I KNOW THAT THIS TOPIC has been written about, nearly to the point that one may add the phrase ad nauseam when talking about the subject – and I know that philosophers have also thrown their two cents in on this overly-discussed topic. But I also know that no matter how much we, normals and philosophers alike, talk about it, it won’t be nearly enough to get to the bottom of this perplexing and often frustrating subject.
Bottom being the operative word, here.
You see, it seems that no matter how emphatically I insist that philosophy is necessary, there will be no shortage of those who will remain unconvinced that studying philosophy is at all necessary for one’s psychological and intellectual fulfillment. But believe me when I tell you this: thinking about life and the world philosophically opens up entirely new ways to look at everything. EVERYTHING.
There’s something that happens to you once you begin to study philosophy. You’ll find it everywhere. It’s not just that you’ll understand the philosophical undertones of Radiohead’s Ok Computer (and there are plenty to be found) or understand how understanding postmodernism makes watching David Lynch movies much easier (actually, it probably won’t). However, more importantly, you’ll be able to use philosophy in your everyday relationships with your family, friends, coworkers, even with complete strangers!
I cannot say it enough times; philosophy is great. Even though the stereotypical image of philosophers and their theories is not an image that we readily associate with the word “great”, and is even less likely to be associated with the word “fun”, thinking of everyday things from a philosophical point of view can actually be simultaneously informative and tremendously entertaining.
A few years ago, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s 1986 essay “On Bullshit” was republished and became a bestseller on the New York Times non-fiction list. The popularity of the 2005 book version of On Bullshit surprised many, most of whom, I assume, are people who probably did not believe that anything written by a philosopher can be popular.
… Or entertaining.
Or would have the word “bullshit” in it.
Frankfurt’s mission in On Bullshit was to define and develop a theory of bullshit, which Frankfurt describes as “one of the most salient features of our culture”. What Harry Frankfurt proved is that philosophy can not only be entertaining, but philosophy can be used to analyze something that all of us, not just philosophy professors or philosophy students, are interested in and familiar with.
While I was earning my philosophy degree, I had made it a habit of asking my fellow students and (some of) my professors why they had decided to take up philosophy. To be honest, I was shocked by the homogeneity of the answers that I heard. I was well aware that philosophers are the sort of people who make a habit of thinking about things other people usually don‘t think about, so I had expected that their answers would be more varied than they were.
The answer I usually heard was something like this, “I decided to study philosophy because I wanted to learn more about myself and the way the world works”.
Exciting answer, eh?
For the record, that’s not why I went into philosophy.
You see, before I became a philosophy major I was a dedicated student of political science. And, as any student of politics knows, what political science really is about is the art of bullshitting. Bullshitting is the politician’s medium. A politician’s finely crafted pieces of tauroscatatological masterpieces have no rival. Politicians dole out bullshit to the public as freely as drunken coeds dole it out in Cancun during spring break. And I was on my way to becoming a master of bullshitting, until I found philosophy.
As I said before, what initially drew me to philosophy wasn’t an insatiable need to know about irrefutable truths or the meaning of life.
Ok, here’s the reason.
Ready for it?
If there is anything that would make the study of philosophy un-fun (besides reading Kant) it’s taking up a major for the sole purpose of staring at a professor. Yeah. THAT kind of staring.
It’s typical, it’s lame, and nothing ever came of my infatuation, but that’s my reason for wanting to study philosophy. The thing is, that for most of the time I was a philosophy major, I told myself that that wasn’t the reason why I was taking philosophy classes. I was bullshitting myself about the reason why I was studying a subject that is supposed to be devoid of bullshit.
Anytime someone asked me why I decided to study philosophy, I gave the same bullshit answer that everyone else did.
In my philosophy classes I found myself surrounded by people who claimed that philosophy is the real thing – a no bullshit zone; that philosophy isn’t just opinions and rhetoric, but is logically sound and at times irrefutable.
But why, I asked myself, did so much of what I heard in my philosophy class sound like the BS I was hearing in my political science classes?
As social beings, our interactions with people and how people interact with us influences how we perceive the personalities of others. Based on our perceptions of others, we classify them as nice people or good people or people who are not nice or bad people and so on. So, if, through experience, we come to feel that everyone is unkind, we will base our actions, thoughts, and perceptions of others accordingly.
I found myself thinking not only is all philosophy is bullshit, I found myself growing increasingly disturbed by my feelings towards some of my fellow philosophy students – some of them – many of them were not nice people.
I began to suspect that some of them were assholes.
The actress Mink Stole famously said in John Waters’ 1972 masterpiece of filth, Pink Flamingos, “I guess there are just two kinds of people… My kind of people and assholes”.
As a fan of both Mink Stole and the film, the first several dozen times I watched the film Stole’s sentiment hadn’t aroused my philosophical interest. But as I observed my classmates, I began to find myself feeling more like Mink Stole’s character Connie Marble. The world truly is divided between two different groups.
There’s my kind of people.
Assholes, so far as people go, are an entirely different class of human being.
As time progressed I realized that my impressions weren’t mere delusion or some deep-seeded hatred of philosophers held over from my background in political science. Some of my fellow students were assholes – big ones at that.
