Notes towards correcting a confused phenomenology of conspiracy theories – a reply to @sam_kriss

Do you know what is irritating? Arguments on the internet. Despite my obviously cankerous nature, I don’t really enjoy arguing online; it makes my heart race, et cetera, etc, amen. Still, sometimes it seems necessary, especially in cases where people write on a subject you know well, or just happen to be an expert in. Case in point: Sam Kriss’s piece on conspiracy theories, Notes towards a phenomenology of conspiracy theory. This is obviously a topic dear to my heart, and, given I am a regularly reader of Sam’s work, I was disappointed by his musings on the subject. So much so that I read it several times, over the space of a number of day days, each time finding another reason as to why I didn’t like it. As such, I wrote a(n admittedly lengthy) comment over at Sam’s blog, setting out why I found his proposed phenomenology so problematic.

Said comment has been in moderation for nearly two months now.

Rather than let my comment go to waste, I’ve decided to post a revised version of it here. It’s not particularly self-explanatory; you will need to read Sam’s piece to see where I am coming from. With that said, I think it’s important to have this response out there; there are a lot of very weird views on conspiracy theories making the rounds, and this happen’s to be a reply to one of them.

Hi, Sam. Long time reader; first time commentator. And like many first time commentators, I’m here to complain!

Let me start out by saying a little about who I am; I am a philosopher, like Charles Pigden, who writes on conspiracy theories. I wrote a book, The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories (which, co-incidentally, Charles wrote the introduction to), and I have a number of articles coming out on the subject. I’m a social epistemologist by training, so I found it interesting that the basis for your short essay on conspiracy theories was both an attack on epistemology generally, and a criticism of the work of Charles Pigden specifically. Neither attack seems warranted to my mind, and I’d like to explain why.

Let’s start with Pigden and his work, of whom you say:

Pidgen’s central proposition – that we should believe conspiracy theories, or at the very least investigate them while being open to the possibility that we might – is not dissimilar to mine, but the case he makes is an epistemic one, and given that there’s clearly something broken in epistemic reasoning, it’s inevitably insufficient.

Now, obviously, your comments on Charles’ work are due to your views on epistemology. Still, let me state outright that if you really think he – as you go on to say – “spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds”, then you clearly haven’t read much of the academic literature Charles is responding to. The position Charles defends (which is also defended by other philosophers: David Coady, Brian L. Keeley, Lee Basham, and myself, to name but a few) is one opposed by the likes of Karl Popper, Richard Hofstadter, Cass Sunstein, Adrian Vermuele, Quassim Cassam, Jovan Byford, Karen Douglas, David Aaronvitch, Michael Barkun, Rob Brotherton, Chris French, Geoffrey Cubitt, Ted Goertzel, Neil Levy, Pete Mandik… Well, I could go, but I am sure you can see my point; to claim (as you do) that Pigden is tilting at windmills might rhetorically suit your argument, but it’s just not true. You, like Charles, might think the academic position he is arguing against is silly or mistaken, but it’s still a position a great many (I would even say the majority of) scholars and politicians hold as being self-evident.

That’s my first point. My second is that I think your criticism of Charles is confused, and that’s because you characterise modern epistemology in a way that I, as an epistemologist, don’t really recognise.

For example, you say that the ‘unspoken axiom behind all epistemology’ is about believing propositional truths.’ That hasn’t really been true since at least the 1960s, when Gettier challenged the ‘justified true belief’ account of knowledge in his paper ‘Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?’ ((The JTB account was challenged earlier – see Russell’s Clocktower example – but Gettier’s piece was the one that set the epistemological scene for the second half of the 20th Century.)) Most of the epistemological work post Gettier has been focused on the whether we ought to believe propositions on the basis of various epistemic justifications, with the idea that we should simply believe propositions merely because they are true being very much a secondary consideration for most of us. ((The position you describe appears to be the naive empiricism of the early 20th Century. That was more a position in Metaphysics than it was one in Epistemology.)) After all, it’s hard to know some proposition is actually true, whilst it’s much easier – and interesting – to ask ‘What justifies belief in said proposition?’ ((Indeed, quite a number of epistemologists are worried about the idea of propositional truth even being necessary for knowledge, because of the worry that truth and justification aren’t necessarily linked.)) As such, your claim about the unspoken axion in epistemology is neither axiomatic (epistemologists debate this, so it can’t be an axiom), nor unspoken (epistemologists debate this publicly, so it’s definitely not unspoken).

