from George Eliot, Middlemarch, with a funny rhythmic echo of the bromide “all good things come to an end, but diamonds are forever” in the second sentence:
Miss Brooke argued from words and dispositions not less unhesitatingly than other young ladies of her age. Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good-luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be. Because Miss Brooke was hasty in her trust, it is not therefore clear that Mr. Casaubon was unworthy of it.
We hear a lot about being right for the wrong reasons, but not so much about being wrong for the right reasons—arguably just as common, if not more so, and perhaps less of a sin. As for being wrong for the wrong reasons, that is still not so bad as being “not even wrong.”
If we care to be scholastic, we might map this fourfold way onto the apparatus of informal logic. If we fudge Eliot’s focus on “conclusions” and take rightness instead to be a matter of having given true premises, then to be right for right reasons is to be sound; to be wrong for right reasons is to be valid but unsound; to be right for wrong reasons is to be invalid and epistemically lucky; and to be wrong for wrong reasons is simply to be a user of Twitter.
If we care, instead, to be cancelled, we might look to the work of heterodox philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, who took his cue from analytical chemistry. In this typology there are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. (Rumsfeld himself is an instance of the third.) He thus extends the great philosophical tradition of drawing squares, from Plato and Aristotle to Levi-Strauss.
The method has become so popular it has since been taken up by statisticians.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion”:
[…] the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
When we consider either the history of opinion, or the ordinary conduct of human life, to what is it to be ascribed that the one and the other are no worse than they are? Not certainly to the inherent force of the human understanding; for, on any matter not self-evident, there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it, for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative; for the majority of the eminent men of every past generation held many opinions now known to be erroneous, and did or approved numerous things which no one will now justify. Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man, either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognizant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.
As a model of discourse, compare William James on the “pretension” of possessing truth wholly; the portrayal of wisdom in Proverbs 8, here in the King James version:
1 Doth not wisdom cry? and understanding put forth her voice?
2 She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.
3 She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.
4 Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.
5 O ye simple, understand wisdom: and, ye fools, be ye of an understanding heart.
6 Hear; for I will speak of excellent things; and the opening of my lips shall be right things.
7 For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
8 All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them.
9 They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.
10 Receive my instruction, and not silver; and knowledge rather than choice gold.
11 For wisdom is better than rubies; and all the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it.
12 I wisdom dwell with prudence, and find out knowledge of witty inventions.
Mencken on “The Truth-Seeker,” in A Mencken Chrestomathy:
The man who boasts that he habitually tells the truth is simply a man who has no respect for it. It is not a thing to be thrown about loosely, like small change; it is something to be cherished and hoarded and disbursed only when absolutely necessary. The smallest atom of truth represents some man’s bitter toil and agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-seeker’s grave upon some lonely ash-dump and a soul roasting in Hell.
The effect of a lecture depends upon the habits of the listener; because we expect the language to which we are accustomed, and anything beyond this seems not to be on the same level, but somewhat strange and unintelligible on account of its unfamiliarity; for it is the familiar that is intelligible. The powerful effect of familiarity is clearly shown by the laws, in which the fanciful and puerile survivals prevail [i.e., “in which fanciful and childish elements prevail”—ML], through force of habit, against our recognition of them. Thus some people will not accept the statements of a speaker unless he gives a mathematical proof; others will not unless he makes use of illustrations; others expect to have a poet adduced as witness. Again, some require exactness in everything, while others are annoyed by it, either because they cannot follow the reasoning or because of its pettiness; for there is something about exactness which seems to some people to be mean, no less in an argument than in a business transaction.
Hence one must have been already trained how to take each kind of argument, because it is absurd to seek simultaneously for knowledge and for the method of obtaining it; and neither is easy to acquire. Mathematical accuracy is not to be demanded in everything, but only in things which do not contain matter. Hence this method is not that of natural science, because presumably all nature is concerned with matter. Hence we should first inquire what nature is; for in this way it will become clear what the objects of natural science are [and whether it belongs to one science or more than one to study the causes and principles of things].
