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«Noninferentialism and testimonial belief fixation Tim Kenyon, University of Waterloo Uncorrected draft; this paper appears in Episteme,Volume 10, ...»

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Noninferentialism and testimonial belief fixation

Tim Kenyon, University of Waterloo

Uncorrected draft; this paper appears in Episteme,Volume 10, Issue 01, March

2013, pp 73-85


Noninferentialism about a class of beliefs is roughly the view that the justification

or fixation of those beliefs is not fundamentally a matter of inference from other beliefs

(or memories, or observations, on some reckonings). Rather, the relevant belief, its

justification, and the doxastic fixation process are often characterized as direct, immediate, unconscious, or belief-independent. Noninferentialist theories of justification have been influential in various sub-fields of contemporary epistemology: for example, as accounts of self-knowledge or of perceptual knowledge (Kripke 1980; Pappas 1982).

The epistemology of testimony, bearing on the fixation and justification of beliefs arising from testimony, has also been thought to benefit from a noninferentialist treatment (Audi 2006, 2003, Pritchard 2004, Weiner 2003). The mere recognition and parsing of testimony is sometimes taken to suffice (defeasibly, no doubt) for justified belief fixation, in some manner that need not involve inference. This approach will appeal both to those general noninferentialists keen to bring testimonial epistemology into the fold of their view, and to those inclined to see testimonial belief as evincing a form of justification that does not reduce to the justification of inference from other beliefs. Suppose we grant, for the most part, the appeal of noninferentialism in such 1 domains as self-knowledge and perceptual knowledge. Should we take it to be similarly plausible in the case of believing from testimony?

I think that we should not, for reasons that arise from the particularly complex social and linguistic cognition that appears to underwrite the fixation of beliefs arising from testimony. When we attend to these details, I argue, at least one sort of noninferentialism in testimonial epistemology emerges as an implausible view. It is implausible even on the assumption that the distinction between inferentialism and noninferentialism is a sound one in the domain of testimony, since there is little reason to think that testimonial belief fixation processes show the sort of noninferential purity they would need in order for the view to be correct. But in fact the inferential-noninferential distinction itself is suspect, at least where testimonial belief is concerned. Key supporting notions are ill-defined or polysemous, while both the informal and technical characterizations deployed in the literature to flesh out the distinction turn out to be trivial, unilluminating, or just inaccurate. Hence we should be sceptical of noninferentialism in testimonial epistemology; yet this is no great comfort to anything traveling under the flag of inferentialism. The distinction itself may well rest on an oversimplified view of cognition, and of testimonial doxastic fixation in particular.


The thesis as I have sketched it raises two unavoidable prefatory questions about the phenomena at issue: What is noninferentialism? And what is the relevant notion of belief arising from testimony?

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about two prima facie quite different things. One might hold that beliefs of some interesting class are justified (or count as knowledge) on grounds that do not essentially involve inferential justification.1 Or one might hold that beliefs of some interesting class are formed by causal processes that do not include inferences. At any rate, in contemporary philosophy both views travel under the label of noninferentialism, sometimes with little effort to distinguish which view is at issue.

To be sure, there is some reason to doubt the depth of the causal-epistemic distinction in general. This is due not only to the influence of overtly causal theories of knowledge and justification over recent decades, but because some ancillary epistemic concepts seem firmly rooted in the space between the causal and the epistemic, on pretty much any theory of knowledge or justification. The epistemic basing relation is an example of this. Roughly, basing is the epistemic relation that holds between a reason and a belief when the belief is held for that reason. This is widely thought to be a causal notion, or at least a causally-inflected one.2 In any case, it has proved much easier to propose cases of causal connections between reasons and beliefs that do not seem sufficient to count as properly epistemic than to give clear examples of justified belief or knowledge in which there is no causal connection to the underlying facts represented by the belief or other epistemic state.

Still, the uncomplicated way for us to deal with this complication is just to distinguish between the causal and the epistemic applications of noninferentialism inasmuch as we can, and then to analyze the two views separately.3 This is just what I

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main, leaving for another occasion the question of how problems with the causal view might bear on epistemic noninferentialism. While the causal inferential-noninferential distinction surely has become a matter of interest to epistemologists primarily because of its perceived relevance to issues in justification, it is nevertheless a distinction that epistemologists have come to treat as significant in its own right.

The second prefatory question is: what kind of beliefs are we talking about when we focus on testimonial epistemology? This too implicates the notion of basing, as it turns out. Much of the literature in the epistemology of testimony relies on the notion of testimony-based belief as the phenomenon of interest, a phrase that can be usefully abbreviated ‘TBB’, thereby saving authors from various inelegant phrasings of the sort I have relied on until now (like ‘testimonial belief’). But if the term ‘based’ is interpreted strictly in accordance with the basing relation, then the phenomenon labeled as TBB will include only those cases satisfying the labeler’s standards (whatever they are) for a belief’s being held for a reason. And this can lead us back to our first question in very short order – as when Robert Audi writes: “[T]estimony-based belief, as I construe it, and as I think it is normally understood, is never inferential” (2006, p. 27).

Audi takes this view because in testimonial cases he takes genuine basing to hold only between, on one hand, the perception of an act as testimony and a recognition of its semantic content, and, on the other hand, a belief having (more or less) the same content as that testimony. If the reason for which the resulting belief is held includes any other elements, then that belief is not testimony-based in the relevant sense.

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epistemic bases include other elements, get lumped together in some surprising ways.