I think your old-fashioned and inaccurate view on epistemology informs your subsequent criticism of Charles’ view in some interesting ways. For example, it’s not clear why you would think that the charge that Iraq had WMDs being a lie happens to make it not a conspiracy theory (something you hold against Charles’ view). After all, these things are surely complementary. One of the ways people successfully conspire is via lying. Think of it this way: Let’s say I don’t want it to get out that my friends and I are all shape-shifting lizards, whose entire academic purpose is to hide the existence of the New World Order. As such, we smear our opponents as charlatans, whose views are the result of them being high on the old ‘reefer madness’. It’s a lie, but since people believe it, it helps cover up what we’re doing. It seems pretty clear we’re conspiring here, and we just happen to be using a lie to do so.

For another, it also isn’t clear that your proposed example of a conspiracy theory which doesn’t fit Pigden’s definition doesn’t actually fit Charles’ definition. You proffer as an example of such a conspiracy theory this:

Had George W Bush instead announced that President Hussein were the high priest of an ancient Mesopotamian death-cult that had controlled humanity since the dawn of civilisation through the emasculating medium of writing, and that he could only be defeated by a sturdy gang of tooled-up all-American illiterates, some people might still have believed him, but that would have been unambiguously a conspiracy theory.

Yet in a world where Bush had said such a thing, this would be as much a lie as the WMD story. Yet you say this lie is ‘unambiguously a conspiracy theory’, whilst the actual lie about WMDs, which was told in this world, is not. I’m honestly not sure why you think your ‘unambigious’ example of a conspiracy theory in anyway contradicts Charles’ definition, let alone how it is different from the example you chastise him for using.

And not just that; it’s not even clear Pigden holds to the idea you attribute to him – that a conspiracy theory is a proposition that can be taxonomically isolated by its propositional content – because Pigden (like most philosophers who write on the topic) classifies these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ as a species of explanation. That means a conspiracy theory consists of a set of propositions arranged as an explanatory argument. The position you take against Pigden – that a conspiracy theory is a relation between propositions – turns out to be Pigden’s position in the first instance.

I think the inconsistency of your proposed view and what you take it Charles is arguing for or against comes out of your skewed view of epistemology generally. You take it that as conspiracy theories can be expressed as single propositions, epistemologists judge them as singular propositions. Yet that’s not what we do at all. We take it that they are explanatory hypotheses, made up of multiple explanans. We then argue just how we are meant to appraise both the individual explanans, and the explanatory argument itself. That’s why we can, in some cases, condemn particular conspiracy theories, whilst also admitting that some of the evidence used by proponents of said theories is worth considering seriously.

Which brings me to my greatest worry with your piece; despite your professed views, I think you end up being the kind of conspiracy theory theorist that Charles is arguing against (i.e. you turn out to be one of his ‘windmills’). After all, you claim that:

Conspiracy theory is not a theory that posits a conspiracy, but the hypostasisation of conspiracy to the level of theory, or occlusion as a general system of Being. It’s not just that public events have hidden causes: the seen is only an attribute or epiphenomenon of the unseen, which is essential to reality. In many conspiracy theories, the primary aim of the conspiracy seems to be the presentation of an experience in which the conspiracy itself does not outwardly appear.

That seems awfully like the kind of theories about conspiracy theories Charles is ’tilting’ against. You seem to be characterising conspiracy theories in generalist terms, trying to find a way to provide for a general analysis of all conspiracy theories. Charles, however, takes a particularist approach, one where we judge individual conspiracy theories on their respective merits. Maybe that’s the rub? ((Note how you find yourself having to say ‘many conspiracy theories’; already the generalist project you are engaging in begins to falter.))

Still, you will be happy to know that you are not along in your views; your final thoughts on what these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ are reminded me of Mark Fenster’s book on the topic (“Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture”). Whilst I don’t think theorising about conspiracy theories in the way you do is particularly helpful, it is certainly a popular one. Hopefully you’ll take these comments in the way I intend them; not as a vicious attack on your views, but as an opening for a better discussion on conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorising.



P.S. Then there are your various legalistic and historical arguments. With regard to the law, just because something is a legal concept, that does not make it neither epistemological nor phenomenological. Talk of conspiracy theories goes back at least a hundred years, so the fact it might not have been legally codified until recently tells us very little about the concept itself. That, handily, brings us to history. You might want to look at the works of historians who have written on conspiracy theories and conspiracy narratives (Victoria Emma Pagán’s ‘Conspiracy Narratives in Roman History’, Gordon S. Wood’s ‘Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century’, and Geoffrey Cubitt’s ‘The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth Century France’ come to mind) for a broader discussion of conspiracy theories pre 1977 (although if you want something modern, try Kathryn S. Olmsted’s ‘Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11’)


Sam Kriss says:

Hi Matthew – thanks for this response, and sorry about your comment; I never have been good at paperwork, and sometimes a few do get lost, so I’ll see if I can dig it up.

