Testimony: A Philosophical Study

Testimony: A Philosophical Study

Testimony: A Philosophical Study

Testimony: A Philosophical Study


The role of testimony in the getting of reliable belief or knowledge is a central but neglected epistemological issue. Western philosophical tradition has paid scant attention to the individual thinker's reliance upon the word of others; yet we are in fact profoundly dependent on others for avast amount of what any of us claims to know. Professor Coady begins by exploring the nature and depth of our reliance upon testimony, addressing the complex definitional puzzles surrounding the idea. He analyses the tradition of debate on the topic in order to reveal the epistemic individualism which has given rise to an illusory ideal of'autonomous knowledge', and to gain a deeper understanding of the issues. He concludes this part of the book by showing what a feasible justification of testimony as a source of knowledge could be. In the second half of the book the author uses this new view of testimony to challenge certainwidespread assumptions in the fields of history, mathematics, psychology, and law.


I first began thinking about the epistemological status of testimony in the 1960s when writing a thesis at Oxford on issues in the theory of perception. I doubt that my testimony about these origins is worth much now, though I recall being intrigued by some remarks of Elizabeth Anscombe on the topic during her lectures on the empiricists, and my supervisor, William Kneale, drew my attention early on to Archbishop Whately's brilliant spoof of Hume in Historic Doubts Relative to Napoleon Bonaparte. I had certainly read J. L. Austin's 'Other Minds', as a student, but it was only when I came to check a reference in the final stages of preparation for the book that I realized (or was caused to remember?) that he had written perceptively, if very briefly, about testimony. This led to a few alterations, including the use of one of Austin's comments as an epigraph for the book. It also made me think it likely that there are other forgotten influences that I will never be in a position to acknowledge. Let this admission stand proxy for the acknowledgments that cannot be given.

With regard to what I am told, my temperament inclines towards scepticism rather than gullibility. This inclination was reinforced by several years spent as a young man in the world of popular journalism. I was therefore initially reluctant to go down the path charted in this book, since its basic thrust is that our trust in the word of others is fundamental to the very idea of serious cognitive activity. However uncongenial, this outlook came to seem the only honest one to adopt, though the question remained how it could be integrated into a wider epistemological framework and so 'justified'.

When I began reading papers on the subject, my audiences mostly reacted with incomprehension, or the sort of disbelief evoked by denials of the merest common sense. Gradually, the climate of thought has changed and there is now more sympathy for the view that testimony is a prominent and underexplored epistemological landscape, although what sort of feature it is and how largely it looms are still naturally matters for disagreement. I will be pleased if this book produces more and better disagreement, even if it is with me. I will, of course, also be delighted if discussion and debate leads to some measure of agreement.

The book's format and development need some preliminary explanation. It is divided into four sections. The first, 'The Problematic', consists of three chapters of an expository and definitional character. Chapter 1

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