Conspiracy theories as language-games

Note: This is my tenth blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories

In this post, I will frame conspiracy theories as a special type of Wittgensteinian “language game.” Although the enigmatic Ludwig Wittgenstein himself used the technical term “language-game” to convey many different ideas, one of his key language-game insights is the special relationship between the domain of language–the way in which we talk to one another in different contexts–and the domain of games, including both games of skill and games of luck. Specifically, Wittgenstein draws an analogy between languages and games–between “speaking” and “playing”–and he concludes that languages are like games in that both are rule-governed activities. That is, whether one is speaking a language or playing a game, the rules of a language are analogous to the rules of a game because, in both cases, one is engaged in an activity that is governed by general rules and social conventions.

For Wittgenstein, saying something in a language is like making a move in a game; That is, the meaning of words, concepts, sentences, etc. depends on the language game in which such words, concepts, etc. are being used. Among other things, Wittgenstein gives the example of the word “water.” This word could be used as a request or an order, i.e. to ask someone to bring the speaker a glass of water. Or it could be used as an answer to a question. It could even be used as part of a code by members of a secret society. However the word “water” is used, it has no meaning apart from its use within a language game. (See slide below.) In Paragraph 23 of the Philosophical Investigations, for example, Wittgenstein presents a long laundry list of examples to illustrate “the multiplicity of language-games”:

  • Giving orders, and obeying them –
  • Describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements –
  • Constructing an object from a description (a drawing) –
  • Reporting an event –
  • Speculating about an event –
  • Forming and testing a hypothesis –
  • Presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams –
  • Making up a story; and reading it –
  • Play-acting –
  • Singing catches –
  • Guessing riddles –
  • Making a joke; telling it –
  • Solving a problem in practical arithmetic –
  • Translating from one language into another –
  • Asking, thinking, cursing, greeting, praying.

So, why not add “conspiracy theories” and “alternate realities” and “political myths” to this already extensive list of language games? Although we can only wonder what Wittgenstein himself would have thought of this possibility, it turns out that conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking generally seem to resemble many of the specific language-games in Wittgenstein’s long list, such as speculating about an event, making up a story, or reporting an event, depending on the use a specific conspiracy theory is being put to.

Furthermore, this language-game lens is intriguing for several additional reasons. To begin with, we avoid the ad hominem trap I mentioned in one of my previous posts; i.e. we don’t need to diagnose or otherwise impugn the mental health of conspiracy theorists. Instead, we ask a completely different question, What are the rules of the conspiracy theory game? Also, although the rules of language-games are “socially constructed,” to borrow the contemporary term of art from our previous post, the Wittgensteinian approach is arguably not self-refuting in the same way discourse theories are. Why not? Because one is not bound by the internal rules of the language-game that is one is studying as an observer. Instead, one is just trying to figure what those rules are. (In other words, we can study conspiracy theories using this Wittgensteinian lens without having to believe in them.)

Yet, aside from clarifying the different uses of the phrase “conspiracy theory” (see Wittgenstein’s laundry list above), what else, if anything, is gained by comparing conspiracy theories to a language game? Alas, the Wittgensteinian sketch of conspiracy theories presented here poses many more questions than it answers. After all, if a conspiracy theory is like a game, a game with its own internal logic and its own set of rules, what are these rules? What does this internal logic consist of? Although these questions are certainly worth considering, I will take an entirely different and new approach in my next set of blog posts starting next week. Specifically, instead of getting bogged down in the internal logic of conspiracy theories–a game that, in my opinion, is not worth playing–, I will examine such myths from an Anglo-American “common law” perspective. After all, “conspiracy” is a common-law crime, so our traditional legal norms and rules might shed some light on this sordid and shadowy corner …

Language Games Offside!. Language Game Theory – Ludwig Wittgenstein An  Austrian general said to someone: 'I shall think of you after my death, if  that. - ppt download
Image credit: Jayson Weaver

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Conspiracy theories as language-games

  1. Word Games, yes! Definitely a fixture of the conspiracy community. However, it also is a mainstay of the social justice community. Why? If language is used as a means of determining the “rules of the game”, then the everchanging list of politically correct terms is not an attempt to achieve a sense of “cultural sensitivity”, but as a form of disruption.

    The changes (for example) the correct list of gender pronouns operates as a form of linguistic obfuscation. The terms are changed and only a small fraction (those closest to the decision-makers in the SJW political circles)of the population is informed of this informal mandated adjustment to our vernacular. For those in the “know”, they have the opportunity to pedagogically spread the good word. Those ill-informed or unwilling to comply with these new norms are placed in a separate category from the decent and informed citizens. Creating division and a zero-sum social/ political dynamic. Either conform or be ostracized.

    Now, this probably sounds crazy. To absolve me of being a conspiracy theorist let me state, this is merely some off-hand speculation. Please do not construe this conjecture as being any more than an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, if you can manipulate language you do hold a significant amount of power. After all, we think in language.

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