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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 conceal it

Suppose a bullshitter is either soliciting or participating in a "let's hear from all sides" dialog, but doesn't say a word, and appears to and pretends to listen actively, but couldn't care less. The feigned "listening" is done only to perhaps:

  • gain the speakers trust

  • delay the speaker

  • exhaust or frustrate the speaker

  • run out the clock

  • get paid for the time spent listening

If such listening is bullshit, is there a specific name for it? If it's not bullshit, is there a theory or name for it?


Note: a silent listener does in effect make a tacit statement that they are listening, while a listener who is fidgeting, tapping, yawning, rolling their eyes, plugging their ears, watching the clock, etc. makes a contrary statement. In this respect a silent listener can therefore lie by a tacit statement contrary to their feelings. That is, by pretending indifference when interested, as with poker, or by pretending interest when bored. So this question implies the question: if a listener can tacitly lie, is it possible to tacitly bullshit as well?

  • Not necessarily. It can be done for a benevolent reason, to make the speaker feel listened to, appreciated, or to let the parties vent their frustrations to discharge a potential conflict, etc. Psychotherapists and arbiters often act as such mediators when they can not, realistically, have a genuine interest in the topic, it is part of their jobs. Indeed, everybody acts this way on occasion out of politeness or concern, and it is expected of family members and close friends. – Conifold May 24 at 22:16
  • @Conifold, Re "...a benevolent reason...": my recollection of Frankfurt's theory is that the motive for bullshit isn't relevant. Suppose a dictator uses bullshit because he really wants to help humanity, (and believes harsh actions are necessary to avoid greater harms), and suppose the dictator fails to help, (because he's needlessly pessimistic), and thus leads his nation to catastrophe. Rather than consider the motive, it seems more practical to judge the outcomes -- instances of bullshit might be harmful, less harmful, a trade off, or in troubled environments even be helpful. – agc May 25 at 4:43
  • I'd say the naming is selected to convey negative connotations, and your sample list in the post spells out just those. If "benevolent bullshit" is admitted (without caveats about "troubled environments") then sure, but then the surrounding rhetoric is, by design, misleading. "Benevolent bullshit" would typically be viewed positively. And I'd say, utilitarianism is not the ethics of a majority. In practice, intent makes a lot of difference to people, which is reflected in colloquial expressions like "white lies", or in the common law (no criminal intent - no crime). – Conifold May 25 at 4:59
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    Frankfurt is careful to say that his analysis is "tentative and exploratory", and the thrust of it has an air of condemnation. So I do not believe "benevolent bullshit" falls under what he has in mind even if his provisional formulations are technically satisfied. This aside, your question is analogous to asking if lying by omission is lying proper. If we take Wikipedia as an authority on common usage the answer is yes. Then bullshitting by omission should be named bullshitting as well. – Conifold May 25 at 6:01
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    I am just working from your own example of breaking Grice's conversational maxims with intent to mislead, such as omitting verbal and non-verbal cues of disinterest. Bullshitter is "trying to get away with something... What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise", as Frankfurt puts it. And that can be done by omission just as well as by commission, non-verbally just as well as verbally. Indeed, this is just lying by omission about the "enterprise". – Conifold May 25 at 6:25
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Bullshit is something one produces. In context (a context that excludes e.g. the elocutionist who utters random sentences, which may be taken for statements or claims by a passser-by) the bullshitter makes - produces - statements or claims to the truth-value of which s/he is indifferent. Saying something and not caring about its truth-value and listening to something and not caring about its truth-value don't become forms of the same activity, i.e. bullshitting, only by the common feature of indifference to truth-value. The bullshitter is essentially active: s/he produces and has control over statements produced. Your 'feigning listener' is essentially passive since s/he neither produces nor has control over the statements feignedly attended to.

This is an important difference which disinclines me to putting bullshitter and feigning listener in the same category. But they deserve each other and I hope they meet.

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  • The answer would be better if it addressed the fact that a silent listener does in effect make a tacit statement that they are listening, while a listener who is fidgeting, tapping, yawning, rolling their eyes, plugging their ears, watching the clock, etc. makes a contrary statement. In this respect a silent listener can therefore lie by a tacit statement contrary to their feelings. That is, pretending indifference when interested, as with poker, or pretending interest when bored. So the Q. is: if a listener can tacitly lie, is it possible to tacitly bullshit as well? – agc May 25 at 4:40
  • Interesting comment, thank you. My answer was only a tentative contribution, not a final wrapping up. Your comment stands as an additional step in the analysis. – Geoffrey Thomas May 25 at 8:57

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