The 2 Kinds of Truth

When the waitress tells you there aren’t any tables available, but you can book one online for 15 minutes later, did the waitress lie, or was she just misinformed? Unless she admits to it, you’ll never know, but according to Harry Frankfurt, you can file this incident under “B” regardless: The waitress tried to bullshit you.

Whether the waitress lied on purpose or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that she didn’t care about the truth at all. She just wanted to say something, anything, to appease you and, in this case, make you go away. Both honesty and lying respect the truth insofar that they either adhere to it or deliberately stray from it. A bullshitter has no such lofty aspirations. As long as what they say pleases the crowd, the truth can be whatever.

Frankfurt finds bullshit offensive. It is an insidious attack on the truth, much worse than mere manipulations of it, for even the worst liar at least uses the truth as the clay from which they form their fragile constructions.

The kind of truth Frankfurt talks about is the truth of facts, physics, and our observable universe. It is the first of two species of veracity. Grade 1 truth, if you will. From the waitress example to politicians denying climate change to line their own pockets to the leader of a country invading another and saying, “They hit us first!” there is no shortage of attempts to undermine grade 1 truth today.

The other kind, grade 2 truth, is less black-or-white but at least as important: It’s the kind of truth shared between two people – a reality multiple parties must agree on for it to be true in the first place. “I love you” only means something when the person who hears it believes it. You can’t argue with someone who says they feel treated unfairly, but you can develop a shared definition of “fair” and strike a deal that lives up to it.

Grade 2 truth must always be seeded by one party, and doing so can feel no less dangerous than calling out a bullshitter. What if you raise your hand for a high five that never happens? You’ll stand there, feeling stupid, embarrassed, and ashamed.

If the audience watching the spotlight you step into agrees, however, grade 2 truth can be our ultimate bliss. Love, friendship, family, being part of a team – the most impactful experiences we’ll ever have are built around grade 2 truths. Who else thinks diets are silly? Who loves anime as much as you do? Who shares your appreciation of punctuality? Find the people who hold your values, and you’ll find a loyal crew that’ll last you a lifetime.

Neither grade 1 nor grade 2 truths are necessarily fixed, although where grade 1 truths might evolve with or without our doing, grade 2 truths will always be in flux. Every action leads to a reaction, and so whichever agreed-upon balls hang in the air between us and our partner, our son, or our coworker, we must constantly check what state they are in. We must maintain them and, often, change them before they drop to the floor and break – for if we lose too many connections with one another, we’ll lose the connection between us altogether.

“If you have the truth, you know what reality is like. If you don’t, you’re ignorant of reality,” Frankfurt says. “We live in the real world. We depend upon it. We need to know about it. We need to be able to find our way around in it, and if we don’t have the truth, then we can’t do those things.”

Not all truth is created equal, but all truth is equally important. There is no lactose-free version of either kind, and if we pretend there is or try to make it look that way, well, then we may as well be a waiter claiming to have no tables left – and that’s just bullshit.