Epistemology of Testimony

Edited by Stephen Wright (Oxford University)
Assistant editor: Jonathan Reibsamen (Columbia International 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.

Related categories

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  1. Epistemological Problems of Testimony.Jonathan Adler - 2008 - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  2. Transmitting Knowledge.Jonathan E. Adler - 1996 - Noûs 30 (1):99-111.
  3. Testimony, Trust, Knowing.Jonathan E. Adler - 1994 - Journal of Philosophy 91 (5):264-275.
  4. Testimony, Trust, Knowing.Jonathan E. Adler - 1994 - Journal of Philosophy 91 (5):264-275.
  5. Ethics Expert Testimony: Against the Skeptics.G. J. Agich & B. J. Spielman - 1997 - 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.
  6. The Crisis of Testimony in Historiography.Jonas Ahlskog - 2018 - Journal of the Philosophy of History 12 (1):48-70.
    _ Source: _Page Count 23 The essay examines the recent discussion about a “crisis of testimony” in historiography. Central to this discussion is the question of how it is possible for human testimony to convey information about the limit experiences of 20th century history. Given that the credibility of testimony is assessed by appealing to our previous understanding of what is credible, testimony to limit experiences risks being dismissed as unbelievable or implausible. This issue has recently been addressed in the (...)
  7. Benjamin McMyler, Testimony, Trust and Authority (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Viii + 178, Price £40.00 Hb. [REVIEW]Jonas Ahlskog - 2014 - Philosophical Investigations 37 (1):98-102.
  8. The Seduction of Winston Smith.Mark Alfano - 2018 - In Ezio Di Nucci & Stefan Storrie (eds.), 1984 and Philosophy. Open Court.
    On the first page of 1984, Winston Smith is confronted with several posters featuring the face of Big Brother and the famous sentence, “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.” This may not seem like a promising way to seduce someone, but the seduction of Winston Smith by Big Brother in 1984 is a most unusual love story. I call it a seduction because Winston’s mind and heart are slowly won over in the aptly-named Ministry of Love. Moreover, in the final scene (...)
  9. The ‘Do It Yourself’ Paradigm: An Inquiry Into the Historical Roots of the Neglect of Testimony.Emmanuel Alloa - 2017 - Early Science and Medicine 22 (4):333-360.
    In contemporary social epistemology, the claim has been made that there is a traditional “neglect of testimonial knowledge,” and that in the history of epistemology, first-hand self-knowledge was invariably prioritised over secondary knowledge. While this paper acknowledges some truth in these statements, it challenges the given explanations: the mentioned neglect of testimonial knowledge is based not so much on a primacy of self-knowledge, but that of self-agency. This article retraces some crucial chapters of this ‘do-it-yourself’ paradigm: it considers the imperative (...)
  10. Comments on Tim Kenyon's "Oral History and the Epistemology of Testimony".Ben Almassi - 2015 - Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective.
  11. Conflicting Expert Testimony and the Search for Gravitational Waves.Ben Almassi - 2009 - 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. (...)
  12. Trust in Expert Testimony: Eddington's 1919 Eclipse Expedition and the British Response to General Relativity.Ben Almassi - 2009 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 40 (1):57-67.
  13. Experts, Evidence, and Epistemic Independence.Ben Almassi - 2007 - 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 (...)
  14. Hume, Defeat, and Miracle Reports.Charity Anderson - 2018 - In Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne & Dani Rabinowitz (eds.), Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 13-28.
    This chapter investigates the rationality of failing to believe miracle reports. Hume famously argued that it is irrational to believe that a miracle has occurred on the basis of testimony alone. While certain aspects of Hume's argument have received extensive discussion, other features of his argument have been largely overlooked. After offering a reconstruction of Hume's argument, I argue that epistemic defeat plays a central role in the argument, and I explore the aptness of as well as some limitations to (...)
  15. A Semantic Solution to the Problem with Aesthetic Testimony.James Andow - 2015 - 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 (...)
  16. Testimony as a Social Foundation of Knowledge.Robert Audi - 2013 - 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. (...)
  17. Testimony as an a Priori Basis of Acceptance: Problems and Prospects.Robert Audi - 2006 - 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 (...)
  18. Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity.Robert Audi - 2006 - In Jennifer Lackey & Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press. pp. 25--49.
  19. The Epistemic Authority of Testimony and the Ethics of Belief.Robert Audi - 2005 - In Andrew Dole & Andrew Chignell (eds.), God and the Ethics of Belief: New Essays in Philosophy of Religion. Cambridge University Press.
  20. The a Priori Authority of Testimony.Robert Audi - 2004 - Philosophical Issues 14 (1):18–34.
  21. The Place of Testimony in the Fabric of Knowledge and Justification.Robert Audi - 1997 - American Philosophical Quarterly 34 (4):405 - 422.
  22. The Meditations and the Logic of Testimony.Gordon Baker & Katherine J. Morris - 2004 - British Journal for the History of Philosophy 12 (1):23 – 41.
  23. Testimony Amidst Diversity.Max Baker-Hytch - 2018 - In Matthew A. Benton, John Hawthorne & Dani Rabinowitz (eds.), Knowledge, Belief, and God: New Insights in Religious Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 183-202.
  24. Learning From Others.David Bakhurst - 2013 - 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, (...)
  25. The Significance of Unpossessed Evidence.Nathan Ballantyne - 2015 - Philosophical Quarterly 65 (260):315-335.
  26. Testimony and Illusion.Alex Barber - 2006 - 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 (...)
  27. Imwinkelried's Argument for Normative Ethical Testimony.David W. Barnes - 2005 - Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 33 (2):234-241.
  28. Is Memory Merely Testimony From One's Former Self?David James Barnett - 2015 - 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 (...)
