Rachael Devecka Unit 2 Post 3: A bit of Appiah and some Bullshit on “On Bullshit”

Option One: The final two sections of the reading (9.6-7) are very challenging. Do the best you can to summarize them in your own words, but don’t worry if you can’t follow all of the details. The main point to see is that it’s possible to be relativist about rationality (reasonable belief) without being a relativist about truth.

Strong cognitive relativism says that two entirely different truths can exist within the same universe because things are only “true” or “false” within a conceptual framework. Appiah sets out to disprove strong relativism through one important facet of it: strong relativists believe that different truths which are incompatible may coexist. For example, someone can believe that stars do not exist and someone else can believe that they do, and these could both be true. Appiah says that since there is only one universe, there can only be one reality; stars either exist or they don’t. Weak cognitive relativism deals with perceptions or logical beliefs as opposed to truths. In other words, different interpretations of the same reality are possible and reasonable beliefs are based on culture. Stars do exist, but they mean different things to different cultures. One person may believe that stars are the souls of their ancestors while another believes that they are physical spheres of plasma. Both may have perfectly valid reasons for believing what they do and be able to ‘prove’ within their cultural framework that their choice is the logical one. There is no way to objectively decide between the two theories––and they can coexist. Appiah uses another example which I think is useful: we group things differently based on our schema and the groupings are based on what is most useful to our culture as opposed to what is true or false. This is weak cognitive relativism. Logic is relative; truth is not.

Option 2: What’s the most effective way to reduce the amount of bullshit in contemporary discourse? Be sure to use Frankfurt’s specific notion of bullshit—so in that sense, the question is really asking: What’s the best way to get people to care about truth when they speak or write?

One point that Frankfurt makes in his definition is that our society values opinions very highly and insists “that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything.” We’ll start with this example because bullshit is highly prevalent in politics. In political conversations, I try to admit when I don’t know enough about something to have a qualified opinion. This is something few people I’ve talked with are willing to do. I think this is due to the pressure that Frankfort mentions. Because we are expected to hold so many opinions, it is impossible to put in the work to become experts in all areas. Since it is simultaneously imperative to speak to all of them, we become less concerned with the truth and more concerned with sounding intelligent and engaged. We feel a need to spout nonsense just for the sake of spouting something. This is also true in a classroom setting when the pressure is amped up by grades. If class participation is part of a student’s grade, then they feel a need to say something––anything––in order to rack up points. Students are often expected to put more time into homework and be ‘experts’ in more areas than is physically possible. Students have to pick and choose where to put their focus and then they are forced to bullshit the things they don’t care as much about in order to get high grades. Taking out grades is a good step in eliminating the need for bullshit. Without them, students can listen silently and learn when they don’t have enough knowledge for an opinion. They can also put more time into becoming experts on their passions; experts who do know––and care about––the truth in these areas.

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