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Kant on testimony
British Journal for the History of Philosophy Vol. 14 No. 4 (2006) pp. 627-652
Keywords: Kant, epistemology of testimony, autonomy, epistemic authority, Enlightenment, sources of knowledge
Immanuel Kant is often regarded as an exponent of the ‘individualist’ tradition in epistemology, according to which testimony is not a fundamental source of knowledge. The present paper argues that this view is far from accurate. Kant devotes ample space to discussions of testimony and, in his lectures on logic, arrives at a distinct and stable philosophical position regarding testimony. Important elements of this position consist in (a) acknowledging the ineliminability of testimony; (b) realizing that testimony can establish empirical knowledge with certainty; (c) establishing a presumptive principle regarding the acceptance of testimony; (d) arguing for a symmetry between knowledge based on experience and knowledge based on testimony. Rejecting testimony as a fundamental source of knowledge merely on the basis that no theoretically necessary ground for its truth can be given, would, as Kant puts it, indicate ‘a lack of moral interest’. Such ‘incredulity’ would be a form of ‘logical egoism’: it demonstrates an unwillingness or inability to think oneself in the place of others, yet this we must do if we are to trust our own judgements. While Kant strongly endorses testimony as a source of empirical knowledge, he does, however, make one important restriction: ‘Propositions of reason’ (Vernunftwahrheiten), such as universal moral principles, may not be adopted on the basis of testimony. I argue that this distinction, between testimonial knowledge of empirical matters of fact and individual knowledge of propositions of reason, is an important element of Kant’s epistemology of testimony, as it explains how his strong endorsement of testimony as a source of knowledge can be squared with his equally strong demand for intellectual autonomy. Finally, I comment on the overall implications of this account for Kant’s discussion, elsewhere in his work, of the public nature of communication.
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