Wrestling With Existence: Social Reality And Modalities Of Untruth

by Jochen Szangolies

Actual rain in the actual world outside. Image credit: Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

A proposition, like “it’s raining outside”, can either be true or false—it might be the case that it actually rains, or not. It is then seductive to think that somebody uttering such a proposition is doing nothing but making a factual claim, and in doing so, either tells the truth, or not. Furthermore, we might surmise that, in the case that the claim fails to actually hold, the utterer, proclaiming a falsehood, is lying. In doing so, however, we would be getting ahead of ourselves: there is both more to making a simple utterance than the mere proclamation of a fact, and to its veracity than lying or truth-telling. Let’s tackle these in turn.

First, when I tell you “it’s raining outside”, I not only make a claim about the world (that it is, in fact, raining outside), but also a claim about my own assertion: that it is, in fact, truthful; and thus, by extension, about myself: that I am a truth-teller. Consequently, you believing me does not just mean you believe something about the world, but also, that you believe something about my own relationship to truth, at least in this particular instance.

All of this means that simple facts about the world are never just simple facts about the world; inasmuch as they come to us indirectly, that is, not as immediately present in our own experience, they are elements of a complex web of beliefs and attitudes. Believing me to be an inveterate liar, you might well rather be inclined to believe that it’s all sunshine outside when you hear me blathering on about the drizzle. If you happen to know I’ve spent the last hour tinkering away in the cellar, you might not attach any particular value to my claim, believing me to be ignorant on the matter. Your judgment regarding the meta-claim of my assertion’s truthfulness affects your belief in its content: the world-picture you create based upon it varies with your assessment of my stance towards truth. Read more »

Signifying Bullshit

by Chris Horner

It is everywhere: the production of words designed to promote the fiction that something positive and good is happening, even though it isn’t.  It comes courtesy of the people you work for, the retail outlets you shop from, and the government organisations that regulate your life. An example: a large organisation develops and with fanfare publishes a document laying out its ‘values’ – under titles like ‘ trust’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘courage’, diversity’, and ‘respect’. It stresses how the individual is valued, the importance of diversity in the workplace, mental health, freedom from harassment and so on. This extends to recruitment and promotion: everywhere diversity, respect and fairness rule: they are ‘investing in people’. Meanwhile, workers at this place have had no real terms pay increase in a decade, overtime and overwork is commonplace, and the complaints system is bureaucratic and agonisingly slow. In the coronavirus epidemic, while desk bound staff were encouraged to work at home, catering and cleaning staff had to appear at the workplace as usual – and naturally, the lower paid stuff doing this are disproportionately female and black. Feeling stressed by the long hours and low pay? There’s an after hours yoga class for that, and a values document to read. 

The mass production of warm sounding words with minimal interest in real material outcomes is signifying bullshit (SB). It is nearly ubiquitous. A vast amount of time is spend promoting the idea to consumers that a pair of boots, or a coffee or a shampoo is somehow saving the planet or conquering hunger in Africa; the public is encouraged to tweet or post their reviews of the goods they’ve bought, as retailers and the media outlets that boost them all want your warm words, too. There’s an ocean of participation and inclusivity, although it is not clear who is reading all this stuff. Read more »