.” And he was constantly complaining to me: “They all say it depends! Of course it depends, but can’t they just, I don’t know, take a side for the fun of it?” This response came out as a desire to say the truth, but Philip was shocked. He went on to describe “debating”, an adversarial practice where two teams of three people compete to support or rebuff a ‘contention’: I had never heard of it before.

Reflecting back, the practice resembles what Harry G. Frankfurt’s describes in his book On Bullshit. A “bull session” is a conversation among men where they “try on” various identities and opinions. Bullshit being defined as “thinking that you’re not fully adhering to”. I heard of similar sessions from my father and Italian ex-boyfriend – how at the family table in the Mediterranean, you would embrace a certain point of view, opposing somebody else, just to mark interest. On the opposite, another ex-boyfriend, who was from Western France, would always say – this is not exactly how it is, and methodically, slowly, try to refine the use of the adjectives and nouns, until, collegially, a perfect definition of the issue was found.

In one of his essays, Alain defines French-ness as characterised by a deep sense of necessity. French women don’t get fat is based on a similar premise – nothing excessive. Our training in philosophy is about that same sense of necessity: defining concepts, slowly, methodically, developing a sense of speech that is clear and appropriate.  Using the necessary words to describe a thought – no more, no less. Translation plays a big part in that intellectual training: it’s not about debating a point, but finding the exact correct words and syntax.

This sense of necessity applies to language. No bullshit. Bullshit, however, is much more developed in the anglo and Mediterranean worlds, and goes together with a sense of humour – building a character, saying things that obviously aren’t true. We studied Lewis Carroll and the nonsensical school at university. There is no French equivalent for nonsense. Why would you say something that makes no sense?

But so, why do we engage in bullshit? Says Frankfurt, you see bullshit when people are asked to speak or have opinions in matters they don’t really know about. Asking everyone’s opinions will lead to bullshit. Just as pursuing sincerity (truth to oneself) rather than truthfulness (truth to the world) leads to bullshit. When I was in high school, and we were writing essays, the general rule was ‘your opinion does not matter’. I was trained to think against debating. And probably became a better thinker for it.