There is a kind of insouciance that does not attach importance to the truth. Closely associated with this is the phenomenon of post-truth, according to which “the truth itself has become irrelevant” (1). The philosopher Harry Frankfurt has analysed this kind of insouciance. We discuss his argument.  

A reference within business ethics

In our previous article, we referred to the only study, among those published in one of the three leading academic journals of business ethics, that deals with insouciance with a minimum of substance. It is an insouciance relative to the truth, which the authors of the article, Christopher Baird and Thomas Calvard, describe as “epistemic insouciance” (2).

Drawing in particular on the work of philosopher Quassim Cassam (3), they define epistemic insouciance as an indifference to values relating to truth, reliability of reasoning and knowledge

“To be insouciant is to be indifferent. To be epistemically insouciant is to be indifferent or show a casual lack of concern toward epistemic goods [which] include such properties as ‘truthfulness,’ ‘justification,’ ‘coherence,’ ‘knowledge,’ and ‘reasoning.’”

Following Cassam, Baird and Calvard considered epistemic insouciance to be a vice. But their aim is to highlight the exercise of this vice in organisations and to propose methods to contain it. Indeed, they assert that “organizations are also implicated in the creation, circulation, and consumption of substantial quantities of talk and text which have little respect for or relationship to evidence or justification.”

Unfortunately, they focus less on epistemic insouciance than on other vices relating to the realisation of epistemic values. But in the corresponding section they are careful to mention the philosopher Harry Frankfurt. His philosophical reflection on statements expressing nonsense and absurdities, the result of an indifference to truth, was a genuine editorial success (4). Although he does not use the expression “epistemic insouciance” (nor does he use the words “insouciance” and “epistemic”), he addresses it indirectly through his definition of “smooth talk” (or “bullshit,” see note 5).  

Smooth talk according to Harry Frankfurt

In order to propose a definition of smooth talk, this “flood of generally misleading words, most often motivated by the desire to convince, deceive or seduce,” and to distinguish it from a lie, an “assertion contrary to the truth made with the intention of deceiving” (6), Frankfurt recalls the remark that philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein made to a woman (Fania Pascal, who taught him the Russian language in the early 1930s at Cambridge) while she was in a clinic after undergoing an operation:

“I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called. I croaked: ‘I feel just like a dog that has been run over.’ He was disgusted: ‘You don’t know what a dog that has been run over feels like.’”

Frankfurt interprets Wittgenstein’s disgust, and his response based on ignorance, as a reaction to the spiel expressed by the phrase: “I feel like a dog that has been run over.” If this statement is smooth talk, it is because it shows Fania Pascal’s lack of concern for the truth, regardless of whether or not she repeated a ready-made formula like an automaton:

“What disgusts him is that Pascal is not even concerned whether her statement is correct. […] She makes [her statement] without bothering to take into account at all the question of its accuracy. […] So far as Wittgenstein can see, Pascal offers a description of a certain state of affairs without genuinely submitting to the constraints which the endeavor to provide an accurate representation of reality imposes. Her fault is not that she fails to get things right, but that she is not even trying.”


Smooth talk and insouciance

The mixture of sincerity, embarrassment, laziness, ease and the search for an effect that characterises the phrase “I feel like a dog that has been run over” evokes insouciance. Frankfurt is ready to quote the word a little further on. He chose the word “indifference,” perhaps to avoid including a connotation of lightness in his argument:

“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.”

Frankfurt also mentioned this earlier. He then proposed an analogy between spiel and work poorly done – work that is neither careful, nor meticulous, nor concerned with details. When he questions the validity of this analogy, he uses synonyms for insouciance:

“Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail […].”

We find the same words a little further on, about the “work” of the smooth talker, who, because he or she is not guided by the discipline proper to a job well done, leads him or her to be satisfied with the necessary minimum:

“There is surely in his work, as in the work of the slovenly craftsman, some kind of laxity that resists or eludes the demands of a disinterested and austere discipline.”


Smooth talk and role

In his analysis, Frankfurt tries to distinguish between smooth talk and lies. His demonstration is quite convincing. However, he does not make any conceptual or empirical connection between smooth talk and the concept of role. This is a noteworthy point for two reasons.

First, because it can be defended that spiel applies primarily to roles. Who is smooth-talking? A singular person, considered independently of his or her roles? No. The truth is that the answer is spontaneously given by citing roles. Perhaps the salesperson and the lover (or, to be more precise, the womanizer) will be the first to be mentioned. But there are many others. Baird and Calvard refer to the heads of communications agencies and financial services agencies. John Beardsley applies Frankfurt’s ideas to public relations (7). However, there are certain roles, those related to the search for truth, that are less conducive to smooth talk.

The second observation relates to Frankfurt’s reference to the concept of role in a brief passage on “not for real” moments. These are recreational episodes in which friends converse very freely, without concern for telling the truth and without seeking to express deep convictions. “The main point, Frankfurt argues, is to make possible a high level of candor and an experimental or approach to the subjects under discussion.”

The idea of a role comes into play when Frankfurt says that these friends respect implicit norms. These norms are part of the definition of the role of the smooth-talker assumed by everyone. For example, everyone relies “upon a general recognition that what he expresses or says is not to be understood as being what he means wholeheartedly or believes unequivocally to be true.”

A final comment about the relationship between smooth talk and role. In the first case, that of salespeople and other professional roles, smooth talk or patter is motivated by a duty and a desire to achieve the goals which are intrinsic to the roles. The constituent elements of smooth talk– an indifference to truth, seduction, misleading, and incidentally boasting – are present. In the second case, that of the friends, smooth-talk is a play on words. In fact, it should be described as gossip. It is not a matter of aiming for a goal. The play on words is the goal.

We have associated smooth talk and gossip with both an insouciant attitude and the concept of role. It is disturbing, to say the least. With a few exceptions, particularly in the artistic field, insouciance does not go well with the idea of role. Baird and Calvard were trying to solve this difficulty – but without going through the concept of the role as such. More attention should be paid to it.

Alain Anquetil

(1) See my article (in French) “2017, le nouvel ordre du monde et l’éthique des affaires (1),” published on 10 January 2017. (2) C. Baird & T. S. Calvard, “Epistemic vices in organizations: Knowledge, truth, and unethical conduct,” Journal of Business Ethics, 160, 2019, pp. 263-276. (3) Q. Cassam, “Epistemic Insouciance,” Journal of Philosophical Research, 43, 2018, pp. 1-20. (4) H. G. Frankfurt, On bullshit, Princeton University Press, 2005. (5) We use this expression instead of the word “bullshit,” which Frankfurt favours, particularly for relevant semantic reasons. This is because it has a vulgar usage, including when used in the French language. (6) Source (in French): CNRTL. (7) J. Beardsley, “Sifting the certain from the uncertain. Frankfurt’s discussion of the indifference to truth,” The Strategist, 2007, pp. 42-43.  

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