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Testimony and Context

Research Project: Epistemology: Current Themes

7th May 2016 - 8th May 2016

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Confirmed speakers are: Emma Borg (Reading), Herman Cappelen (Oslo/St Andrews), Rachel Fraser (Oxford), Lizzie Fricker (Oxford), Sandy Goldberg (Northwestern), Mikkel Gerken (Edinburgh), Patrick Greenough (St Andrews), Katherine Hawley (St Andrews), Andrew Peet (St Andrews) and Joey Pollock (Edinburgh)

In acquiring knowledge from others we rely on speakers to be reliable and honest, and we rely on our own ability to understand what we have been told. Most research in the epistemology of testimony focuses on the former reliance. However, our ability to communicate successfully is no less important. Moreover, given the widespread context sensitivity of natural language it is puzzling that we seem able to reliably acquire testimonial knowledge. Thus, a complete epistemology of testimony will consider not only the epistemology of our reliance on others, but also the epistemology of linguistic communication. This conference brings together epistemologists and philosophers of language to explore the epistemology of testimony in light of the complexities of linguistic communication. Topics addressed include:

What are the conditions for communicative success?

What are the implications of semantic minimalism, radical contextualism, or speech act pluralism for the epistemology of testimony?

How reliable is linguistic communication?

Does contextual knowledge contribute to the justificatory status of testimonial beliefs?

What are the implications of the semantic internalism/externalism debate for the epistemology of testimony?

Can implicit or non-literal communication be a source of testimonial knowledge?


Saturday 7th May

  • 13.00-14.30 Emma Borg Linguistic Meaning, Context and Assertion
  • 14.30-14.45-Break
  • 14.45-16.15 Rachel Fraser Saying and ‘De Se’-ing
  • 16.15-16.30 Break
  • 16.30-18.00 Elizabeth Fricker On Not Being Able to Believe What One Is Told
  • 18.00-19.00 Reception Edgecliffe Rm 104
  • 19:45 Workshop Dinner – Forgans Restaurant

Sunday 8th May

  • 09.30-11.00 Katherine Hawley Telling or Trying to Tell?
  • 11.00-11.15 Break
  • 11.15-12.45 Andrew Peet Knowledge-Yielding Communication
  • 12.45-13.45 Lunch
  • 13.45-15.15 Joey Pollock Testimony and linguistic understanding
  • 15.15-16.45 Sandy Goldberg Context, Assertibility, and the Epistemology of Testimony
  • 16.45-17.00 Break
  • 17.00-18.00: Roundtable Discussion (Herman Cappelen, Mikkel Gerken, Patrick Greenough)

The Workshop organisers are Patrick Greenough and Andrew Peet. For more information, please send an email to Patrick at pmg2@st-andrews.ac.uk or Andrew at arp7@st-andrews.ac.uk

This event is open to all philosophers in Scotland and beyond and is made possible by the generous support of the Scots Philosophical Association , The Mind Association and Aristotelian Society.

To register for this event, please send an email to arche@st-andrews.ac.uk


Emma Borg

Linguistic Meaning, Context and Assertion

Abstract: This paper explores the difference between asserting and implying, and the role the context of utterance plays in determining either kind of content. I begin by introducing two distinct approaches to the difference between asserting and implying: one which locates the difference in the language, as it were, and one which locates it in the mind. However I argue that both these approaches face problems. Instead then I argue that the distinction is better captured in sociolinguistic terms, whereby the difference between asserting and merely implying emerges from the distinct kinds of social role these speech acts play. I conclude by sketching how this socially-orientated view of assertion relates to debates about how and where to draw the semantics/pragmatics boundary.

Rachel Fraser

Saying and ‘De Se’-ing

Abstract: I look at the consequences of de se content and attitudes for the epistemology of testimony.

