The epistemology of social facts: the evidential value of personal experience versus testimony

In Georg Meggle (ed.), Social Facts and Collective Intentionality. Philosophische Forschung / Philosophical research. Frankfurt A. M.: Dr. Haensel-Hohenhausen. pp. 43-51 (2002)
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"The Personal is Political": This was an often-heard slogan of feminist groups in the late sixties and early seventies. The slogan is no doubt open to many interpretations. There is one interpretation which touches on the epistemology of social facts, viz. the slogan claims that in assessing the features of a political system, personal experiences have privileged evidentiary value. For instancte, in the face of third person reports about political corruption, I may remain unmoved in my belief that the political powers are morally upstanding, and it is only when I myself am adversely affected, that I come to change my views. There are two standard patterns of explanation of this type of belief formation: (i) We know that third-person reports may be lessreliable than first-person experiences; (ii) If the third-person reports are no less reliable than first-person experiences, we may just be dealing with a standard pattern of epistemic irrationality. However, we argue that there is also a much more surprising pattern of explanation: under certain conditions, a Bayesian argument can be proffered to the effect that it is rational to change one's beliefs in the face of personal experiences and not in the face of third-person reports, even if these experiences and reports are equally reliable. Hence, the feminist slogan (at least on one particular interpretation of it) receives unexpected support from Bayesian comers. We also show that this pattern of explanation has surprising repercussions on the question of the evidentiary value of miracles in philosophy of religion.

Author Profiles

Luc Bovens
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Stephen Leeds
University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee


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