The effect which lectures produce on a hearer depends on his habits; for we demand the language we are accustomed to, and that which is different from this seems not in keeping but somewhat unintelligible and foreign because of its unwontedness. For the customary is more intelligible. The force of habit is shown by the laws, in whose case, with regard to the legendary and childish elements in them, habit has more influence than our knowledge about them. Some people do not listen to a speaker unless he speaks mathematically, others unless he gives instances, while others expect him to cite a poet as witness. And some want to have everything done accurately, while others are annoyed by accuracy, either because they cannot follow the connexion of thought or because they regard it as pettifoggery. For accuracy has something of this character, so that as in trade so in argument some people think it mean. Therefore one must be already trained to know how to take each sort of argument, since it is absurd to seek at the same time knowledge and the way of attaining knowledge; and neither is easy to get.
The minute accuracy of mathematics is not to be demanded in all cases, but only in the case of things which have no matter. Therefore its method is not that of natural science; for presumably all nature has matter. Hence we must inquire first what nature is: for thus we shall also see what natural sciences treats of [and whether it belongs to one science or to more to investigate the causes and the principles of things].
The Greek for “exactness” here is ἀκριβολογία, akribologia, a combination of λόγος and the adjective ἀκριβής (exact, precise, scrupulous, methodical).
In extant ancient Greek literature the word often carries a negative valence: excessive precision, pedantry. It appears perhaps most famously in Book 1 of Plato’s Republic at 340e, where Thrasymachus accuses Socrates of too much akribologia: “ὥστε κατὰ τὸν ἀκριβῆ λόγον, ἐπειδὴ καὶ σὺ ἀκριβολογῇ, …” consequently, according to precise speech, since you too demand precision... (In Paul Shorey’s translation, “so that, speaking precisely, since you are such a stickler for precision.” Shorey’s footnote: “For the invidious associations of ἀκριβολογία (1) in money dealings, (2) in argument, cf. Aristotle Met. 995 a 11, Cratylus 415 A, Lysias vii. 12, Antiphon B 3, Demosthenes. xxiii. 148, Timon in Diogenes Laertius ii. 19.”)
Erasmus makes reference to this line of Thrasymachus in the first, slimmer edition of his adages, Collectanea Adagiorum, published in Paris in 1500. In the translation by John Grant, based on the slightly revised and updated 1506 edition, the discussion appears at 335:
335. Ad vivum. Summo iure / To the quick. By the letter of the law
The meaning is “right to the skin.” We use the expression to refer to actions that are conducted with utmost precision, as when we pursue something with excessive keenness. In Plato Thrasymachus calls Socrates a false accuser, meaning a pettifogger, because he applies a very narrow interpretation to what has been said, distorting the sense of the words whose meaning is clear rather than showing how somewhat carelessly expressed words can be given a better sense. He adds, “Therefore, according to your precise mode of interpretation (since you cut right to the quick), no craftsman can make a mistake.” Similar to this is what Cicero says when defending Caecina: “All the others turn to that way of speaking when they think they have a fair and good defense to make in a case. If, however, there is a wrangling about words and phrases, and, as the saying goes, the letter of the law is applied, they are in the habit of using such fine words as “fair” and “good” to counter such wickedness.” To fight Summo iure “By the letter of the law” means to cut back the laws to the quick and to apply a very narrow interpretation. From this we get “Extreme right is extreme wrong.”
Sachiko Kusukawa traces this lineage in her essay “Ad Vivum Images and Knowledge of Nature in Early Modern Europe.” As she points out, Cicero uses the phrase ad vivum in his dialogue De Amicitia,On Friendship, translated here by W. A. Falconer:
This, however, I do feel first of all—that friendship cannot exist except among good men; nor do I go into that too deeply [neque in ad vivum reseco], as is done by those who, in discussing this point with more than usual accuracy [subtilius], and it may be correctly, but with too little view to practical results, say that no one is good unless he is wise. We may grant that; but they understand wisdom to be a thing such as no mortal man has yet attained. I, however, am bound to look at things as they are in the experience of everyday life and not as they are in fancy or in hope.
Erasmus makes reference to Cicero’s usage of ad vivum resecare in the longer edition of his adages, at II.4.13:
M. Tullius lib. De amicitia Ad vivum resecare dixit pro eo, quod est rem exactius, quam sat est, ac morosius excutere: Sed hoc, inquit, primum sentio, nisi in bonis amicitiam esse non posse. Neque id ad vivum reseco, ut illi, qui haec subtilius disserunt. Mutuo sumpta metaphora a tonsoribus capillos aut ungues resecantibus, nam ii saepenumero molesti sunt, dum nimium diligentes esse student. Idem in libris De finibus dixit pressius agere pro exactius et accuratius. Plautus in Bacchidibus sub persona Chrysali: Tondebo auro usque ad vivam cutem. Et hoc ipsum tondere pro deludere Graecis in proverbio est.