With regards to your critique, I think some of our disagreement might be a matter of linguistic confusion. When I write that Pigden ‘spent the bulk of his essay disproving a position that nobody actually holds,’ the position I’m referring to is not ‘any inverse of Pigden’s argument’ but the specific object of his lengthy reductio ad absurdum – the proposition that people do not conspire, and conspiracies have never taken place. Similarly with regards to epistemology: I’m not an epistemologist by trade, and I can only apologise for any distortions of the discipline necessitated by the sweeping nature of this kind of ludic polemic, but I am aware of the Gettier problems; this is why I didn’t propose justified true belief as an unquestioned standard in philosophy. His cases concern, primarily, the category of knowledge, whether one could be said to know something, even if it is true, if that proposition emerges haphazardly and spontaneously. This is, I think, an elaboration on rather than an overturning of the preference for propositional truth: after all, the knowledges (or non-knowledges) Gettier describes have a ‘messy’ structure that recalls the suddenness of religious revelation, or other non-propositional truths; as such he’s reluctant to afford them the status of knowledge. It’s a reframing of the debate; there’s nothing in Gettier that challenges the idea that “1+1=2” should be automatically preferred to “1+1=3”.

Similarly I think there’s some confusion over the question of lying: a lie might indeed be part of a conspiracy (the proposition ‘Bush and others lied about Iraqi WMD in a conspiracy to provide a case for war’ is, to use Pigden’s formulation, a conspiracy theory, and unproblematically true), but a lie cannot simultaneously be a conspiracy theory; a lie is not an attempt to understand the world, a Stimmung or a mode of epistemic justification, but a discursive strategy by which one attempts to alter the course of events. (Of course, as a good Foucauldian I should recognise that understanding the world also always changes it, but in this case I think the distinction is worthwhile.)

Of course, as you point out, the crux of the issue is indeed generalism and particularism: my argument was unashamedly generalist, and I make no apologies for that. As I said from the outset, evaluating the truth-content of specific conspiracy theories is not my goal (at least, for the purposes of that essay); I’m interested in probing the nature of conspiracy theory as such, an abstraction which will always be constantly on the point of faltering. I don’t believe that the evaluative dimension in Pigden’s essay is itself illegitimate; he tends to err when his argument becomes generalist, as in his consecutive (mis)definitions of conspiracy theory as a form. My essay was intended as a provocation, combining serious contentions with some degree of absurdity (after all, this is part of what I love about conspiracy theory), and I’m glad to see that it’s provoked. I’ve taken the time to read some of your blog, and while our approaches do differ I’ve found it thoughtful and expansive and an entertaining read, and it’s always rewarding to interact with people who have a similar love for the possibilities that conspiracy theory opens.


Hi, Sam.

I guess I’ll just have to disagree with your construal of Charles’ point, in part because many generalists (like Popper, who Charles originally used to frame his critiques) do deny that conspiracies occur, or that if they do occur they are rare and never the proper subject of a conspiracy theory. The literature on this is pretty vast, some of which I cover in my book, some of which I cover in a forthcoming piece.

With regard to Gettier; certainly his examples are cases of epistemic luck (the belief is true and justified, but only via chance), but the issue is not ‘What did Gettier say?’ but ‘What was the response of the field of epistemologists post Gettier?’ The answer is that if we were interested in propositional truth then, well, it’s not obvious we are now. As I said in my original response, your unspoken axiom is neither unspoken or axiomatic. It’s a great line to use to chastise epistemologists, but it’s not actually true.

I also still don’t get your objection to the ‘WMD lie’ line. A lie can be part of a conspiracy theory (one of the many explanans in the explanatory argument). I think this is, as I said, a consequence of your belief that we philosophers who look at these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ treat them as singular propositions. We can summarise, say, the putative conspiracy theories about the invasion of Iraq as ‘The WMDs were a lie!’, but that’s a one line summary of a complex theory. Obviously analysing the conspiracy theory requires unpacking the explanatory hypothesis that is the theory. Charles does this in his papers. I do this in my work. As such, I don’t think you are fairly representing Charles here at all. After all, the various non-official conspiracy theories of 9/11 can be summarised as ‘It was an inside job’, but that’s just an executive summary of the theory. The theory itself is complex, and the analysis of it requires unpacking what that claim means. I guess I think you are being both unfair to Charles here and to conspiracy theorists. Ask as a conspiracy theorist about 9/11 what they mean by it was an inside job, and they’ll unpack the theory for you. Ask activists what they mean by the invasion of Iraq was based upon a lie, and they’ll do the same.

I don’t really want to come across as harsh in my response; it’s not as if the views you put forward are actually all that wacky. Indeed, I’d say they are part of the status quo in this field (although I think that is slowly beginning to change, in part because of Charles work’, along with that of David Coady, and Lee Basham. And maybe me). I really do appreciate the chance to discuss this with you; as I said in my original response, I’m a long time reader of your blog.