Tag: Terminology

When in Athens…

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Rhetoric of Conspiracy in Ancient Athens,’ (Joseph Roisman, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2006) a book that conflates my (somewhat embarrassing) love of the history of the ancient Mediterranean peoples and (my proper and righteous interest in) Conspiracy Theories. Athenian history just isn’t as interesting as Roman history (which is probably a bit of odd for a philosopher to admit, seeing that Philosopher as we know it is very Athenian) but the Athenian treatment of Conspiracies has thrown up an interesting ‘problem.’

Athenian rhetoricians could conceive of co-conspirators acting alone.

Yay, verily, in Athens you could conspire without having to bring in anyone else to plot with.

‘To conspire’ is ‘to breath together;’ you plot in secret with others. Yet in Athens people were accused of conspiring on their own. Roisman suggests that this came out of a rhetorical want to use conspiracy terms in respect to individuals. You could make someone’s actions look all the worse if they could be made out to resemble the actions of conspirators. I suspect that there was also a ‘guilt-by-association move’ being made here; this person here, who poisoned his Mother-in-law, belongs to the group of secret plotters, and we have a name for such a group; conspirators. Thus, if someone acts like one of those conspirators then they probably belong to the group of actual conspirators, even if, in this instance, they are acting alone. So convict now, because they’re bound to start plotting with others of their ilk at any moment.

The prosecution rests, mi’lord.

It would be interesting to see whether any other cultures have had similar ‘aberrant’ definitions of Conspiracy. It’s a plausible rhetorical move on the part of the Athenians and so it seems likely that it has been tried elsewhere, although the prevalence of its use in Athens means that it went from being simply an attempt to impute guilt by association to be a charge you could bring against someone.

A piece of thesis

By and large, whenever we hear that someone believes that an event came about due to a conspiracy we think that they are somewhat naively believing in a Conspiracy Theory and that they have made some ‘wrong move’ epistemically. We do, I think, treat the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ in a pejorative sense. The Inference to Conspiracy, whereby we explain events with reference to a Conspiracy, underlies the intuition that Conspiracy Theories, per se, are bad. It is because we take the Inference to Conspiracy to be (usually) unwarranted that we treat the term Conspiracy Theory as a pejorative.The Inference to Conspiracy is a version of the Inference to Any Old Explanation, the so-called ‘Just So’ Fallacy. However, for a proper understanding of how and why the Inference to Conspiracy should be treated, prima facie, as a fallacy we should admit to two senses of the term ‘Conspiracy Theory.’The first is what I call the ‘General.’ The term `Conspiracy Theory’ is sometimes used in connection with any event with an associated Conspiracy. We can tell two different Conspiracy Theory stories about the assassination of JFK. One is the Official View which is that it was a conspiracy on the part of the KGB and Lee Harvey Oswald whilst the other is the Unofficial View, that the American Government and the CIA conspired to kill President Kennedy. Thus some Conspiracy Theories are warranted, and we recognise this fact by admitting to there being explanations of events in History that rest upon the fact that cabals conspired and that many of the theories about such conspiracies, such as those surrounding the Trotksy Trials of the 1930s, turned out to be good.In this version the pejorative form of ‘Conspiracy Theory’ is any explanation that makes reference to a Conspiracy that is not taken to be the best inference. If Lee Harvey Oswald and agents of the KGB conspired to kill President Kennedy, then surely this is an example of a conspiracy. However, this is not contentious; this is an accepted part of the historical record. It is the Official View; the view formed by the Warren Commission who investigated the assassination. The Unofficial View, the Conspiracy Theory in the pejorative sense, is that the American Government was somehow responsible for the death of JFK.Official and Unofficial are not the most helpful of terms here. The Official View here means literally that; it is the view held by the officials, the supposed experts or authorities invested by the Government of the United States of America, to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy. This Official View also happens to be the explanation accepted by most of the researchers and historians of the period. Sometimes, however, the Official View will not accord with the work of historians and researchers and the Official View may not be the consensus view at all. This leads me on to my second sense of the term ‘Conspiracy Theory,’ the Unofficial.Sometimes the term `Conspiracy Theory’ is only used in connection with an explanation that runs counter to the Official View [Needs a rewrite; really we should be talking about consensus views rather than in the terminology of the Official. This might just be because we need to have chapters 1 and 2 finished before this section can be truly tight]. The Official View is the explanation of the event that we take to be the best; it is the Inference to the Best Explanation. Sometimes we do not refer to such Official Views as Conspiracy Theories; the attacks of 9/11 were of a conspiratorial kind but the purported explanation which implicates Al Qaeda in the attack is not labeled a Conspiracy Theory. In this sense we reserve the label ‘Conspiracy Theory’ for the claim that the attacks were perpetrated by the American Government. This explanation, unwarrantedly referring as it does to conspiratorial activity is labeled a Conspiracy Theory as it goes against the Official View, which is to say that it flies against the best inference and is an example of an Inference to Any Old Explanation.Take the Trotsky Trials. In the 1930s the Russian State places Trotsky and his associates on trial for treason. Whilst the defendants protest their innocence the trials render guilty verdicts and they are sentenced to death. Some people are suspicious; the trials may well have been orchestrated show trials, rendering guilty verdicts because that is what Joseph Stalin wanted, but the Kremlin denies this and claims proper judicial procedure was adhered to. American and Britain agree but the Dewey Commission, who investigate the trials, comes to another verdict; the trials were for show after all and Trotsky and his comrades could never have had any other verdict than guilty. At this time, 1938, the proponents of the Dewey Commission are labelled ‘Conspiracy Theorists’ and yet, in 1952, they were vindicated. The trials had been for show, the Official View was a cover-up and what was taken to be a Conspiracy Theory was actually the explanation after all.