Journal Article

Humeanism and the epistemology of testimony


A contemporary debate concerning the epistemology of testimony is portrayed by its protagonists as having its origins in the eighteenth century and the respective views of David Hume and Thomas Reid. Hume is characterized as a reductionist and Reid as an anti-reductionist. This terminology has been widely adopted and the reductive approach has become synonymous with Hume. In §1 I spell out the reductionist interpretation of Hume in which the justification possessed by testimonially-acquired beliefs is reducible to the epistemic properties of perception, memory and inductive inference. This account of testimony is taken to be found in the section ‘On Miracles’ of Hume’s Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. In §2 I introduce the distinction between global and local reductionism, and Coady’s interpretation of Hume as a global reductionist. He takes Hume’s position to be untenable. The rest of the paper explores alternative interpretations of Hume. §3 develops a local reductionist interpretation of Hume on testimony. It is argued, though, that such an approach is unstable and, in response, §4 turns to anti-reductionism in its contemporary forms and in Reid’s teleological account. In §5 I argue for an anti-reductionist account of Hume, one drawn from his discussion of the testimony of history in the Treatise of Human Nature, thus moving away from the usually exclusive focus upon the discussion of miracles in the first Enquiry, upon which the reductionist interpretation is based. Given the standard meaning of ‘Humeanism’ in the current debate, my interpretation amounts to the claim that Hume is not a Humean with respect to testimony.

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O'Brien, Dan

Oxford Brookes departments

Department of History, Philosophy and Culture


Year of publication: 2020
Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-10-09

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