  29. What's the Matter with Epistemic Circularity?David James Barnett - 2014 - Philosophical Studies 171 (2):177-205.
    If the reliability of a source of testimony is open to question, it seems epistemically illegitimate to verify the source’s reliability by appealing to that source’s own testimony. Is this because it is illegitimate to trust a questionable source’s testimony on any matter whatsoever? Or is there a distinctive problem with appealing to the source’s testimony on the matter of that source’s own reliability? After distinguishing between two kinds of epistemically illegitimate circularity—bootstrapping and self-verification—I argue for a qualified version of (...)
  30. The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy.Gregory Bassham & Jerry L. Walls (eds.) - 2005 - 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 ...
  31. Hume on Miracles: Would It Take a Miracle to Believe in a Miracle?Steven M. Bayne - 2007 - Southern Journal of Philosophy 45 (1):1-29.
    Given Hume’s theory of belief and belief production it is no small task to explain how it is possible for a belief in a miracle to be produced. I argue that belief in a miracle cannot be produced through Hume’s standard causal mechanisms and that although education, passion, and testimony initially seem to be promising mechanisms for producing belief in a miracle, none of these is able to produce the belief in amiracle. I conclude by explaining how this poses a (...)
  32. Lexical Norms, Language Comprehension, and the Epistemology of Testimony.Endre Begby - 2014 - 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 (...)
  33. Testimony, Credulity, and Veracity.I. Testimony-Based Belief - 2006 - In Jennifer Lackey & Ernest Sosa (eds.), The Epistemology of Testimony. Oxford University Press. pp. 25.
  34. Expert Opinion and Second‐Hand Knowledge.Matthew A. Benton - 2016 - 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 (...)
  35. Believing on Authority.Matthew A. Benton - 2014 - European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 6 (4):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.
  36. Testimony, Epistemic Difference, and Privilege: How Feminist Epistemology Can Improve Our Understanding of the Communication of Knowledge.Lisa A. Bergin - 2002 - Social Epistemology 16 (3):197 – 213.
  37. Knowledge, Communication, and Difference: An Integrative Theory.Lisa Ann Bergin - 1999 - 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, (...)
  38. Knowledge: Readings in Contemporary Epistemology.Sven Bernecker & Fred I. Dretske (eds.) - 2000 - Oxford University Press.
    In this anthology, distinguished editors Sven Bernecker and Fred Dretske offer the most comprehensive review available of contemporary epistemology. They bring together the most important and influential writings in the field, including selections that cover frequently neglected topics such as dominant responses to skepticism, introspection, memory, and testimony. Knowledge is divided into fifteen subject areas and includes forty-one readings by eminent contributors. An accessible introduction to each subject area outlines the problems discussed in the essays that follow so that students (...)
  39. Epistemology of Testimony and Authority: Some Indian Themes and Theories.Sibajiban Bhattacharyya - 1994 - In A. Chakrabarti & B. K. Matilal (eds.), Knowing From Words. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 69--97.
  40. Evidence in Testimony and Tradition.Purushottama Bilimoria - 1991 - Journal of the Indian Council of Philosophical Research 9:73-84.
  41. Testimony and "a Priori" Knowledge.J. Biro - 1995 - Philosophical Issues 6:301-310.
  42. Moral Realism and Reliance on Moral Testimony.Joshua Blanchard - forthcoming - Philosophical Studies:1-13.
    Moral realism and some of its constitutive theses, e.g., cognitivism, face the following challenge. If they are true, then it seems that we should predict that deference to moral testimony is appropriate under the same conditions as deference to non-moral testimony. Yet, many philosophers intuit that deference to moral testimony is not appropriate, even in otherwise ordinary conditions. In this paper I show that the challenge is cogent only if the appropriateness in question is disambiguated in a particular way. To (...)
  43. The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays By David Christensen and Jennifer Lackey.Tomas Bogardus & Anna Brinkerhoff - 2015 - Analysis 75 (2):339-342.
  44. Epistemology: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses.Laurence Bonjour - 2009 - Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
    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.
  45. Perspectives on Coherentism.Yves Bouchard (ed.) - 2002 - Editions du Scribe.
  46. The Epistemology of Social Facts: The Evidential Value of Personal Experience Versus Testimony.Luc Bovens & Stephen Leeds - 2002 - In Georg Meggle (ed.), Social Facts and Collective Intentionality. Philosophische Forschung / Philosophical research. Frankfurt A. M.: Dr. Haensel-Hohenhausen. pp. 43-51.
    "The Personal is Political": This was an often-heard slogan of feminist groups in the late sixties and early seventies. The slogan is no doubt open to many interpretations. There is one interpretation which touches on the epistemology of social facts, viz. the slogan claims that in assessing the features of a political system, personal experiences have privileged evidentiary value. For instancte, in the face of third person reports about political corruption, I may remain unmoved in my belief that the political (...)
  47. Testifying Understanding.Kenneth Boyd - 2017 - Episteme 14 (1):103-127.
    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, (...)
  48. Assertion: On the Philosophical Significance of Assertoric SpeechBy Sanford G. Goldberg.Daniel Brigham - 2016 - Analysis 76 (3):389-391.
  49. History, Testimony, and Two Kinds of Scepticism.Gordon Brittan - 1994 - In A. Chakrabarti & B. K. Matilal (eds.), Knowing From Words. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 273--295.
  50. Trusting Others. The Epistemological Authority of Testimony.Fernando Broncano - 2008 - Theoria: Revista de Teoría, Historia y Fundamentos de la Ciencia 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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