Beyond The ‘Null Setting’

Abstract

Epistemologists of testimony have tended to construct highly stylized examples in support of their respective philosophical positions, the paradigmatic case being the casual request for directions from a random stranger. The present paper analyzes the use of such examples in the early controversy between reductionists and anti-reductionists about testimonial justification. The controversy concerned, on the one hand, the source of whatever epistemic justification our testimony-based beliefs might have, and, on the other hand, the phenomenology of testimonial acceptance and rejection. As it turns out, appeal to “null setting” cases did not resolve, but instead deepened, the theoretical disputes between reductionists and anti-reductionists. This, it is suggested, is because interpreters ‘fill in’ missing details in ways that reflect their own peculiarities in perspective, experience, upbringing, and philosophical outlook. In response, two remedial strategies have been pursued in recent years: First, we could invert the usual strategy and turn to formal contexts, rather than informal settings, as the paradigmatic scenarios for any prospective epistemology of testimony. Second, instead of “null setting” scenarios, we can focus on richly described cases that either include, or are embedded into, sufficient contextual information to allow for educated judgments concerning the reliability and trustworthiness of the testimony and testifiers involved. The prospects of both of these approaches are then discussed and evaluated.

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Axel Gelfert
Technische Universität Berlin

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