DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 26, 2020, from

5. Further issues

Foundationalist theories of knowledge have recently been subjected to much scorn and criticism, a good deal of it deserved, but one thing that seems right about the foundationalist emphasis is the idea that individual perception, memory and inference deserve a particular respect as sources of information in a way that speculation, guessing and suggestion (whatever their other cognitive value) do not (see Foundationalism). The challenge posed by testimony is that it seems to deserve a similar respect to perception, memory and inference, indeed, the respect we owe them may require us to accord it parallel honour. This is because testimony puts us in touch with the perceptions, memories and inferences of others, and a certain coherence between individual and communal resources underpins the individual’s reliance on their own epistemic skills and achievements. It is precisely this status that the ideal of autonomous knowledge rejects.

Abandonment of the reductionist project does not mean that our general attitude to testimony should be one of gullibility. A comparison with memory makes the situation clearer: we cannot reduce our reliance upon memory to inferences from present perceptions but we also learn not to trust our memories blindly in all circumstances. The question of how trustworthy memories or testimonies are cannot be addressed by initially allowing that they might not be trustworthy at all, but this still allows that there are contexts and circumstances in which we should be wary of them. It also allows that there is room for serious investigation of the reliability of the testimonies of certain groups whose dependability is often questioned in legal and other contexts (for example, very young children, the seriously mentally ill, parties to an issue for adjudication), and the more general question of how reliable testimony might be in any given culture or context.

Throughout the above I have, in accordance with philosophical tradition, used ‘testimony’ as a broad term for certain sorts of telling, but it is an interesting and difficult task to give a serviceable definition of what these sorts are. The term is most at home in legal settings, but clearly a wider notion than that is required. One strategy is to define it as a type of speech act, but to allow extensions from the speech-act model for such things as maps, signposts and documentary records. There remain problems about whether to include competency and sincerity conditions in the definition and whether there is a sense of ‘evidence’ in which testimony by definition falls into the category of evidence. Some would see the former move as too demanding and the latter as question-begging.

Finally, the neglect of the topic by philosophers has left many important questions of law, history, psychology and religion to be debated without the benefit of concentrated philosophical input. These include such matters as the status of children’s testimony at law, the problems posed by expert evidence, psychological claims about the unreliability of eye-witness identifications, and certain aspects of historical methodology, including the ‘higher’ biblical criticism.

Citing this article:
Coady, C.A.J.. Further issues. Testimony, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-P049-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2020 Routledge.

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