Paper review – Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?

Paper review – Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?

Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen

Theory, Culture and Society

DOI: 10.1177/0263276416657880

In ‘Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game?’ Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen seek to untangle the many senses of these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ with reference both to Early and Late Wittgensteinian approaches to language, and Agamden’s politics of exclusion. They see a social function to these things called ‘conspiracy theories’ (or, if not a social function, they have a recognised or purported role) vs the epistemic question of what conspiracy theories tell us about the world in which we live, and how we should assess them.

At first it seems that they buy into some sense of the pejorative when talking about conspiracy theories, especially when they claim:

‘Conspiracy theory’ is no trivial word. As we are going to see, any use of the concept of conspiracy theory always already implies a demarcation between legitimate, rational knowledge and illegitimate, irrational non-sense. (p. 138)

That is, of course, false. The claim 'any use of the concept…' can be rendered false simply by showing that there exist language users who do not accept that when they talk about conspiracy theories (or admit to being conspiracy theorists) they are talking about belief in some nonsense. Examples of what we might call 'sensical conspiracy theories' can be found in the academic literature, and in literature written by self-described conspiracy theorists. Still, this ends up being a minor point of contention, because Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen are not committed—I would argue—to conspiracy theories being nonsense, but rather in explicating why the label 'conspiracy theory' is sometimes or often (your mileage may vary) not treated as simply being the conjunction of the words 'conspiracy' and 'theory'.

To show this they demarcate between three category of academic research into conspiracy theories. However, in the end they really only need to talk about two of them (go read the article if you want to know about the third…): research which analyses conspiracy theories as expressions of psychological, social, or political pathology, and the philosophical research programme I am a part of. Basically, the generalists who pathologise belief in conspiracy theories, and particularists—like myself—who argue we should assess individual conspiracy theories on their respective (ultimately evidential) merits.

Now, having said they do really seem to buy into the pejorative as being the right way to treat these things called 'conspiracy theories', they do take particularists like myself to task, claiming that our definition:

[S]eems too broad in terms of its empirical extension as it cap- tures a range of theories that we would clearly hesitate to call ‘conspiracy theories’ in any meaningful sense of the word. (p. 143)

So, they don’t buy that, for example, organising a surprise party is conspiratorial, or that some theory about a low-level conspiracy would be a conspiracy theory. This is because they do think that to be a conspiracy theory is to be some theory contra an official theory. This is a position which has been argued for before in the philosophical literature (the best defence of this position can be found in the works of David Coady, although he doesn't think the distinction means anything epistemically). Yet the way they present this distinction seems problematic, because they seem to be switching between talk of conspiracies and conspiracy theories here, either without noticing, or because they appear to see no difference between the terms. Yet the issue at stake is what counts as the subject of a conspiracy theory, not what counts as conspiratorial per se (well, it might, but that is not what they seem to be arguing).

This isn't my only problem, though. In the second half of the paper Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen run an analogy between the label 'conspiracy theory' and the label 'terrorist' which seems to be ahistorical. They start with the claim that:

[O]ne could here suggest a striking similarity or homology between the concept of terrorism and that of a conspiracy theory. Terrorism seems to relate to our current paradigm of government and sovereignty as conspiracy theories relate to our current paradigm of knowledge and truth. We thus suggest that conspiracy theories are conceived as a kind of ‘epistemic terrorism’. (p. 149)

This seems like a weird version of the ‘correlation does not imply causation’ fallacy; surely the problem of the pejorative aspect of the label ‘conspiracy theory’ predates the linguistic shift we got from 'freedom fighter' to ‘terrorist’ post 2001? They, I would argue, are get the historical ordering wrong; the pejorative, epistemic 'terrorism' associated the the label 'conspiracy theory' happened (at least in some polities) well before the shift we associate with the word ‘terrorist’ (at least as we know it today).

Which is not to say that I disagree with their general conclusion:

In summary, what makes it tempting to argue that conspiracy theories are treated as a kind of ‘epistemic terrorism’ is a shared form of exceptionalism. What is invoked by the concept of conspiracy theory is thus arguably a ‘state of epistemic exception’. (p. 150)

I just don't think they get the history of the labels round the right way.

About halfway through their paper, the authors make what I think is their main claim:

[W]e can demonstrate how the political function of the concept of conspiracy theory is performed through a ‘short circuit’ of the two conceptions of language that we find in the early and the late Wittgenstein respectively. What is inconsistently combined in this ‘short circuit’ is the seeming adherence to open rational empirical inquiry combined with a simultaneous rhetoric of exclusion deeming empirical examination superfluous if not inappropriate. (p. 144)

It’s a nice encapsulation of the problem of the pejorative label 'conspiracy theory' which some think is prevalent in common language, but a) they didn’t need to take philosophers to task for operating with a general, non-pejorative definition to get here because b) once we recognise the short circuit, we can avoid it by insisting that we make note of it and exclude it from the key concept when discussing these things called ‘conspiracy theories’… I'm also not entirely sure they needed Wittgenstein per se to get to this point, given a plethora of more modern theses about framing and language, but that is by-the-by. The actual conclusion is sound, even if I think some of the apparatus used to get there is superfluous (but not inappropriate).