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Epistemology of Testimony

Edited by Stephen Wright (Oxford University)
Assistant editor: Jonathan Reibsamen (Saint Louis University, Biola University)
About this topic
Summary Perhaps most of what we take ourselves to know about the world and its history comes from testimony we have received. The epistemology of testimony is concerned with questions regarding the nature and normativity of testimonial belief and knowledge. The literature on testimony is large and growing, and identifiable subdivisions have begun to appear. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the central question concerned the nature of justification from testimony. Reductionists (or “reductivists”) about testimonial justification, following Locke and Hume, argued that an individual’s justification from testimony reduces to other kinds of justification, such as justification from that individual’s own sensory perception, memory, and inference. The anti-reductionist (or “non-reductivist”), often citing Thomas Reid as inspiration, argued that justification from testimony does not reduce to justification from other sources. However, not all in the reductionist camp agree about what justification from testimony reduces to, and not all in the anti-reductionist camp agree about the nature of the justification from testimony. Other questions addressed in recent epistemology of testimony literature include: Under what conditions are testimonial beliefs justified or epistemically warranted? Is testimony a transmissive source of knowledge or justification, or a generative source? Are there unique epistemic norms governing testimony? Are there unique speech acts within the category of ‘testimony’ that bring with them unique epistemic entitlements? Does testimonial belief enjoy a kind of default justification? Can groups be testifiers, and if so, are the epistemic norms governing the production and reception of group testimony the same or different from those governing testimony from individuals?
Key works

Historical antecedents to the contemporary literature include Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Hume’s On Miracles, and Reid’s An Inquiry into the Human Mind and Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man. Significant contemporary works include: C. A. J. Coady’s Testimony: A Philosophical Study (Coady 1992), Tyler Burge’s “Content Preservation” (Burge 1993) and “Interlocution, Perception, and Memory” (Burge 1997), Elizabeth Fricker’s “Against Gullibility” (Fricker 1994) and “Second-Hand Knowledge” (Fricker 2006), Jennifer Lackey’s Learning from Words (Lackey 2008), and Sanford Goldberg’s Relying on Others (Goldberg 2010). For an overview, John Greco’s “Recent Work on Testimonial Knowledge” (Greco 2012) is a good place to start.

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  1. Jonathan Adler, Epistemological Problems of Testimony. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
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  2. Jonathan E. Adler (1996). Transmitting Knowledge. Noûs 30 (1):99-111.
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  3. Jonathan E. Adler (1994). Testimony, Trust, Knowing. Journal of Philosophy 91 (5):264-275.
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  4. G. J. Agich & B. J. Spielman (1997). Ethics Expert Testimony: Against the Skeptics. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 22 (4):381-403.
    There is great skepticism about the admittance of expert normative ethics testimony into evidence. However, a practical analysis of the way ethics testimony has been used in courts of law reveals that the skeptical position is itself based on assumptions that are controversial. We argue for an alternative way to understand such expert testimony. This alternative understanding is based on the practice of clinical ethics.
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  5. Jonas Ahlskog (2014). Benjamin McMyler, Testimony, Trust and Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Viii + 178, Price £40.00 Hb. [REVIEW] Philosophical Investigations 37 (1):98-102.
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  6. Ben Almassi, Comments on Tim Kenyon's "Oral History and the Epistemology of Testimony". Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.
  7. Ben Almassi (2009). Trust in Expert Testimony: Eddington's 1919 Eclipse Expedition and the British Response to General Relativity. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B 40 (1):57-67.
  8. Ben Almassi (2009). Conflicting Expert Testimony and the Search for Gravitational Waves. Philosophy of Science 76 (5):570-584.
    How can we make informed decisions about whom to trust given expert disagreement? Can experts on both sides be reasonable in holding conflicting views? Epistemologists have engaged the issue of reasonable expert disagreement generally; here I consider a particular expert dispute in physics, given conflicting accounts from Harry Collins and Allan Franklin, over Joseph Weber’s alleged detection of gravitational waves. Finding common ground between Collins and Franklin, I offer a characterization of the gravity wave dispute as both social and evidential. (...)
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  9. Ben Almassi (2007). Experts, Evidence, and Epistemic Independence. Spontaneous Generations 1 (1):58-66.
    Throughout his work on the rationality of epistemic dependence, John Hardwig makes the striking observation that he believes many things for which he possesses no evidence (1985, 335; 1991, 693; 1994, 83). While he could imagine collecting for himself the relevant evidence for some of his beliefs, the vastness of the world and constraints of time and individual intellect thwart his ability to gather for himself the evidence for all his beliefs. So for many things he believes what others tell (...)
