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Beyond Bullshit: Donald Trump’s Philosophy of Language

Chris Gavaler and Nathaniel Goldberg analyze Trump’s mode of communication.

In 2005 the philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a charming little book called On Bullshit. In it Frankfurt distinguishes bullshit from humbug and lies. Donald Trump, we submit, isn’t (usually) a humbugger or a liar. He’s a bullshitter. But he extends the qualities of bullshit beyond Frankfurt’s definition. We’d like to show you how.

Frankfurt gives an example of humbug:

“Consider a Fourth of July orator, who goes on bombastically about our great and blessed country, whose Founding Fathers under divine guidance created a new beginning for mankind. This is surely humbug.”

Frankfurt explains that the orator isn’t lying:

“He would be lying only if it were his intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false, concerning such matters as whether our country is great, whether it is blessed, whether the Founders had divine guidance, and whether what they did was in fact to create a new beginning for mankind. But the orator does not really care what his audience thinks about the Founding Fathers, or about the role of the deity in our country’s history, or the like… He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history. What he cares about is what people think of him.”

Trump has also talked about the greatness of America’s past. Yet Trump’s statements aren’t humbug. He’s not in it only for self-aggrandizement, like Frankfurt’s orator: he’s trying to say something about America. Nor is Trump’s intention to bring about in his audience beliefs which he himself regards as false. Trump might really think that America was and will again be great. So he isn’t lying, either. Instead, Trump is bullshitting.

Trump bull

What’s bullshit?

Frankfurt considers an anecdote in which the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein chides his friend Pascal for saying “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” According to Wittgenstein, Pascal doesn’t know how a dog would feel about that. “Her fault,” Frankfurt elaborates, “is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.” Wittgenstein, Frankfurt contends, “construes her as engaged in an activity to which the distinction between what is true and what is false is crucial, and yet as taking no interest in whether what she says is true or false… That is why she cannot be regarded as lying; for she does not presume that she knows the truth, and therefore she cannot be deliberately promulgating a proposition that she presumes to be false: Her statement is grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true.” Frankfurt concludes: “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit.”

Trump is a lot like Pascal. After the heating and cooling systems manufacturer Carrier announced it would keep jobs in Indiana due to tax incentives, Trump talked about watching an interview with a Carrier employee. The Washington Post quoted Trump describing the employee:

“He said something to the effect, ‘No we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving.” Trump added, “I actually said I didn’t make [the promise]. When they played [my statement back], I said, ‘I did make it [to Carrier], but I didn’t mean it quite that way’.” As he explained: “I never thought I made that promise – not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.” The promise was, he said: “A euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in, because they made the decision a year and a half ago.”
(Washington Post from 1st December 2016)

Aaron Blake, who included Trump’s explanation in an opinion piece in the Post, rejoined,

“You can make an argument that Trump was perhaps speaking more generally and using Carrier as an example of the type of company that would no longer be leaving under his presidency.”

If so, Trump was employing a synecdoche – a part used to refer to the whole. That would mean that ‘Carrier’ meant, say, all U.S. manufacturers. Except Trump apparently meant ‘everybody else’: that is, everybody except Carrier. Blake continued:

“But this is a statement he made while in Indiana – in front of people who had a very strong interest in taking him literally. They did, and yet he was apparently surprised by that. Any studied politician would know that if you are in Indiana and you say Carrier won’t leave, you had better mean those exact words.”

By “you had better mean those exact words”, Blake is getting at what philosopher H. Paul Grice calls ‘implicature’ (see especially Grice’s Studies in the Way of Words, 1989). Implicature is concerned not only with what you actually say, but with what you imply by what you say. Speakers communicate the meaning of their words in one of two ways: conventionally, by the words themselves, or conversationally, by their use of words in a specific context. Both ways require speakers and audience working together.

According to Grice, all good communication follows the Cooperative Principle:

“Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”

Grice divides this Principle into four maxims:

Quantity: Make your contribution as – but only as – informative as required.

Quality: Try to make your contribution true.

Relation: Be relevant.

Manner: Be clear by avoiding obscurity and ambiguity, and by striving for brevity and order.

Speakers routinely flout those maxims, which is part of Grice’s point. Flouting a maxim conventionally indicates that a speaker is instead communicating conversationally. So if I ask you whether you had a good holiday, and you reply, “Beautiful weather we’re having!” then you’re flouting (at least) the Relation maxim. Today’s weather isn’t relevant to my question. Taken conversationally, however – that is, by understanding what you said in terms of the context in which you said it – what you said makes communicative sense. You’re indirectly telling me that your holiday wasn’t good.

Does Trump follow the Cooperative Principle of communication? According to journalist Salena Zito, “his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” If so, Trump flouts the maxims conventionally in order to communicate conversationally.

In the above quote he flouted Quantity. Saying ‘Carrier’ when he avowedly meant every U.S. manufacturing giant apart from Carrier, gave his audience too little information. He flouted Relation: ‘Carrier’ isn’t relevant to companies other than Carrier. He flouted Manner: he was embracing rather than avoiding obscurity and ambiguity. And Quality? If by ‘Carrier’ Trump genuinely meant everyone except Carrier, he did try to make his contribution true. He just flouted the other maxims. But if by ‘Carrier’ Trump meant what everyone else took him to mean – namely, Carrier – he didn’t try to make his contribution true. Yet he didn’t lie, since he didn’t mean to deceive. Trump just said something that felt right at the time. He wasn’t concerned with the truth of what he was saying at all. That’s the essence of bullshit.

But Trump one-ups Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit. While Trump wasn’t concerned with the truth, and his intent wasn’t to deceive, he nevertheless was concerned with what his audience thought. He wanted people in Indiana to think he was going to make America great again, whether or not Carrier – or everyone except Carrier – had anything to do with it. Yet it’s hard to see what could have conversationally clued his audience into this meaning. As Blake observes, many in Indiana weren’t clued in.

By flouting all of Grice’s maxims conventionally, and not clearly communicating even conversationally, Trump wasn’t communicating with his audience so much as talking at them. His speech was governed by what we might call the Anti-Cooperative Principle:

Make your conversational contribution seem such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged, even though it’s not.

That’s beyond bullshit.

© Chris Gavaler & Nathaniel Goldberg 2017

Chris Gavaler is an assistant professor of English, and Nathaniel Goldberg is a professor of Philosophy, at Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. They’re writing a book entitled What If? Superhero Comics as Philosophical Thought Experiments.

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