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The Crisis of Testimony in Historiography

In: Journal of the Philosophy of History
Author: Jonas Ahlskog1
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  • 1 Department of Philosophy, Åbo Akademi University
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Abstract

The essay examines the recent discussion about a “crisis of testimony” in historiography. Central to this discussion is the question of how it is possible for human testimony to convey information about the limit experiences of 20th century history. Given that the credibility of testimony is assessed by appealing to our previous understanding of what is credible, testimony to limit experiences risks being dismissed as unbelievable or implausible. This issue has recently been addressed in the work of Paul Ricoeur, Hayden White and Gert-Jan van der Heiden among others. In the first part of this essay, I show that the current idea of a crisis of testimony is a consequence of focusing too exclusively on the content of extraordinary testimony. I argue that such a focus has affinities with David Hume’s reductionist understanding of testimonial knowledge; even though the authors discussed cannot properly be labelled reductionists themselves. In the second part of the essay, I open up the issue of extraordinary testimony from a perspective that places the relationship between the speaker and the addressee at the heart of testimonial knowledge. My aim is to show that if we attend to the way in which testimonial knowledge involves dependence on the authority of another person, then the current idea of a crisis of testimony will dissolve itself. In conclusion, I argue that there is an important ethical dimension to the question of understanding extraordinary testimony.

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