Social epistemology

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P046-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 14, 2024, from

1. Reliance on testimony

The epistemological status of testimony and received wisdom is the topic in social epistemology which is most extensively treated in classical texts and contemporary discussion, and the only topic for which we have a detailed history (Coady 1991) (see Testimony). The central question here is whether testimony is a source of individual knowledge not derived from a non-social source like perception. According to strong individualism, to whichJohn Locke subscribes, all knowledge must be first-hand; no belief can be epistemically justified on the basis of testimony (where epistemic justification is the kind of justification required for knowledge – see Justification, epistemic §1). The objection to this view is that it entails a broad scepticism, excluding my knowledge of such matters as my own date of birth and the proposition that a cloudless sky is usually blue. According to weak individualism, a belief may be justified on the basis of testimony, but any such belief must ultimately be justified on the basis of non-testimonially justified beliefs. There are at least three versions of weak individualism:

  1. On the inductive version, to which David Hume subscribes, a belief based on testimony (call it a ‘testimonial belief’) is justified on the basis of the non-testimonially justified belief that the testimony is trustworthy or reliable (that is, tends to be true), which in turn is justified by induction from non-testimonially justified beliefs (see Testimony §3). The most significant objection to the inductive version is that we rely on testimony for many of the beliefs that would have to serve as the non-testimonial basis of the induction to the reliability of testimony. It is practically impossible to check at first-hand more than a tiny fraction of the reports given by testimony. Hence, the basis for an induction is too slim to justify the belief in reliability.

  2. On the a priori version of weak individualism, a testimonial belief is justified by appeal to an epistemic parity between my own beliefs and those of others. The idea that one person is epistemically no better than another is ancient and was assumed by Sextus Empiricus in the following maxim, which he used to argue for Pyrrhonian scepticism: where others disagree with me, I ought to suspend judgment. The present appeal to parity reverses the sceptical strategy of Sextus. A priori, I have no more reason to trust my own beliefs than I do those of others. Consequently, if I may trust my own beliefs, I may also trust others’ beliefs, and thus I am justified in my testimonial beliefs. An objection to this version is that it equivocates on ‘trust’. Perhaps I must trust others in the same sense in which I must trust myself. But why suppose that it follows that others’ beliefs are trustworthy or reliable in a sense relevant to my being justified in having the same beliefs, rather than in a sense relevant to their being justified in these beliefs? There is no reason a priori to suppose that my epistemic position is similar to theirs in a way that makes these beliefs justified for me as they are for them. Thus it does not follow that my testimonial beliefs are justified.

  3. On the coherence version, a testimonial belief is justified by its coherence with non-testimonially justified beliefs. The trouble with this proposal is that the objection to the inductive version shows that there is very little coherence between any given testimonial belief and the non-testimonially justified beliefs that might form the basis of an induction to the reliability of the testimony. No doubt testimonial beliefs are often unsurprising and in this sense fit with non-testimonial beliefs. But the epistemic force of this lack of surprise depends on antecedent generalizations about the world, and these in turn depend on prior testimony. Nor can the proponent of the coherence version retreat to the idea that testimonial beliefs are justified by the coherence of all beliefs together, testimonial as well as non-testimonial. For this is no longer a version of weak individualism, since testimonial beliefs are no longer justified on the basis of non-testimonially justified beliefs alone. True, it still counts as a version of individualism. But since we currently have no idea how all these beliefs are supposed to cohere, it seems we lack an individualist account of the justification of testimonial beliefs.

What is the alternative to individualism? Reid proposed that we take the justification of testimonial beliefs to be underived, on a par with the justification of perceptual beliefs (see Reid, T. §7). The justification of testimonial beliefs is governed by a first (that is, underived) principle, ‘That there is a certain regard due to human testimony in matters of fact, and even to human authority in matters of opinion’ (Reid [1785] 1969: 640). Conformity to this principle is made possible by certain innate dispositions of the human constitution: the principle of veracity, which disposes us to tell the truth, and the principle of credulity, which disposes us to believe what is said. First principles are not susceptible to proof, though they can be supported by recognizing their similarity to other first principles, under various desiderata, including common assent, conformity to the human constitution and practical necessity. In the terms of subsequent epistemology, Reid appears to have proposed that testimonial beliefs are prima facie justified in a manner analogous to the prima facie justification of perceptual beliefs. They are, at least early on, basically (that is, non-inferentially) justified and can be defeated by the subject’s other testimonial and non-testimonial beliefs.

Citing this article:
Schmitt, Frederick F.. Reliance on testimony. Social epistemology, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P046-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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