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DOI: 10.4324/0123456789-P049-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2018
Retrieved May 22, 2024, from

Article Summary

In contemporary epistemology, ‘testimony’ is used as an umbrella term to refer to all those instances where we form a belief, or acquire knowledge, on the basis of what others have told us. Whenever we believe what a trusted friend tells us, learn about world events by reading the newspaper, accept a stranger’s answer to our request for directions, receive a medical diagnosis from our doctor (etc.), we rely on the testimony of others. Testimony, then, is like other epistemic sources – perception, memory, inference, introspection – in that it furnishes us with beliefs we make our own; at the same time, it is unlike them in that it depends on the mental operations of another person (e.g. the eyewitness’s observations, the speaker’s decision to share their knowledge with us, etc.). Much of the philosophical debate about testimony and the epistemic status of testimony-based beliefs stems from this tension. When a speaker makes an assertion and testifies to the effect that p, can we simply assume not only that they have the requisite epistemic authority as to whether or not p, but also that they are not abusing their authority (e.g. by trying to mislead us)? Those who prize intellectual autonomy above all will naturally be reluctant to make this assumption and will demand additional first-hand evidence that the speaker is indeed speaking the truth. At the heart of this dispute are divergent views about the source of epistemic justification of beliefs we have acquired on the basis of testimony. Whereas antireductionists argue that the speaker’s act of testifying itself confers justification on the hearer’s corresponding belief, reductionists demand that a responsible hearer will only accept what they are told if they have at least some nontestimonial evidence supporting the veracity of the testimony. Most philosophers – reductionists and antireductionists alike – agree that testimony is an important source of knowledge and perhaps the only way we can acquire anything like the depth and breadth of knowledge we usually credit ourselves with. Indeed, this is why David Hume famously acknowledged that ‘there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators’. Much of the epistemological debate about testimony, therefore, does not concern whether we can ever come to know on the basis of what another person tells us, but instead revolves around the ‘how’ and ‘when’ of learning from others.

Citing this article:
Gelfert, Axel. Testimony, 2018, doi:10.4324/0123456789-P049-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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