Kusukawa gives the translation of “mutuo sumpta…”: “the image is borrowed from hairdressers as they cut short one’s hair or finger-nails; for they are often tiresome with their efforts to be needlessly precise.” As she notes, Plato’s use of akribologei
had been translated by the Florentine scholar Marisilio Ficino (1433–1499) into “ad vivum resecas (you speak needlessly precisely).” This is probably the reason why Erasmus connected the two classical passages of Cicero and Plato, but ad vivum was by no means a fixed Latin counterpart to akribologia, a word that was also found in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. [She quotes what I quote above.] In the medieval translation by William of Moerbeke (ca. 1220–1235–ca. 1286), the Greek phrase akribologia had been left untranslated, but the Byzantine humanist John Argyropoulos (1415–1487) rendered this mathematical akribologia as “exacta discussio mathematicorum (mathematicians’ exacting examination).” Another point made in the passage above [that is, Aristotle] is that overattention to detail in discussion or transaction was deemed “mean” (illiberales in Argyropoulos’s translation). The mean-spiritedness of excessive precision was carried over to the phrase “exigere ad vivum,” which Erasmus identified as a characteristic harshness (rigor). Ad vivum thus meant something like “to the bare bones” in English, with the negative sense of verbatim, an overattention to the strict sense of a word or to the letter of the law which reflected some meanness in spirit. Erasmus, whose ambition was to educate his audience to speak and write with the rhetorical flair of the classical authors, had little positive to say about this sense of ad vivum.
On the anomalous quality of Book 2 of the Metaphysics, see Werner Jaeger, Aristotle: Fundamentals of the History of His Development, p. 169:
Aristotle’s literary executors were philosophers. They would have given much to be able to construct, out of the precious papers that they found, as true a picture as possible of the whole intellectual system of ‘first philosophy’ as Aristotle had intended it to be; but their desire was thwarted by the incomplete and disparate character of the material. For one thing is certain; the editors themselves did not believe that with the order which they established they were giving posterity the complete course of lectures on metaphysics. They realized that they were offering an unsatisfactory makeshift, which was all that the condition of their materials allowed. The postscript to the introductory book, the so-called little α, comes after big Α simply because they did not know where else to put it. It is a remnant of notes taken at a lecture by Pasicles, a nephew of Aristotle’s disciple Eudemus of Rhodes. [With footnote: “Asclepius, in his commentary on the Metaphysics (p. 4 l. 20, in Hayduck), refers this information, which reached him as a tradition handed down m the Peripatetic school, to Α; but this is a confusion. His account must come from notes taken at a lecture by Ammonius, and obviously he misheard. The true account is given by the scholiast on little α in the codex Parisinus (cf. Ent. Met. Arist., p. 114).”]
“[…] Are you suggesting that one cannot sometimes say what is true?” What I am suggesting is that “Because it is true” is not a reason or basis for saying something; and I am suggesting that there must, in grammar, be reasons for what you say, or be a point in your saying of something, if what you say is to be comprehensible. We can understand what the words mean apart from understanding why you say them; but apart from understanding the point of you saying them we cannot understand what you mean.
The world is awash in bullshit. Politicians are unconstrained by facts. Science is conducted by press release. Higher education rewards bullshit over analytic thought. Startup culture elevates bullshit to high art. Advertisers wink conspiratorially and invite us to join them in seeing through all the bullshit — and take advantage of our lowered guard to bombard us with bullshit of the second order. The majority of administrative activity, whether in private business or the public sphere, seems to be little more than a sophisticated exercise in the combinatorial reassembly of bullshit.
We’re sick of it. It’s time to do something, and as educators, one constructive thing we know how to do is to teach people. So, the aim of this course is to help students navigate the bullshit-rich modern environment by identifying bullshit, seeing through it, and combating it with effective analysis and argument.
What do we mean, exactly, by bullshit and calling bullshit? As a first approximation:
Bullshit involves language, statistical figures, data graphics, and other forms of presentation intended to persuade by impressing and overwhelming a reader or listener, with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence.
Calling bullshit is a performative utterance, a speech act in which one publicly repudiates something objectionable. The scope of targets is broader than bullshit alone. You can call bullshit on bullshit, but you can also call bullshit on lies, treachery, trickery, or injustice.
In this course we will teach you how to spot the former and effectively perform the latter.