Testimony, Trust, and Authority

Testimony, Trust, and Authority

Testimony, Trust, and Authority

Testimony, Trust, and Authority

Synopsis

Much of what we know is acquired by taking things on the word of other people whom we trust and treat as authorities concerning what to believe. But what exactly is it to take someone's word for something? What is it to treat another as an authority concerning what to believe, and what is itto then trust this person for the truth? In Testimony, Trust, and Authority, Benjamin McMyler argues that philosophers have failed to appreciate the nature and significance of our epistemic dependence on the word of others. What others tell us is the case-their testimony, as philosophers use the term-provides us with a reason for beliefthat is fundamentally unlike the kind of reason for belief provided by other kinds of impersonal evidence. Unlike a footprint in the snow or a bloody knife left at the scene of a crime, a speaker's testimony provides an audience with what McMyler calls a second-personal reason for belief, a reasonfor belief that serves to parcel out epistemic responsibility for the belief interpersonally between speaker and audience.Testimony, Trust, and Authority is the most developed articulation and defense of an interpersonal theory of the epistemology of testimony yet to appear. It explains how this position relates to the historical development of philosophical questions about testimony, draws out what is at stakebetween this position and other competing positions in the contemporary epistemological literature on testimony, highlights and clarifies what is so controversial about this position, and shows how this position connects to broader philosophical issues concerning trust, the second person, and therole of authority in both theoretical and practical rationality. It will be of interest not only to specialists in epistemology but to anyone interested in the nature and significance of human sociality.

Excerpt

Why, if I accept what you say, on the basis of your saying it, do I respond by saying “I believe
you,” not “I believe what you say”? I would like to say that the home of belief lies in my rela
tion to others.
(Cavell 1979: 391)

In the narrowest terms, this book is about the epistemology of testimony, about the branch of the theory of knowledge concerned with how we acquire knowledge and justified belief from the say-so of other people. By all accounts, a great deal of what we know and believe is in fact acquired in this way. Most of what we know about history, science, and current events is acquired from the spoken and written word, from being told things by people we trust and treat as authorities on these matters. For many epistemologists, the sheer volume of knowledge and belief acquired from the word of others is enough to make the topic of testimony one of serious and legitimate epistemological concern. Given that so much of what we know is actually acquired in this way, our general epistemological theories about the nature of knowledge and justification ought to have something to say about the kind of knowledge and justification acquired from the word of others.

The project of this book, however, is to demonstrate that the topic of the epistemology of testimony is of much broader and deeper philosophical significance than that of a mere subject matter to which general epistemological theories should be applied. Suitably thought through, the epistemology of knowledge and belief based on testimony helps to reveal one of the ways in which the human mind is a constitutively social phenomenon, one of the ways in which being the kind of minded being that we . . .

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