Day One of Bullshit!

Gaslight (1944) - IMDb
Why do we use the term “gaslighting” now instead of just “lying”?

Day one of bullshit. Should be fun! But first:

Peer critiques are due to me AND to the people whose papers you read. Make sure you:

  • Share the peer critiques with me at and
  • Make sure the people whose papers you read have also received a copy.

Turn and talk to each of them for five minutes! Talk about what you’re seeing in the paper, how well it’s fulfilling the assignment, and what you’d suggest they revise or do next in composing.


The first thing we should do with the idea of bullshit and its relationship to rhetoric might be to talk a bit about where it comes from. Who said on the first day that rhetoric was “the art of bullshit,” again?

There’s a long lineage in the Eurocentric West of assuming that words that are flowery, descriptive, overly emotional, or inflamed by passion in any way aren’t just rhetorical but downright wrong: morally corrupt, a deviation from The Truth.

It starts, as with most things Eurocentric, with Plato (student of Socrates, teacher of Aristotle), who in The Gorgias and The Phaedrus sought to distinguish various forms of “false” communication from their true or logical forms. In a famous analogy, Plato distinguished rhetoric from dialectic (his preferred “Socratic” model of question-and-answer) by comparing “cookery” (What we’d call cooking) to actual medicine:

Socrates, in the Gorgias, compares rhetoric, that is the art of speaking, to cookery [opsopoiike ]. He distinguishes it from arts [techne ], calling it merely a practice [or habituation, empeirian ], or worse a routine [tribe ], and as cookery, it falls into being a subdivision of a larger devotion [epitedeuseos ], which is flattery [kolakeian ]. He contrasts cooking to medicine, and distinguishes that medicine is something that, unlike mere cooking, tells us the real nature of things [phusis ]. And he bases this distinction upon the idea that it is the soul commands the body:

“For indeed, if the soul were not in command of the body, but the latter had charge of itself, and so cookery and medicine were not surveyed and distinguished by the soul, but the body itself were the judge, forming its own estimate of them by the gratification they gave it…everything would be jumbled together.”

From here

Most scholars of history and philosophy have focused overly on this distinction instead of his other writings on communication, giving the false impression that Plato hated all uses of rhetoric and generally despised the people who used or taught it.

And there is some truth to that! Plato was an upper-class twit who saw the march toward democracy in ancient Athens as a triumph of the rabble, what we might call today a “tyranny of the mob.” He looked down upon the common folk for their lack of dialectical training, even though most were slaves or non-citizens or unable to vote, and actively supported autocrats and kings so long as they met his abstract definition of an ethical leader or “philosopher king.” (Aristotle was later the tutor of mass-murderering tyrant Alexander the Great, so . . . .). But perhaps rightly, he was mistrustful of uses of language in which people who were non-experts convinced other non-experts to do something that may or may not be in their best interests.

Sound familiar? It should!

So there’s that. While Plato did offer a solid theory about how rhetoric could be ethical in The Phaedrus, his thoughts about rhetoric in The Gorgias really poisoned the well for a good long time, almost 2000 years, giving us some really crazy ideas about how language works in the meantime:

  • The “true communication” between souls through dialectic (in Plato)
  • The idea that words (verba) and things (res) have a logical, mappable relationship (Locke?)
  • And that the purpose of language is to name things and establish facts (Harry Frankfurt)

And this is where we get to Harry Frankfurt. For today our goal should be to figure out what he’s arguing for and against, and what any of it has to do with rhetoric. I’m hoping we’ll pepper our discussions with the examples of bullshit you’ve found for your bullshit inventory!


First we need to figure out what Frankfurt is saying. Your commonplace books should help! Please open them.

(While we’re doing that, what modern synonyms would you offer for “bullshit” besides the ones Frankfurt (through Black) gives us–“balderdash”, “claptrap”,“hokum”, “drivel”, “buncombe”, “imposture”, and “quackery”? Also, what do you think about the word “gaslighting”?)

Our goal should be to develop some answers to these three things:

  1. What’s Frankfurt’s definition of “bullshit”? What does he say are elements or characteristics of bullshit?
  2. What points does he raise, or problems does he see, with other people’s attempts to define it or talk about it?
  3. What questions does he leave us with–either areas he says he won’t be exploring or things he doesn’t yet have answers to?

I’ll ask you all to get into groups and talk about these questions and then share with the class.

Then another big thing: the readings ahead are from rhetoricians who think Frankfurt is on to something but also that he really misses the mark in a few areas.

Without peeking! What problems do you think rhetoricians might have with Frankfurt’s ideas of rhetoric? Another 5-10 minutes in your groups before our discussion.

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