How to be an anti-reductionist


One popular view in recent years takes the source of testimonial entitlement to reside in the intrinsically social character of testimonial exchanges. This paper looks at two extant incarnations of this view, what we dub ‘weak’ and ‘modest’ social anti-reductionism, and questions the rationales behind their central claims. Furthermore, we put forth an alternative, strong social anti-reductionist account, and show how it does better than the competition on both theoretical and empirical grounds.

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  1. 1.

    We do not mean to suggest that anti-reductionisms and reductionisms in the epistemology of testimony are two uniform, clearly delineated bunches. To the contrary, champions of both views make very distinct claims, concerning very distinct issues related to testimonial entitlement. See Lackey (2008) for a very useful taxonomy. Following champions of the views we discuss here, however—i.e. defenders of social anti-reductionisms—for the purposes of this paper, we are going to focus on the particular difference between reductionism and anti-reductionism when it comes to how heavy an epistemic burden they lay on hearer’s shoulders in the testimonial exchange: while the boundaries between the two camps are by no means clear, reductionists tend to require hearers to have some variety of access to their reasons to trust their testifiers, while anti-reductionism tends to deny such access is necessary. To put it in different words: if both views stipulate reasons to believe testimony in response to the source problem, the reductionist reasons will be accessible reasons, while anti-reductionist reasons will carry no such constraint. All this is still pretty vague, but one useful way to see the distinction that we care about here is to think of Pritchard’s (2004) taxonomy, distinguishing between what he dubs credulism, on one hand, and reductionism on the other. Champions of reductionism include Adler (1994), Audi (1997, 2004, 2006), Fricker (1995), Hume (1739), Lipton (1998), Lyons (1997). For defenses of anti-reductionist (credulist) views, see, e.g. Kelp (2009), Simion (2018), Burge (1993, 1997, 1999), Coady (1973, 1992), Goldberg (2006, 2010, 2014), Goldman (1999), Graham (2010, 2012, 2015), Greco Forthcoming (2015), Green (2016), Reid (1764). For hybrid views, see e.g. Faulkner (2011), Lackey (2003, 2008), Pritchard (2004).

  2. 2.

    There are plenty of reasons to like anti-reductionism; first and foremost, it looks as though a lot, if not most of our knowledge is testimonial. Due to our physical and psychological limitations, we learn a lot of the things we know from say-so. The fact that testimonial knowledge is so ubiquitous makes sense if testimonial knowledge is as easy to come by as the anti-reductionist would have it. But see e.g. Green (2016) for a nice overview of extant arguments pro and against anti-reductionism.

  3. 3.

    Since “prima facie intelligible propositional contents prima facie presented as true bear an a priori prima facie conceptual relation to a rational source of true presentations-as-true”, “we are a priori entitled to accept something that is prima facie intelligible and presented as true”. “One has a general entitlement to rely on the rationality of rational beings” (Burge 1993, p. 469).

  4. 4.

    Many people in the literature have expressed doubts concerning the purity of the a priori nature of Burge’s advocated source of entitlement (see, for instance Audi 2004). This falls outside the scope of this paper.

  5. 5.

    Burge (1993) is aware of this. In response, he argues that reason has a “teleological aspect” and that one of its “primary functions” is “that of presenting truth” (475). We can grant Burge as much. However, since a trait can have more than one primary function, and since the requirements associated with the fulfilling of one can override the requirements associated with fulfilling the other in cases of conflict, we take it that more work is needed to appease the reductionist worries. See Simion (2018) for discussion.

  6. 6.

    Graham, personal communication.

  7. 7.

    Could all these studies be flawed? Since we are not psychologists, we are in no position to settle this question. At the same time, given that there is a general consensus in the relevant literature, it does not seem tendentious to work on the assumption that the consensus view is correct.

  8. 8.

    Might there be other reasons for thinking that (unfiltered) testimony is less reliable than perception that would serve to motivate a filtering requirement? Perhaps. That said, the onus is of course on Graham to produce the relevant argument. What’s more, there are a couple of lessons that the discussion of lying teaches which suggest that this will at least not be a trivial task. First, not any old difference in reliability we may discover will serve to motivate a difference in treatment between testimony and perception. Second, whether filtering improves the reliability of testimony in a relevant way is an empirical question, which cannot be settled from the armchair. And, finally, to make the motivation stick, Graham will also have to show that whatever reliability-diminishing features of testimony he may come up cannot already be dealt with by SAR’s anti-defeat condition.

  9. 9.

    Although, of course, what counts as ‘high stakes’ itself might vary across cultures. In societies with exposure to western market economies even when the stakes were set at what amounted to 2 weeks wages, there was still no change in behavior (Henrich et al. 2004).

  10. 10.

    Thanks to an anonymous referee for pressing us on this count.

  11. 11.

    Crucially, according to Heinrich and Heinrich (2007), we are evolving from merely cooperating within very small, close communities, to large-scale cooperation. See the next section for discussion of social cooperation in connection with social roles.

  12. 12.

    Greco appeals to Craig’s (1990) account of the concept of knowledge in order to motivate his view. Even if Craig’s story will do the trick for Greco, we don’t think that it is essential to the success of his argument. Since not everyone buys Craig’s approach to epistemology, it’s worth seeing that Greco’s view does not depend on it in its own right.

  13. 13.

    According to Greco (pc), shared interests are one central feature for delineating the communities at stake.

  14. 14.

    Note, also, that similar contrast cases can be built with students and teachers, experts and laymen and so on.

  15. 15.

    Note that Greco may plausibly enough hold on to the idea that one’s position on the scale is determined by one’s social role. On this view, then, the expertise scale is kind of a social hierarchy such that one’s position in it is determined by one’s social role (parent, teacher, etc.).

  16. 16.

    Note that, crucially, what matters for us in this paper is a normative claim: we are asking: what is the default permissible position for hearers? The reductionist answers: disbelief (in the sense of not believing), unless positive reasons to believe are present. Why? Because the default permissible position for speakers is to say what coincides with their purposes, which may or may not be the truth. Our account argues (based on the relevant choice theory literature): norm conformity on the speaker side (telling the truth) is the default permissible position. Therefore, believing is the default permissible position for hearers.

  17. 17.

    For a contractarian incarnation of strong social anti-reductionism, see Simion (2018).

  18. 18.

    For knowledge accounts of epistemically proper assertion, see e.g. Kelp (forthcoming), Kelp and Simion (2017), Simion (2016), Williamson (2000). For justification views, see Douven (2006) and Lackey (2007). For a defense of a truth norm of assertion, see Weiner (2005).

  19. 19.

    Importantly, no access to information about norm compliance on the part of the hearers is needed. Norm compliance is enough to meet OSP. To see the difference, take driving. Drivers reliably conform to traffic norms. They will reliably stop the car at the red light. In the light of this, I am entitled to cross the street on a green light. I don’t need to know that the drivers will stop. Children, for instance, don’t have the cognitive sophistication for any of this. They are (objectively) entitled to cross the street in virtue of norm compliance on drivers’ side itself, not in virtue of having epistemic access to it.


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We’d like to thank Sandy Goldberg, Peter Graham, John Greco, the audience of a conference on epistemic dependence at the University of Madrid and three anonymous referees for helpful comments on this paper.

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Correspondence to Christoph Kelp.

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Simion, M., Kelp, C. How to be an anti-reductionist. Synthese 197, 2849–2866 (2020).

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  • Epistemology
  • Testimony
  • Anti-reductionism