Trying to define “conspiracy theory” is a thankless and ironic task. Thankless, in that there is a vast body of literature on the subject that must be addressed. Ironic, in that the term “conspiracy theory” is so familiar as to be part of common knowledge, while the philosophy of the conspiracy theory is based on the idea of hidden knowledge. We know a conspiracy theory when we see it, but what we know is that it’s an argument that there is something we don’t know because we can’t see it. It is the unknown that we know everything about.
Or at least we think we do. But the literature on conspiracy theory has been growing since Karl Popper’s 1945 The Open Society and Its Enemies; though the topic is always current, the field is already older than most people who will read this book. Popper saw conspiracy as a deeply flawed approach to history and sociology, an approach he called “The Conspiracy Theory of Society":
- It is the view that an explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of the men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon (sometimes it is a hidden interest which has first to be revealed) and who have planned and conspired to bring it about. (94)
Popper’s essay, while initially influential, has receded in importance in recent decades. As Charles Pidgen sees it, part of the problem is that Popper’s definition is overreaching: it claims that believers in conspiracy theories think conspiracy is always the explanation for any given phenomenon. Pidgen writes: “If this is the theory, Popper is right to deny it. It is ridiculous to suppose that every social phenomenon is the product of a conspiracy. But by the same token it is a thesis that nobody believes.” (20) And, in keeping with recent revisionism that takes issue with previous blanket condemnations of conspiracy theories, Pidgen finds that Popper is too skeptical: after all, conspiracies can and do happen, and believing in the ones that are true is therefore quite rational.
Popper’s hostility towards conspiratorial thought is to be expected as part of a book called The Open Society and Its Enemies (a title that, one must admit, has a whiff of the paranoid about it). The title also reminds us that Popper's discussion is part of a much larger project to which conspiracy is only tangential. it is no surprise, then, that his definition is unsatisfactory to those who have chosen conspiracy as their primary object of study; he and Pidgen disagree at least in part because they are talking about different things.
This also means that Popper’s understanding of conspiracy functions better outside of academia, since it closely resembles what we might call a folk definition of conspiracy theory: a conspiracy theory is the result of crazy people always assuming that nothing happens by accident, and that sinister plotters are behind all significant historical events. In any case, Popper would be eclipsed by the man who made conspiracy theory both a household word and a credible academic topic: Richard Hofstadter.
Coady, David (ed.) Conspiracy Theories: the Philosophical Debate. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing, 2006.
Pidgen, Charles. "Popper Revisited, or, What Is Wrong with Conspiracy Theories?" In Coady 17--44.
Popper, Karl. "The Conspiracy Theory of Society." In Coady 13-16.