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  10. James Andow (2015). A Semantic Solution to the Problem with Aesthetic Testimony. Acta Analytica 30 (2):211-218.
    There is something peculiar about aesthetic testimony. It seems more difficult to gain knowledge of aesthetic properties based solely upon testimony than it is in the case of other types of property. In this paper, I argue that we can provide an adequate explanation at the level of the semantics of aesthetic language, without defending any substantive thesis in epistemology or about aesthetic value/judgement. If aesthetic predicates are given a non-invariantist semantics, we can explain the supposed peculiar difficulty with aesthetic (...)
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  11. Robert Audi (2013). Testimony as a Social Foundation of Knowledge. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 87 (3):507-531.
    Testimony is the mainstay of human communication and essential for the spread of knowledge. But testimony may also spread error. Under what conditions does it yield knowledge in the person addressed? Must the recipient trust the attester? And does the attester have to know what is affirmed? A related question is what is required for the recipient to be justified in believing testimony. Is testimony-based justification acquired in the same way as testimony-based knowledge? This paper addresses these and other questions. (...)
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  12. Robert Audi (2006). Testimony as an a Priori Basis of Acceptance: Problems and Prospects. Philosophica 78.
    This paper explores the possibility that testimony is an a priori source, even if not a basic source, of rational support for certain kinds of cognitions, particularly for a kind of acceptance that it is natural to call presumption. The inquiry is conducted in the light of two important distinctions and the relation between them. One distinction is between belief and acceptance, the other between justification and rationality. Cognitive acceptance is also distinguished from behavioral acceptance, and their normative status is (...)
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  13. Robert Audi (2006). Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity. In Jennifer Lackey & Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press 25--49.
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  14. Robert Audi (2005). The Epistemic Authority of Testimony and the Ethics of Belief. In Andrew Dole & Andrew Chignell (eds.), God and the Ethics of Belief: New Essays in Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge University Press
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  15. Robert Audi (2004). The a Priori Authority of Testimony. Philosophical Issues 14 (1):18–34.
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  16. Robert Audi (1997). The Place of Testimony in the Fabric of Knowledge and Justification. American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (4):405 - 422.
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  17. Gordon Baker & Katherine J. Morris (2004). The Meditations and the Logic of Testimony. British Journal for the History of Philosophy 12 (1):23 – 41.
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  18. David Bakhurst (2013). Learning From Others. Journal of Philosophy of Education 47 (2):187-203.
    John McDowell begins his essay ‘Knowledge by Hearsay’ (1993) by describing two ways language matters to epistemology. The first is that, by understanding and accepting someone else's utterance, a person can acquire knowledge. This is what philosophers call ‘knowledge by testimony’. The second is that children acquire knowledge in the course of learning their first language—in acquiring language, a child inherits a conception of the world. In The Formation of Reason (2011), and my writings on Russian socio-historical philosophy and psychology, (...)
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  19. Alex Barber (2006). Testimony and Illusion. Croatian Journal of Philosophy 6 (3):401-429.
    This paper considers a form of scepticism according to which sentences, along with other linguistic entities such as verbs and phonemes, etc., are never realized. If, whenever a conversational participant produces some noise or other, they and all other participants assume that a specific sentence has been realized (or, more colloquially, spoken), communication will be fluent whether or not the shared assumption is correct. That communication takes place is therefore, one might think, no ground for assuming that sentences are realized (...)
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  20. David W. Barnes (2005). Imwinkelried's Argument for Normative Ethical Testimony. Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 33 (2):234-241.
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  21. David James Barnett (2015). Is Memory Merely Testimony From One's Former Self? Philosophical Review 124 (3):353-392.
    A natural view of testimony holds that a source's statements provide one with evidence about what the source believes, which in turn provides one with evidence about what is true. But some theorists have gone further and developed a broadly analogous view of memory. According to this view, which this essay calls the “diary model,” one's memory ordinarily serves as a means for one's present self to gain evidence about one's past judgments, and in turn about the truth. This essay (...)
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  22. Gregory Bassham & Jerry L. Walls (eds.) (2005). The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy. Open Court.
    The director of the Center for Ethics and Public Life presents a series of essays on the philosophical implications of the Narnia series, exploring Lewis's ...
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  23. Steven M. Bayne (2007). Hume on Miracles: Would It Take a Miracle to Believe in a Miracle? Southern Journal of Philosophy 45 (1):1-29.
    Given Hume’s theory of <span class='Hi'>belief</span> and <span class='Hi'>belief</span> production it is no small task to explain how it is possible for a <span class='Hi'>belief</span> in a <span class='Hi'>miracle</span> to be produced. I argue that <span class='Hi'>belief</span> in a <span class='Hi'>miracle</span> cannot be produced through Hume’s standard causal mechanisms and that although education, passion, and testimony initially seem to be promising mechanisms for producing <span class='Hi'>belief</span> in a <span class='Hi'>miracle</span>, none of these is able to produce the <span class='Hi'>belief</span> in (...)