Hey, Wittgenstein was an asshole, why not them, right?
The realization led me to think: is there is a connection between being a bullshitter and being an asshole?
Is it possible for us to determine, not only who the purveyors of bullshit are, but also if there are personality traits that are common to bullshitters or anyone else we would sooner throw out of a moving car than help them escape of a zombie infested shopping mall?
My answer is yes.
I observed that my classmates not only had fairly high opinions of themselves, but also all possessed an over inflated sense of their own mental capacity.
Listen, I’m not knocking having a positive self image. A healthy sense of self-esteem is a good thing, but what I saw with some of my classmates was a kind of high-falutin attitude that was something quite out of the ordinary – to the degree that one may, and rightfully so, call these individuals assholes.
Now, for a time I wasn’t sure if they were actually smarter than everyone else, or, perhaps with the encouragement of the professors, had been convinced that they were in fact smarter than everyone else.
I couldn’t help noticing that a not insignificant number of my classmates not only slung a fair amount of bullshit, but I also realized that there was a distinct correlation between those students who thought very highly of themselves and the presence of bullshit.
I have to admit that, until I had become a philosophy major, I hadn’t paid much attention to what kind of person dispenses bullshit, much less if there’s a connection between bullshitting and the kind of person who is prone to bullshitting. I wondered if those people what I considered assholes and the ones that were bullshitters were one in the same. More importantly, I wondered if there was a methodology to figuring out that kind of person a bullshitter is.
Until I observed my classmates, I had been blissfully unaware that we’re even capable of knowing what kind of person is prone to habitual bullshitting, much less that a bullshitting person can be identified by the mere observation of particular personality traits.
So, after conducting a very unscientific poll of some of my fellow, non-philosophy major students, I concluded that there was enough of a correlation between bullshit and assholes that further examination of the relationship was warranted.
This is getting somewhere, trust me.
I was somewhat elated that I had discovered that it is possible to figure that there is a possible formula for finding whether someone is an asshole. However, in my eagerness to label everyone (asshole or non-asshole), I realized that my zeal had led me to an error: some of those who I had squarely tossed into the asshole camp were not assholes at all.
These people were different from the garden-variety assholes that I had encountered in my philosophy classes. Some of the people that I met clearly exhibited asshole tendencies, yet something was missing. There was some quality that they lacked. That moment, I realized that there was indeed something different about these people. They were an entirely other breed of person – they were smartasses.
This threw a serious wrench into my line of thought. How was I to figure out if I was dealing with a smartass or an asshole?
At this point I knew this: I had to figure out what makes a person an asshole, and, if possible, what makes him different from a smartass?
This is where philosophy comes in handy.
I realized that differentiating between regular people and assholes and establishing a relationship between bullshitting and being an asshole required determining the necessary and sufficient conditions that must be met if I wanted to figure out if a person is “my kind of people” or an asshole.
But I ain’t actually gonna to do that.
That kind of bullshit is what professional philosophers do.
I already knew that bullshitting, although elemental to determining who an asshole or a smartass may or may not be, may not be the sole factor in determining if one is indeed an asshole.
Ok, at this point, I realize that the impression may be that my inquiry is not one of serious academic merit, and to some extent, I heartily agree. However, in all seriousness, my inquiry is only partially in jest. Although I realize the outward appearance of the subject matter may appear un-philosophic, I feel that serious philosophical examination of seemingly un-philosophical topics is not only warranted but long overdue.
** I should take this time to say that I’m not the only person thinking about this subject. The subject of assholes has become quite the hot topic in philosophy. Several books on the subject have been released, including UC Irvine philosophy professor, Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory (also inspired by Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit), published in 2012.**
I must say that my approach is purely one of inquiry. My conditions for assholocity (or assholeness, or assholitude, if you will) may be inadequate or not correct at all. As I have said before, I am not a professional philosopher. The point here is to encourage others to consider this cultural phenomena from a philosophical point of view.
My intention is to suggest that:
1) there is a connection between habitual bullshitting and the personality types more likely to engage in bullshitting.
2) bullshit is more likely to come from assholes,
and 3) it may be useful for us to know what the connection is, so we can easily spot an asshole.
** It is not my intention to be offensive by declaring that bullshit tends to come from assholes. The fact is that many of the people we call “assholes” do indeed have a proclivity for bullshitting. It is unfortunate that the terminology also refers to particular body parts and excretory products. I feel that, so long as Frankfurt suggests that we do a serious philosophical examination of bullshit, it might do us all some good to figure out exactly where or from whom all this bullshit is coming from.**
I have constructed an equation of the specific characteristics that are essential if we want to label an individual an asshole. The equation goes like this:
(Bullshit + Apathy + Duplicity) = Asshole
I believe that all three personality traits are necessary (and/or sufficient… whatever) if we are to accurately identify someone as an asshole. That is, if someone you know is an apathetic, duplicitous bullshitter, it generally follows that the individual you are dealing with is an asshole.* However, I will admit here, as this is still a theory in progress that I have not exactly mapped out the necessary and sufficient conditions for determining if an individual is just a bullshitter or if that individual is a smartass or an asshole. The focus of the matter, I think, is that there is an established a connection between bullshitting and being an asshole.
