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In his essay On Bullshit Frankfurt writes:

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor co conceal it

How can a question be bullshit?

What ways, bullshit or otherwise, can a question be unclear to the point of incoherence? Assuming that it states nothing false and can be parsed into something which is relevant.

I'm guessing that a ranted or rambling question can at least appear to be incoherent.

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    Is this a quote from Frankfurt's "On Bullshit"? If not, I'd suggest reading that book as it speaks of all types and versions of "BULLSHIT". – NationWidePants Sep 15 '16 at 14:09
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    Michel Foucault discusses Magritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe in which he ponders the meaning, or meaninglessness, of the caption "this is not a pipe" below a picture of what is obviously a pipe. At the end of the day, in both this book and On Bullshit, the author comes to the conclusion that the thought process is really a discussion on rhetoric itself and never gains ground. What I'm saying is, any rhetorical thought is bullshit if it has no practical application. – NationWidePants Sep 15 '16 at 14:24
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    I am surprised by the number of downvotes, perhaps it is a reaction to the strong word. I think it helps to remember Frege's context principle, never ask of meaning in isolation, only in the context. Can a question in a context be bs? Sure, we hear those on TV all the time, especially in election season. They are bs when they are either not relevant to the supposed topic at hand and only serve to divert attention, or to mislead by innuendo (the infamous "do you still beat your wife" or "I am just raising the issue" types), or... – Conifold Sep 15 '16 at 17:54
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    I think it's a perfectly good question, but it's really a question about the nature of questions, which logicians and philosophers have generally ignored. a question that presupposes a bulls hit proposition could be considered a bulls hit question. politicians ask bulls hit questions all the time. they're just pretending to ask questions when their true purpose is to bullshit. – user20153 Sep 15 '16 at 20:23
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    Habermas' theory of communicative action might be relevant. – Alexander S King Sep 15 '16 at 21:33
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According to Pennycook et al 2015, Frankfurt's definition of bullshit can be summed up as:

In On Bullshit, the philosopher Frankfurt (2005) defines bullshit as something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.

By their summary, coherency etc doesn't really factor into the equation at all! All that matters is that the bullshit is said without regard for its truthiness. (Interesting question, then: can bullshit also be 100% true?) Full disclosure: I never finished the original Frankfurt paper, though I'd like to.

Regardless of whether their summary is 100% accurate, I like it anyway: I think it's quite a pragmatic definition. For example, Pennycook et al devise a Bullshit Receptivity Scale, which is interesting. That work is specifically related to "Pseudo-profound Bullshit". They also detail two reasons why an agent might accept bullshit: a lack of ability to detect it, and a willingness to accept anything as true from the outset. It's a fun paper and worth the read.


You specifically ask about bullshit questions. By the above definitions questions are hard to fit into some definition of bullshit, because they don't impart meaning, but request it.

Three ideas spring to mind:

  1. Could the bullshit question be asked without caring about the response? For example, I could ask a question on Stackexchange but not care what the answer was, or even if there was one -- I'm just asking a question.
  2. Could a bullshit question be asked without caring whether the answer was true? In this case, I might demand an answer to my stackexchange question, but I don't care if the answer's right. I just want something to believe. This could be bullshit in that it solicits bullshit. I personally like this definition of questions-as-bullshit best.
  3. Could a question be bullshit if what it implies is bullshit? For example, "why are you wearing a red coat" could be bullshit if the subject was actually wearing a black coat. In that case, the person asking asserts something to be true in asking their question, and the assertion is bullshit. I feel this is closest to what Pennycook et al summarise Frankfurt's position as.

I hope that helps.

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The quote makes this kind of obvious. A question is bullshit if you really don't care about the answer, because asking is acting as if you do.

A question is implicitly an assertion that you have something to resolve. For that assertion to have irrelevant truth-values implies that you don't really want an answer, (you just want all of us to dance for you.)

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A question can be a kind of bull-shit in many kinds of ways; the essay that you're referencing is mostly concerned with how bullshit conceals truth and truthfulness, rather than what bull-shitting might be doing tactically and strategically; bullshitting may not have any truth-value, yet for all that it may have use-value - in fact this ought to be the case, as otherwise the bullshitter is getting no value out of his bullshitting.

A question might not be a question because its merely designed to demonstrate that the man asking the question knows something about the question; this is a certain kind of rhetorical question. Unless this artifice is signalled, then its a certain kind of bullshit, because people get taken in; there is also indirect consequences, genuine questions that go side by side or alongside with questions of this kind are tainted by this - so their own genuinineness is imputed; bad news apparently can drive out or drive down good news, and similarly bad questions can drive out or drive down good questions.

Another question might not be a question because its a veiled threat; it may be veiled, because its been said in a public place and he doesn't want anyone else to know he's just made a threat; if this public place is under surveillance, and further with recording equipment, he may have additional reasons to keep his threat veiled - no-one later can point the finger at him if his threat is carried out; or even if not, after all a low but constant barrage of bullshit can dishearten or demoralise most men.

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Bullshittiness is a quality of a statements by a person. The statement alone has a truth value, but its utterance by a person at a particular time is informed by the context including mostly the intention of that person (how much they care about the truth value of the statement).

If taken literally, a question is not a statement at all but a request of a statement with a truth value.

But utterances are utterances; they presume consequences and evoke feelings in people related to truth values. "Have you stopped beating your wife?" assumes that you were, which is not necessarily the case. "Are you crazy?" Isn't really asking for a response but intended to show someone that the speaker does not approve.

I think it is not common or easily ascribed, but I think yes, one can make a question that has a bullshit value. The intent of the question would have to be that the truth value of the assumptions or of the answers is lacking in relevancy. Then it would be fairly reasonable to say "Hey, that question is bullshit!".

For example, if a monk asked another "Have you stopped beating your wife?" or a psychiatrist asked a patient "Are you crazy?". Both would be examples of bullshit questions

Can you ascribe the attribute of 'bullshit' to a question?

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Some statements can be bullshit in the sense that the presenter is merely giving you a "word salad". He's giving you the option to eat it or not. It's much like the fortune program on Unix. It just gives answers, to no particular question.

  • Yes, but how is a statement or the response of fortune a question? This question asks how a question can be bullshit. – user2953 Nov 28 '16 at 7:58
  • @Keelan: There are different defs of the word "question". One def is "a sentence terminated with a question mark". Now that is not always a question in the def of "a sentence with the sincere intention of receiving knowledge from another person". – TheDoctor Dec 5 '16 at 23:39

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