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  24. Endre Begby (2014). Lexical Norms, Language Comprehension, and the Epistemology of Testimony. Canadian Journal of Philosophy 44 (3-4):324-342.
    It has recently been argued that public linguistic norms are implicated in the epistemology of testimony by way of underwriting the reliability of language comprehension. This paper argues that linguistic normativity, as such, makes no explanatory contribution to the epistemology of testimony, but instead emerges naturally out of a collective effort to maintain language as a reliable medium for the dissemination of knowledge. Consequently, the epistemologies of testimony and language comprehension are deeply intertwined from the start, and there is no (...)
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  25. I. Testimony-Based Belief (2006). Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity. In Jennifer Lackey & Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press 25.
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  26. Matthew A. Benton (2016). Expert Opinion and Second‐Hand Knowledge. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 92 (2):492-508.
    Expert testimony figures in recent debates over how best to understand the norm of assertion and the domain-specific epistemic expectations placed on testifiers. Cases of experts asserting with only isolated second-hand knowledge (Lackey 2011, 2013) have been used to shed light on whether knowledge is sufficient for epistemically permissible assertion. I argue that relying on such cases of expert testimony introduces several problems concerning how we understand expert knowledge, and the sharing of such knowledge through testimony. Refinements are needed to (...)
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  27. Matthew A. Benton (2014). Believing on Authority. European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 6:133-144.
    Linda Zagzebski's "Epistemic Authority" (Oxford University Press, 2012) brings together issues in social epistemology with topics in moral and political philosophy as well as philosophy of religion. In this paper I criticize her discussion of self-trust and rationality, which sets up the main argument of the book; I consider how her view of authority relates to some issues of epistemic authority in testimony; and I raise some concerns about her treatment of religious epistemology and religious authority in particular.
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  28. Lisa A. Bergin (2002). Testimony, Epistemic Difference, and Privilege: How Feminist Epistemology Can Improve Our Understanding of the Communication of Knowledge. Social Epistemology 16 (3):197 – 213.
  29. Lisa Ann Bergin (1999). Knowledge, Communication, and Difference: An Integrative Theory. Dissertation, University of Minnesota
    This dissertation contributes to a theory of knowledge which incorporates both the social and the diverse natures of our knowledge. In recommending this theory, I oppose a traditional view of knowledge. That view holds that knowers must gain knowledge on their own and that they are, as knowers, identical. I argue that, although the traditional epistemology has been challenged, none of the challengers offers an epistemology which simultaneously analyzes human knowledge communication abilities and our diverse understandings of the world. Thus, (...)
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  30. Sven Bernecker & Fred Dretske (eds.) (2000). Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology. Oxford University Press.
    Epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is concerned with how we know what we do and what justifies us in believing what we do. The philosophical literature in epistemology has mushroomed in the past four decades, and interest in the topic continues to be widespread. In this anthology, Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske have collected the most important and influential writings in epistemology. It provides the fullest review to date of contemporary epistemology, including frequently neglected topics such as dominant responses (...)
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  31. Sibajiban Bhattacharyya (1994). Epistemology of Testimony and Authority: Some Indian Themes and Theories. In A. Chakrabarti & B. K. Matilal (eds.), Knowing From Words. Kluwer 69--97.
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  32. Purushottama Bilimoria (1991). Evidence in Testimony and Tradition. Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research 9 (1):73-84.
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  33. J. Biro (1995). Testimony and "a Priori" Knowledge. Philosophical Issues 6:301-310.
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  34. Tomas Bogardus & Anna Brinkerhoff (2015). The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays By David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey. Analysis 75 (2):339-342.
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  35. Laurence BonJour (2010). Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc..
    Introduction -- Part I: The classical problems of epistemology -- Descartes's epistemology -- The concept of knowledge -- The problem of induction -- A priori justification and knowledge -- Immediate experience -- Knowledge of the external world -- Some further epistemological issues : other minds, testimony, and memory -- Part II: Contemporary responses to the cartesian epistemological program -- Introduction to part II -- Foundationalism and coherentism -- Internalism and externalism -- Quine and naturalized epistemology -- Knowledge and skepticism.
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  36. Yves Bouchard (ed.) (2002). Perspectives on Coherentism. Editions du Scribe.
  37. Luc Bovens & Stephen Leeds, The Epistemology of Social Facts: The Evidential Value of Personal Experience Versus Testimony.
