Phil 550: The Epistemology of Testimony

Course Mechanics

Course Description

Social epistemology is the study of how we learn from others, whether or not groups (rather than individuals) can acquire knowledge, and how to organize academic and research institutions so as to facilitate the spread of knowledge and true belief. Perhaps the most important questions in social epistemology, therefore, concern testimony. Although the word "testimony" has legal and religious connotations in everyday speech, philosophers typically use the word to refer to whatever might be communicated by word-of-mouth, written documents, radio broadcasts, and more. Both legal rules (e.g., concerning hearsay) and everyday expressions (e.g., "I'll believe it when I see it") indicate that testimony is often thought to be less reliable than other types of evidence (e.g., perception). On the other hand, an incredible amount of what we think we know is acquired secondhand including, for instance, our scientific beliefs and some of our residual beliefs from childhood about social institutions, morality, and more. In what contexts are we justified in trusting testimony? Is the type of evidence we acquire from testimony ultimately "reducible" to other forms of evidence (e.g., perception)? In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of research aiming to answer these questions and more.

This course is first-year graduate seminar on the epistemology of testimony. In order to discuss issues concerning testimony, we will situate current debates within several broader philosophical discussions about justification (in particular, the internalism/externalism debate), the a priori, and the relationship between belief and action.

Course Goals

The course has three central goals. First, by the end of the semester, students should be able to summarize the central positions concerning three different questions about the epistemology of testimony, namely, the reductionism debate, the question of whether testimony can transmit a priori justification, and the question of the role of ability in understanding knowledge from testimony. Second, students should be able to reconstruct the most frequent arguments offered on behalf of each position in the three debates. Finally, students should be able to describe how these arguments are different from and similar to previous arguments offered in discussions of justification, skepticism, and the a priori .

Course Requirements

Engaging in lively discussion and debate is essential to learning how to think philosophically. Thus, one requirement of the course is to contribute to class discussions. In order for you to participate in class, you should bring a copy of the assigned readings. You can do so by bringing a book, printing copies of the scanned readings, and/or bringing a laptop so that you can refer to a digital copy. It is well-known that students who attend class perform significantly better than students who do not.

Before each class period, I will ask you to write a short one to two page response paper to the assigned readings. Suggestions for types of response papers are below. The purpose of these short papers is twofold. First, as participants in a graduate seminar, you are expected to have more than a surface level understanding of a text before class: you should be prepared to summarize the finer points of an argument, compare an author's position to previous readings, and critique the weaker points of a paper. Writing is one of the best ways to start that critical thinking process before class starts. Second, at the end of the quarter, you will be asked to write a longer, argumentative term paper. Undergraduate and beginning graduate students often have fairly little practice planning and outlining a longer piece of writing: many just sit down and write a ten page paper during finals week. Because many of you are expected to write a dissertation in a few years, and because some of you will write journal articles and books in the near future, you should abandon bad habits as soon as possible and begin to develop your own process of outlining and pre-writing. The short response papers, I hope, will help you to reflect upon your writing process and prepare an excellent term paper.

Once during the quarter, I will ask you to give a short presentation (about 15 minutes) and lead class discussion. You should prepare a handout that (i) clearly summarizes at least one of the readings, and (ii) contains a list of discussion questions that you hope to address for the day. Please email everyone in the seminar a copy of the handout the evening before class.

There is a term paper due at the end of the quarter. You should submit a project description (ideally, containing a thesis and outline of an argument) one month before the end of the quarter, and I will schedule a meeting during the following week to talk to you about your proposal. You should also submit a \emph{polished} first draft of your term paper by 5/29 at midnight. After you have submitted a project proposal. I will pair you with another student in class, who will comment on your paper during the final week of class. Commenters should prepare a handout and be prepared to speak for about ten minutes about the other student's paper. In case there are an odd number of students, one graduate student will have the lucky task of commenting on one of my papers. Suggestions for comments and presentations, in general, are below.

In sum, the course requirements are listed below:

Response Papers, Comments, and Presentations

For philosophers, a central professional activity is to summarize, present, defend, and critique on others' work. This is a difficult task, especially if you are not an expert in the area in which you are presenting. But such lack of expertise is the norm, not the exception. I am frequently asked to review many papers that are outside my area of expertise.

Nonetheless, you can be extremely helpful to other philosophers, even if you are not an expert in their fields. Below are some techniques for providing constructive feedback, even when you may know less than the person whose paper, book, etc. you are reviewing. In your response papers for this class, you can either summarize an assigned reading or use one of these techniques. You should utilize at least one of these techniques in your presentation and comments. I learned of these techniques from Tim O'Keefe's comments on Leiter's blog a number of years ago.

In your response papers, please do not try to deliver crushing objections to the papers you have read. Trying your best to defend and understand others' work is the first step to improving upon it.

Submitting Assignments

All papers should be submitted electronically via Canvas.


Your final grade will be calculated via a weighted average using the following weights:

Your final grade will be converted to a four point scale using the following equation:

Four Point Scale = Percentage/10 - 5.5.

For example, if your final percentage is 90%, then your final grade will be 3.5 = 9/10 - 5.5.

Course Files


Below is a table indicating readings and assignments that are due each class. If you are a registered student in the class, then you can download the readings from the link in the "Course Files" section above.

Date Topic Readings
4/2 Introduction to class themes None
4/9 The possibility of global skepticism Davidson. "A Coherence Theory of Truth and Knowledge"
D. Greco. "The Impossibility of Skepticism"
4/16 Non-Reductionism Coady. "Testimony and Observation"
Foley. "Universal Intellectual Trust"
Hardwig. "Epistemic Dependence"
Hardwig. "The Role of Trust in Knowledge"
4/23 Reductionism Fricker. "Against Gullibility"
Kenyon. "The Informational Richness of Testimonial Contexts"
Adler. "Testimony, Trust, and Knowing"
4/30 Internalism and Externalism Goldman. "What is justified belief?"
Vogel. "Reliabilism leveled"
Feldman. "Internalism Defended"
5/7 Hybrid Approaches Lackey. "It Takes Two to Tango"
Pritchard. "The Epistemology of Testimony"
5/14 A Priori Knowledge Burge. "Content Preservation"
Malmgren. "Is there a priori knowledge by testimony?"
Casullo. "Testimony and A priori Knowledge"
5/21 Transmission Audi. "The place of testimony in the fabric of knowledge and justification"
Lackey. "Testimonial Knowledge and Transmission"
5/28 Virtue Epistemology and Testimony Sosa. A Virtue Epistemology. Chapters 2 and 5.
Lackey. Review of Intellectual Virtue: Perspectives from Ethics and Epistemology
J. Greco. Achieving Knowledge. Sections 5.1 and 5.4.
6/5 Student presentations. Student papers.