When One Becomes Two (Chapters)

I really thought I’d write a lot more about the whole business of turning my thesis into a book. I don’t know what I imagined that would happen; I assumed the same when I was writing my thesis and that didn’t really work out.

I’m having a moment of “I don’t know which chapter to work on next!”1, so rather than waste my morning playing yet another hour of the supremely boring-yet-utterly addictive time waster that is “Godus”, I thought I’d say a little about chapters 2 and 3, which used to be merely chapter 2.

The first third of my thesis thus far goes something like this: a witty introduction, a statement of fact about how people have defined the concept of the conspiracy theory in the existing literature and then a defence of my own, somewhat radical definition. The first third of the book also follows the same kind of structure, but I’ve introduced a whole host of new material, which hasn’t just made some chapters overly long (chapter 1 used to be about six thousand works. It is now twelve thousand. It needs massive cuts. It makes me want to cry.) but it’s reintroduced issues I kind of gestured at in the thesis but want to deal with in the book.

It’s fair to say I defend a perfectly general, non-pejorative definition of what counts as a conspiracy theory and that my definition is just a tad radical. In the thesis I dealt with one strand of argumentation as to why we should reject pejorative definitions of conspiracy theories: they claim as essential to the concept that such theories should be about sinister plots and they typically exclude small-scale conspiratorial activity. I then used my argument as to why these features are not essential to the concept to argue, later in the thesis, that belief in conspiracy theories can be warranted and this is a good reason to reject the generalist argument that such theories are prima facie unwarranted.

Now, now I do things just a little differently. In rereading the literature I kept coming across people who use the thesis of conspiracism as a reason to reject the claim belief in conspiracy theories can ever be rational; as such I now deal to the pejorative sense of what is a “conspiracy theory” by arguing firstly that any definition which uses conspiracism as a base begs the question of whether specific conspiracy theories can ever be rational to believe and then I deal with the specific issues to do with whether the other pejorative sense, that such theories are about sinister, institutional activities is the right gloss on the concept.

Which is to say that I run an argument like this: When we talk about conspiracy theories in the pejorative sense we are either talking about them being prima facie irrational beliefs for agents to hold or we are claiming that these theories refer to sinister states of affairs. I think both pejorative senses mischaracterise the debate about the warrant of conspiracy theories and need addressing.

This was all well and good, but in order to make my argument I ended up rewriting chapter 2 such that it was a eleven thousand word monstrosity. That was far too long as ideally I’d like my chapters to zip along and be no more than, say, six thousand words2.

So, I cut it in twain.

I’m declaring this to be a victory at this early stage, but part of me thinks it might be a bad idea. In structural terms, this means that it will take three chapters to get to the meat of the book, the sections where I stop copiously quoting people and actually express my own arguments unaided. In a thesis this wouldn’t be an issue, because theses are basically the long form academic equivalent of showing your working; you are expected to labour the point you’ve read everything and know everyone’s opinion inside and out. In a book… Well, as I said, part of me is dubious. It seems so very “student wanting to show the marker they did the requisite reading”.

Yet another part of me says “Screw that other part of you!” Although I don’t make this claim in any form of strong language in the book thus far I do think the existing academic literature on conspiracy theories is confused (in that individual theorists might very well have consistent and coherent views of their own, but those views often don’t fit together well with other theorists, even ones they claim to agree with). As such, a bit of heavy lifting in the first part of the book seems necessary just so I can set the stage for the analysis in the subsequent sections.

Which then brings me to the point I both do and don’t want to be at.

The best way for me to test whether chapters 2 and 3 are any good would be to give said chapters to someone to read (I have someone in mind) and that scares me a bit. The chapters now express the kind of arguments I want to give and I’m fairly happy with how said arguments progress. The writing style is still not exactly settled and some of the prose is a little awkward; in truth, I’m worried about sending these new words of mine out into the wider world where maybe they get savaged.

Which is a weird fear, given that once the book is out, I’m not going to be able to control in any way who gets to read it and who gets to review it.

Anyway, that’s my update. I’ve split a chapter in two and now I’ve got to see if the new content works. I’ll (probably) let you know how that goes.

Notes

  1. The obvious answer, which is “The next one!” is a bad choice, for reasons I won’t go into right now, other than that it requires me to reread some material and I can’t be bothered with that today.
  2. Which I take it is a nice length the average reader will feel comfortable reading in one chunk.

About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.