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  38. Kenneth Boyd (forthcoming). Testifying Understanding. Episteme:1-25.
    While it is widely acknowledged that knowledge can be acquired via testimony, it has been argued that understanding cannot. While there is no consensus about what the epistemic relationship of understanding consists in, I argue here that regardless of how understanding is conceived there are kinds of understanding that can be acquired through testimony: easy understanding and easy-s understanding. I address a number of aspects of understanding that might stand in the way of being able to acquire understanding through testimony, (...)
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  39. Gordon Brittan (1994). History, Testimony, and Two Kinds of Scepticism. In A. Chakrabarti & B. K. Matilal (eds.), Knowing From Words. Kluwer 273--295.
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  40. Fernando Broncano (2008). Trusting Others. The Epistemological Authority of Testimony. Theoria 23 (1):11-22.
    I propose to consider the interpersonal character of testimony as a kind of social bond created by the mutual intention of sharing knowledge. The paper explores the social mechanism that supports this mutual intention starting from an initial situation of modelling the other’s epistemic perspective. Accepting testimony as a joint action creates epistemic duties and responsibilities and the eventual success can be considered as a genuine achievement at the social level of epistemology. Trust is presented here as the symptom that (...)
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  41. Joel Buenting (2005). Re-Thinking the Duplication of Speaker/Hearer Belief in the Epistemology of Testimony. Episteme: Journal of Social Epistemology 2 (2):43-48.
    Most epistemologists of testimony assume that testifying requires that the beliefs to which speakers attest are identical to the beliefs that hearers accept. I argue that this characterization of testimony is misleading. Characterizing testimony in terms of duplicating speaker/hearer belief unduly resticts the variety of beliefs that might be accepted from speaker testimony.
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  42. Joel M. Buenting (2005). The Rejection of Testimony and the Normative Recommendation of Non-Fallacious 'Ad Hominem' Arguments Based on Hume's 'Of Miracles' and Canadian Law. Auslegung 27 (2):1 - 16.
    I have argued for the conclusion that nonfallacious ’ad hominem’ arguments are desirable and to commit them is to commit acts of intellectual responsibility. Arguing against a person, when legitimate, is the prerogative of any rational being. Hume commits himself to the argument and commits himself to it only as a judicious inquisitor responsible for the veracity of his own beliefs. The desirability of nonfallacious ’ad hominem’ ’attacks’ is clear from their extensive use and rhetorical power in courts of law. (...)
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  43. Vittorio Bufacchi (2013). Knowing Violence: Testimony, Trust and Truth. Revue Internationale de Philosophie 3:277-291.
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  44. Tyler Burge (1993). Content Preservation. Philosophical Review 102 (4):457-488.
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  45. Katherine L. Caldwell (forthcoming). The Epistemic and Moral Role of Testimony†. History and Theory.
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  46. Carol Caraway (1994). Coady`s Testimony: A Philosophical Study. Informal Logic 16 (1).
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  47. J. Adam Carter (2013). Faulkner, Paul, Knowledge on Trust. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 91 (2):409-413.
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  48. J. Adam Carter & Philip J. Nickel (2014). On Testimony and Transmission. Episteme 11 (02):145-155.
    Jennifer Lackey’s case “Creationist Teacher,” in which students acquire knowledge of evolutionary theory from a teacher who does not herself believe the theory, has been discussed widely as a counterexample to so-called transmission theories of testimonial knowledge and justification. The case purports to show that a speaker need not herself have knowledge or justification in order to enable listeners to acquire knowledge or justification from her assertion. The original case has been criticized on the ground that it does not (...)
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  49. Annamaria Carusi (2008). Scientific Visualisations and Aesthetic Grounds for Trust. Ethics and Information Technology 10 (4):243-254.
    The collaborative ‹Big Science’ approach prevalent in physics during the mid- and late-20th century is becoming more common in the life sciences. Often computationally mediated, these collaborations challenge researchers’ trust practices. Focusing on the visualisations that are often at the heart of this form of scientific practice, the paper proposes that the aesthetic aspects of these visualisations are themselves a way of securing trust. Kant’s account of aesthetic judgements in the Third Critique is drawn upon in order to show that (...)
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  50. Albert Casullo (2007). Testimony and A Priori Knowledge. Episteme 4 (3):322-334.
    Tyler Burge offers a theory of testimony that allows for the possibility of both testimonial a priori warrant and testimonial a priori knowledge. I uncover a tension in his account of the relationship between the two, and locate its source in the analogy that Burge draws between testimonial warrant and preservative memory. I contend that this analogy should be rejected, and offer a revision of Burge's theory that eliminates the tension. I conclude by assessing the impact of the revised theory (...)
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