Of course, as with any theory in progress, there is still much more work that is necessary if I ever intend to develop a real philosophical theory of assholism.
As I said, at the outset my inquiry was motivated by my fascination with bullshit. I had discovered that both bullshitters and smartasses possessed a capacity for bullshiting. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is indifferent to the truth and that an indifference to truth is “the essence of bullshit”. I found, in my observations, that assholes share the bullshitter’s indifference to truth.
Frankfurt writes that the bullshitter carefully crafts his bullshit for the purposes of getting what he wants and that the bullshitter is “trying to get away with something”. Frankfurt writes that a bullshitter is careful of his words because he wants the object of his bullshit, the listener, to feel something; namely he wants us to take him at his word, he wants us to believe that he is sincere.
I, however, feel that the asshole’s motivation is different. I observed that an asshole wants to get over on other people, but unlike Frankfurt’s bullshitter, an asshole does not care if he is perceived as sincere or not; he is oblivious to whatever emotional response anyone has to what he says. If you feel any emotional response to what an asshole says, then good for you. He doesn’t care. An asshole is only concerned about himself. This indifference to the feelings of others explains why people often feel (after an encounter with an asshole) as if they have been shit on. Since an asshole has a disregard for the feelings of others and no intention of ever returning any favor, he feels is able to maintain his asshole attitude as long as he is getting what he wants.
A bullshitter’s worse fear is discovery (the fear that we’ll discover that he has been bullshitting us the whole time). The asshole has no such underlying fear. He is not only indifferent to truth; he is indifferent to getting caught. An asshole simply does not care about you or what you think. The asshole, at heart, suffers from an extreme case of apathy.
However, an asshole’s apathy cuts both ways. Despite the fact that an asshole does not care about other people, he realizes that other people are essential if an asshole is to be an asshole. The asshole, despite the fact that he does not care about you, definitely wants you to be around. I realize that this trait sounds like a contradiction, but for the asshole the sentiment is not so much of a contradiction as it is an indication of the duplicitous nature of an asshole’s personality. An asshole really does not care about you, but he does care about whether you think he is an asshole. An easier way to explain how an asshole thinks is it’s kind of like Nirvana song that goes, “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me”.
** A word about smartasses…
Like an asshole and the bullshitter, a smartass is also motivated by a need to bullshit. His motivation, however, differs from the bullshitter and an asshole in that a smartass’ motivation is not at all influenced by other people. At first glance, this might seem odd, since a smartass, by nature, can only be a smartass around other people (since it’s rather difficult to be a smartass to yourself). A smartass says what he says because his words are pleasing to himself; usually in an attempt at being humorous (I have long suspected that, in the case of most smartasses, the joke is meant to be private; like a joke one tells to one’s self inside one’s own head. In some cases a smartass just happens to say his private joke out loud).
He does not care if his “humor” is humorous to anyone but himself. The fact that anyone or no one reacts to what the smartass says is of no consequence to him or his goals. The fact that the smartass speaks at all is his goal. His goal is self-amusement. He is most impressed by his capacity for witty and/or crude comments. An indifference to truth takes a back seat to the act of speaking itself. The bullshit that a smartass dishes out isn’t said for the purpose of getting what he wants; he says it because he fancies himself a clever and funny person. Usually he is not, which is why smartasses are often mistaken for assholes.**
Although assholes share a number of traits in common with smartasses and bullshitters, there is one trait that distinguishes assholes from smartasses and the garden-variety dispensers of bullshit – an asshole is not limited to language, his assholiness includes his actions as well. One is not usually described as “acting like” a smartass and even more rarely is one ever accused of “acting like” a bullshitter, but people are often described as acting like assholes.
Now that we know what an asshole is, it might do us some good to figure out how an asshole might act. I mean, actions speak louder than words, right? We might assume that an asshole acts in some way that makes them easy to spot. What ethical theory would an asshole follow – utilitarianism? Deontological ethics? Egoism?
Come to think of it, while we’re asking about which ethical theory an asshole might follow, it might do us all some good to bush up on our Ayn Rand.
It is an election year, after all.
*THIS POST ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ANOTHER FORM IN THE BOOK MINDLESS PHILOSOPHER: HOW PHILOSOPHY TAUGHT ME EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT POPULAR CULTURE AND ON THE (now defunct) BLOGGER BLOG “THE KANTIAN EGOIST” UNDER THE TITLE “SPOTTING THE GOLDEN EGG” (POSTED JANUARY 30, 2009).
* An observant philosopher may have noticed that I have not elaborated on any sufficient conditions for being an asshole. If a condition is sufficient when, if the condition is satisfied, the truth of the statement is guaranteed, then bullshit, apathy, and duplicity are also sufficient conditions for being an asshole. But, don’t quote me. I got a D- in logic.
** I believe we shouldn’t hesitate to make our philosophy personal; even if getting personal means dealing out a large portion of TMI.
Harry Frankfurt. On Bullshit. 2005. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p.1, 23, 34.
“Drain You” lyrics by Kurt Cobain. Copyright 1991.