Conspiracy Theories, Populism, and Epistemic Autonomy

Journal of the American Philosophical Association 9 (1):21-36 (2023)
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Quassim Cassam has argued that psychological and epistemological analyses of conspiracy theories threaten to overlook the political nature of such theories. According to Cassam, conspiracy theories are a form of political propaganda. I develop a limited critique of Cassam's analysis.This paper advances two core theses. First, acceptance of conspiracy theories requires a rejection of epistemic authority that renders conspiracy theorists susceptible to co-option by certain political programs while insulating such programs from criticism. I argue that the contrarian nature of conspiracy theories partially accounts for the prominence of such theories in populist movements.Second, the contrarian nature of conspiracy theories partially accounts for their attractiveness, especially among those to whom populism already appeals. I argue that for those who resent what appears from their perspective as the shaping of the epistemic landscape by alien perspectives, conspiracy theorizing may facilitate the reassertion of epistemic autonomy.

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Keith Raymond Harris
University of Vienna


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