Lizzie Fricker

On Not Being Able to Believe What One Is Told

Abstract: Testimony is a means of spreading knowledge that has the potential to iterate: suppose A knowledgeably tells B that P, and B takes her word for it, thereby coming also to know that P; then B may in turn tell C that P, who in turn passes on that knowledge further. This process can in principle continue without limit. This being so, testimony can spread knowledge widely across both space and time: it is used both to pass on knowledge, and when concretised in written form, to preserve it for future generations. But for B to learn from A’s testimony she must understand it; and this requires shared meanings between speaker and hearer. So, for testimony widely to spread knowledge, and to preserve it, there must be shared stable linguistic meanings of expressions of a common language. In this paper I explore how the fact of context-sensitivity in determination of reference of many expressions of natural language complicates, and in some cases renders problematic, this spreading and preserving of knowledge via spoken and written word.

Sandy Goldberg

Context, Assertibility, and the Epistemology of Testimony

Abstract: Though by no means a consensus, a popular view in the literature on assertion is that the standards for warranted assertion can vary with context. I will call such a view, ‘Variability in Assertion’s Standard,’ or ‘VAS’ for short. Most familiarly, VAS has been used, together with the Knowledge Norm of Assertion, as part of an argument for a contextualist semantics for ‘knows’ (see e.g. DeRose 2002; Shaffer 2008 defends a contrastivist account on these grounds). Others have used VAS, together with a commitment to an invariantist semantics for ‘knows’, to reject the Knowledge Norm of Assertion itself, in favor of a contextualist account of the norm of assertion (Levin 2008; Maitra and Weatherson 2010; Gerken 2014; Goldberg 2015; McKinnon 2015). One might also try to explain away the phenomena that appear to support VAS, by arguing that what appear to be warranted assertions answering to different standards are actually no such thing. Perhaps this is because the appearance of warrantedness itself is illusory. Alternatively, perhaps this is because the appearance of warranted acts of assertion is illusory (Turri 2010). While the discussion surrounding VAS has taken place mainly in the literature on assertion, we can shed some light on the commitments of these various views by linking that discussion to the literature in the epistemology of testimony. On the (plausible if not universally-endorsed) assumption that the act of testifying requires a speech act that is governed by the norm of assertion, I ask what the various views described above imply for the epistemology of testimony – in particular, for the conditions on, and prevalence of, justified testimonial belief and testimonial knowledge.

Katherine Hawley

Telling or Trying to Tell?

Abstract: We do not always control which type of speech act we perform. This opens up a gap between telling and trying to tell. In this paper I explore the consequences of this gap for the ethics and epistemology of testimony.

Andrew Peet

Knowledge-Yielding Communication

Abstract: Testimonial knowledge is knowledge acquired through communication. A complete epistemology of testimony will include an account of the communicative preconditions for testimonial knowledge. This talk sets out to provide such an account. Several conditions are considered, including coordination on content, knowledge of what is said, mutual understanding, and the satisfaction of complex Gricean intentions. These views are found to be inadequate. The second half of the talk develops an anti-luck and anti-individualist account of the communicative preconditions for testimonial knowledge.

Joey Pollock

Testimony and Linguistic Understanding

Abstract How well do we need to understand a speaker in order to gain knowledge from her speech? One attractive answer to this question is that we do not need a very sophisticated understanding of the content of a speaker’s testimony in order to gain knowledge from this testimony: so long as we grasp the right content, it does not matter if we understand this content poorly. Such a view looks especially promising when combined with the thesis that we share a public language that makes it very easy to grasp the content of a speaker’s testimony. This picture is attractive because it allows us to claim that we often and easily gain knowledge from others. In this talk, I argue that this picture is epistemically problematic. Unless a hearer possesses a relatively good understanding of what a speaker’s asserts, her resultant testimonial belief will not be justified. Given that we often do not possess a sufficiently good understanding of the testimony we consume, I argue that we acquire far less knowledge from testimony than is popularly thought.


7th May 2016
8th May 2016


School II
United College, St Salvator's Quad
St Andrews, KY169AL United Kingdom
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Jun 2017: Blame and Norms

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