For example, the case in which a hearer comes to believe that a speaker has a cold because of the congested way she says “I have a cold,” even though the hearer doesn’t understand her words, is pretty clearly not the core phenomenon that an epistemology of testimony would be concerned to explain. But what about the case in which a speaker asserts a proposition that a hearer parses and comes to believe in light of moreover believing the speaker to be competent and sincere? The former kind of case seems entirely deviant, the latter perfectly straightforward; yet Audi characterizes both cases in terms of “a mere causal relation between a source of knowledge and a belief based on that source” (2006, p. 26).

Why think this? In short, because the latter case involves further judgements that implicate ancillary beliefs about the speaker’s competence and sincerity. This information is additional to a mere recognition and parsing of a testimonial act, and so the

case is not one of testimony-based belief by Audi’s standards:

If… as a ground for believing what you say, I must infer your credibility from background information about you, my belief of your attestation, though acquired through your testimony, may not be said without qualification to be based on it (2006, p. 27).

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by beliefs about the speaker; but I can’t gain knowledge based on testimony in such a case. And it is testimony-based belief that is the philosophically important phenomenon, on this way of thinking (2006, p. 26).

Audi is not idiosyncratic in this respect. Consider Duncan Pritchard’s definition of TBB, in a paper reviewing and summarizing contemporary epistemology of testimony.

In what follows, we will call a ‘testimony-based belief’ (TBB) any belief which one reasonably and directly forms in response to what one reasonably takes to be testimony and which is essentially caused and sustained by testimony... The belief needs to be directly formed since otherwise other factors will inevitably be brought into play, such as

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Pritchard too holds that a belief is not really a TBB if it “essentially rests not only on the instance of testimony in question but also on further collateral information gained via observation” (p. 327).

I think it is a needless limitation on the phenomenon of interest to make this definitional stipulation, so I will not focus on TBB, understood in the Audi-Pritchard way. It will be useful to encompass with a single expression the general phenomenon of encountering testimony, understanding it, and coming to believe its content, without defining the expression to rule out that this phenomenon includes the sort of semantically

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Pritchard are at pains to exclude from TBB. I will borrow from Audi the label of a belief from testimony, and call any such belief BFT.5 One might argue or discover that BFT is (always, usually, sometimes) TBB. But I see no point in stipulating it in advance of investigation.

On my usage BFT does not include such examples as believing that someone has a sore throat merely because their testimony is delivered hoarsely, nor believing that someone is speaking Spanish merely because their intonations have a Spanish sound to them – that is, not even if what they are saying (unintelligibly, to the hearer) is “I have a sore throat” or “Yo estoy hablando espanol”. But it does include non-deviantly coming to believe that a meeting starts at 3 p.m. because Ted said so, when Ted is known to have scheduled the meeting himself – that is, without taking a view on whether that additional knowledge was active in causing the belief. Maybe this last case fails a purity test appropriate to testimonial basing; but I would prefer to begin with an understanding of the phenomenon that leaves room for the prospect that some, perhaps most or all, of our actual BFT counts as impure by that standard.

With these clarifications in hand, I can now state my goals more precisely. I will argue that BFT isn’t generally causally noninferential, on the grounds that no characterization of causal noninferentialism is both non-trivial and empirically plausible as applied to it. For one thing, there is too much doxastic information-processing involved in BFT fixation, by and large, for Audi’s and Pritchard’s purity standards to be generally descriptive of BFT. But some reflection on the typical nature of BFT fixation

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and oversimplified, at least inasmuch as it is applied to BFT. Hence the implausibility of causal noninferentialism is not tantamount to the plausibility of inferentialism in this domain. For similar reasons, neither does Alvin Goldman’s influential notion of a beliefindependent doxastic fixation process, often canvassed as a refinement of noninferentialism, square neatly with the rich and multidimensional details of BFT fixation processes.


“I ask you the time; you tell me it is nine o’clock; and straightaway I believe this on the basis of your saying it.” This is Audi, laying out his view of how most testimonyrelated beliefs arise (2006, p. 26). Though he holds that beliefs can arise inferentially as a consequence of encountering, parsing, and evaluating testimony, Audi, as we have seen, interprets the basing relation in such a manner as to make it a definitional truth that TBB is noninferential.

Audi describes TBB as “the kind of belief that arises naturally, noninferentially, and usually unselfconsciously in response to what someone says to us” (2006, p. 26). But it’s not all the same to him whether TBB is rare or common in comparison with doxastically contaminated inferential beliefs arising from testimony. In fact he is quite clear in his view that BFT is usually TBB. “Typically,” he writes, “we simply understand what is said and believe it…” (2006, p. 27).

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driven by examples, and especially by examples of the default acceptance of testimony.

This is probably due to a perception that the automatic, fast, and implicit acceptance of testimony by default presents the most primitive and least overdetermined or confounded type of testimonial doxastic fixation. If one’s view is that BFT fixation generally is noninferential, it will be an inessential complication that some BFT also has an inferential pedigree sufficient to generate the belief. Since the default acceptance of testimony is taken not to demonstrate such inferential processes, default acceptance will strike a causal noninferentialist as a particularly transparent sort of case, well-suited to motivate the noninferentialist view in the first instance.

It is important, then, to note that the default acceptance of testimony is a substantially more complicated process than is typically acknowledged in the discussions and examples of it scattered through the writings on the topic. I doubt that asking someone the time of day is ever as straightforward as is suggested by Audi. In fact there is excellent reason to think that, in context, I don’t just ask, you don’t just tell me, I don’t just believe you, and if this all happens “straightaway,” there are at least serious questions of whether this undermines the belief’s claim to justified status.

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