There is a common claim in the epistemology of testimony, which is that testimony requires witnessing and so isn’t generative of beliefs in the same way that memory is. Memories can combine, it is claimed, to generate new beliefs (you remember that your parents told you the cat went away to the farm and you remember another instance (when you were older) where your parents playfully suggest to some other parents that they should tell their kids that the cat wasn’t put down but was sent away; lo and behold you generate a new belief that your parents cannot be trusted) but that testimony simply transmits existing beliefs between the speaker and the hearer (thus any new beliefs are generated not by testimony but with testimonial support acting along with beliefs you acquired by other means).
I’m not sure I find this (above, crude) account all that convincing. It is true that for a lot of beliefs that are transferred via testimony there did have to be an original witness. For example, a lot of us know about the structure of the atom yet, I would wager, most of us have not performed the necessary experiments to know ‘first hand’ (if you will) that structure. We have, however, been told about it, by reputable sources. Yet I’m also fairly sure that a lot of beliefs have been generated via testimony as well. I’m thinking here of emergent beliefs; beliefs that have come out of inferences from other beliefs. Take the atom example. A lot of the information we have about atoms originated from experimental data; someone ‘saw’ something and then told others. But surely some of the subsequent beliefs about atoms have been generated by people who haven’t performed the experiments but rather have taken these reliable bits of data and inferred further beliefs (which then may well have been subject to testimony). I was going to use an example from mathematics but as it is really quite hard to tell a story about witnessing the truth of any given mathematical proposition I’m not entirely sure this is a good avenue to explore. In any case, surely there are cases of people using only testimonial beliefs, to which they have no other support, to generate new beliefs (which will then count as knowledge) which can then be transmitted testimonially?
The notion of testimony generating belief is contentious as it stands. Reductionists, those who hold that testimony is a second-class citizen compared to perception, memory and the other two classically recognised senses, claim that testimony can’t generate beliefs because experiences generate beliefs and testimony is simply belief-transfer (criude but basically true). If I am right, however, then the reductionist needs to distinguish between primary and secondary testimony. Primary testimony is non-generative; the proposition involved was generated by one of the four senses. Secondary testimony is generative, however, in that the component beliefs of secondary testimony (pieces of primary testimony) infer the belief that is the secondary testimony.
Non-reductionists (oft called anti-reductionists (you can guess by who)) accept that testimony can be generative (via different accounts, usually), in which case you have primary testimony which is generative by whatever mechanism produces testimony and secondary testimony, which is the inferences licensed from primary testimony (so secondary testimony is just a special class of primary testimony).
So, the question is, can I come up with some good examples of secondary testimony? Or, because this is a blog, can you? My problem is that I suspect that most of the obvious candidates for my theory are probably going to be examples of primary testimony. What I really need is an example of an idea where the belief being transmitted really isn’t based upon someone inferring something as an hypothesis, testing it and then transmitting their belief. It needs to be an example of taking primary testimony and, from that alone, coming to knowledge of something inferred from it that doesn’t take its justification (for its truthiness) from the primary testimony that produced it.