Philosophy | Topics in Epistemology: Testimony and Disagreement
P470 | 29989 | Leite, Adam

Suppose that you are all alone in a strange city and want to
find out where the nearest subway station is.  The simplest thing to
do is to ask someone, and if you do, you are likely to believe what
you are told.  But why?  What reason do you have to accept what
other people tell you?  Strikingly, most of the things we believe
are things that we learned from other people – by being told things,
by reading books, etc.  And if you leave out of account all of the
things that you have learned from other people, what is left over
seemingly won’t be enough, all by itself, to provide you with any
good evidence that what people tell you is generally correct.  So
our situation is a strange one.  On the one hand, without relying on
other people, you could never come to know most of what you know at
all.  But on the other hand, you seemingly can’t provide any good
independent reason for believing what people tell you!  What should
we make of this situation?  What kind of reason do we have for
trusting other people?
Here’s another puzzling issue.  Disagreements happen all of
the time.  Two people are apprised of the same information, are in
all relevant respects equally intelligent, and are given the same
opportunities for reflection, and yet they disagree – and they
continue to do so even after having been informed of the other
person’s view.  But how can that make any sense?  If we have reason
to trust each other, shouldn’t we change our view (at least
somewhat) upon discovering that we disagree with someone who is just
as intelligent and well-informed as we are?  And how can such
disagreement be possible at all, if the subject matter the two
people are considering is a genuinely objective, factual matter?
This course will be an investigation of the theme in common
between these two sets of issues:  our epistemological relationships
with other people, that is, our dependence on other people for
knowledge, their dependence on us, the way people sometimes
appropriately claim authority over others (and demand to be
believed), and the ways in which we deal with disagreement.
Thinking about these topics provides a route into issues concerning
the nature of knowledge, what it is to have good reasons for belief,
trust, the social relations that enable and underwrite our
intellectual lives, and objectivity.  From this point of view,
epistemology looks rather different than it might otherwise.
The course readings will be drawn from recent philosophical
work on these topics.  They will be available as a coursepack and
reserve readings at the beginning of the semester.