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What is the difference between BS and a lie?

You may never have asked yourself that question, yet a philosopher found an answer. Harry G. Frankfurt, a moral philosopher and professor emeritus at Princeton, wrote a short sixty pages treatise on the matter ("On BS", Princeton; $ 9.95).

Linguistically, the expression goes back to the word bull, used in a seventeenth century English play ("Dumbe Speaker! that's a bull"). The origin of the word bull used to characterise discourse is uncertain. Some maintain that it refers to papal edicts known as bulls (from the bulla, or seal, appended to the document). Others link it to Obadiah Bull, an Irish lawyer in London during the reign of Henry VII. In the twentieth century bull was used to mean pretentious, deceitful, jejune language and became semantically attached to the animal. The word BS came into currency around 1915, according to dictionaries.

Philosophically, there is a difference between telling BS and telling a lie. According to Frankfurt, BS is produced without any concern for the truth, not to misrepresent something but to conceal one's own indifference.

"The BSer is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong." The liar, however, is concerned with the truth, he wants to lead away from it. The liar and the truth teller are thus opponents in the same game, which is defined by the authority of truth and in which the BSter does not participate. He is not guided in what he says by his beliefs.

BS'ing can take many different forms, namely that of political propaganda, management-speak, or P.R., and is riddled with euphemism, cliché, fake folksiness, and high-sounding abstractions. And that, Frankfurt says, is what makes BS so dangerous: it unfits a person for telling the truth.

Source: The New Yorker

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