Assurance Views of Testimony

In M. Fricker, N. J. L. L. Pedersen, D. Henderson & P. J. Graham (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Social Epistemology. Routledge. pp. 96-102 (2019)
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Assurance theories of testimony attempt to explain what is distinctive about testimony as a form of epistemic warrant or justification. The most characteristic assurance theories hold that a distinctive subclass of assertion (acts of “telling”) involves a real commitment given by the speaker to the listener, somewhat like a promise to the effect that what is asserted is true. This chapter sympathetically explains what is attractive about such theories: instead of treating testimony as essentially similar to any other kind of evidence, they instead make testimonial warrant depend on essential features of the speech act of testimony as a social practice. One such feature is “buck-passing,” the phenomenon that when I am challenged to defend a belief I acquired through testimony, I may respond by referring to the source of my testimony (and thereby “passing the buck”) rather than providing direct evidence for the truth of the content of the belief. The chapter concludes by posing a serious challenge to assurance theories, namely that the social practice of assurance insufficiently ensures the truth of beliefs formed on the basis of testimony, and thereby fails a crucial epistemological test as a legitimate source of beliefs.

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Philip J. Nickel
Eindhoven University of Technology


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