Once in a while a book appears that forces us to rethink the previous cognitive patterns. To use the celebrated phrase from Thomas S. Kuhn's influential, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
(1962), it introduces the paradigm shift. Kuhn's explored scientific revolutions and the shifts produced by, say, Newtonian or quantum physics. The realm of social ideas is not immune to similar breakthroughs. In the twentieth century, Orwell's analysis of a doublespeak and the mutual corruption of politics and language has clearly changed the way we look at modern politics.
Recently, Harry C. Frankfurt's little pamphlet, with its beguilingly simple title, On Bullshit
(Princeton University Press, 2005) has pushed Orwell's insights
into a higher degree of conceptualization. While written in Orwellian vein and addressing the abuse and manipulation of language, Frankfurt's analysis offers a new way of looking at the old problem. The book open with the following, by now well-known observation: "One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows it. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves."
Without proper understanding of its functions and purposes, we are left, frankly, unarmed to confront and understand bullshit, despite our confidence to recognize it. For Frankfurt, BS is a greater enemy of truth then a lie because a liar does care about truth and thus tries to pass falsehood for truth, while BS artists do not really care about the truthfulness of their statements - they just make assertions to impress, while disguising their real agenda.
There are obvious mechanisms to challenge lies: just produce facts. But how does one challenges bullshit and understands its secret agenda? There is no cognitive frame, no intellectual traps into which the bullshitter can be caught.