Philosophical Studies

, Volume 173, Issue 2, pp 395–416 | Cite as

Testimony and the epistemic uncertainty of interpretation

  • Andrew Peet


In the epistemology of testimony it is often assumed that audiences are able to reliably recover asserted contents. In the philosophy of language this claim is contentious. This paper outlines one problem concerning the recovery of asserted contents (the ‘recovery problem’), and argues that it prevents audiences from gaining testimonial knowledge in a range of cases (even when the speaker is both sincere and a reliable belief former). The recovery problem, in essence, is simply that due to the collective epistemic limitations of the speaker and audience speakers will, in certain cases, be insensitive to the ways in which they may be misinterpreted. As a result audiences’ beliefs will often fail the safety and sensitivity conditions on knowledge. Once the problem has been outlined and distinguished from several related problems in the philosophy of language and the epistemology of testimony, a series of responses are considered. The first response holds that audiences possess defeaters in recovery problem cases, and thus wouldn’t form beliefs. The second response holds that the beliefs audiences form are very coarse grained, meaning they are not very vulnerable to failures of safety and sensitivity. The final response holds that the objects of speaker meaning are not propositional. All three responses are found to be unsatisfactory.


Testimony Communication Context sensitivity 



This paper has greatly benefited from comments and discussion with James Andow, Sebastian Becker, Mark Bowker, Sarah Broadie, Jessica Brown, Herman Cappelen, Don Fallis, Daniel Fogal, Patrick Greenough, Katherine Hawley, Allan Hazlett, Nick Hughes, Torfinn Huvenes, Bruno Jacinto, Colin Johnston, Jennifer Lackey, Matt Mckeever, Anders Schoubye, Peter Sullivan, Brian Weatherson, Stephen Wright, and an anonymous referee for this journal. I would also like to thank audiences at the University of St Andrews, the University of Edinburgh, and the University of Vienna at which earlier versions of this paper were presented. This research was supported by the United Kingdom Arts and Humanities Research Council.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Arché Philosophical Research CentreThe University of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK

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