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Painting of David Hume.jpg

Axel Gelfert

Hume, the “Indian Prince”, and the Line Between Miraculous Testimony and Probable Belief

Datum: Mi., 26. Juni, 17 Uhr c.t.
Ort: Institut für Kultur- und Geistesgeschichte Asiens, Seminarraum 1
Apostelgasse 23, 1030 Wien
Organisation: Elisa Freschi, Helmut Krasser (IKGA)

Thema/ Topic

The talk will deal with the topic of Linguistic Communication as instrument of knowledge from the point of view of David Hume.


The aim of the talk is a thorough reconsideration of David Hume's views on the word of others as a source of knowledge. Much of the discussion of Hume’s views on testimony has traditionally revolved around his essay ‘Of Miracles’ (Section 10 of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), in which he argues for categorical rejection as the only rational response to alleged miracles. Yet, the specific shortcomings of miraculous testimony are hardly representative of the large class of ordinary beliefs we justifiably acquire on the basis of everyday testimony -- and which may nonetheless include information about distant lands and ancient times. The fact that Hume acknowledges the special status of miraculous testimony is evident from his argumentative strategy: instead of calling into question the credibility, sincerity, or competence of the witnesses involved in the various historical cases of (alleged) ‘miracles’, Hume grants that the testifiers in question exhibit ‘gravity’, ‘solidity’, ‘probity’, ‘candour’, ‘veracity’, ‘unquestioned integrity’, and other fine epistemic characteristics. Yet he demands that we ought to reject miraculous testimony, even when we receive it from reputable witnesses. By contrast, ordinary testimony is showered with praise by Hume. In a famous phrase that has perhaps not been taken seriously enough by contemporary interpreters, Hume writes that ‘there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men’. And yet a number of questions remain: How are we to manage instances of testimony that we encounter in everyday life? And how can we draw a line between ‘miraculous’ and (merely) ‘marvellous’ testimony? Was the ‘Indian prince’ (in Hume's — inherited and embellished — anecdote) right to reject the Dutch ambassador's testimony that, in the cold weather of Holland, water becomes so solid that an elephant could walk on it?

Vortragender/ Speaker

Axel Gelfert

Axel Gelfert completed his PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge in 2005, having previously studied Physics at the Humboldt University in Berlin and the University of Oxford. Before his current position at the Philosophy Department of the National University of Singapore, he held a Junior Fellowship at Collegium Budapest (Institute for Advanced Study) in Hungary, where he also guest-lectured in the Department of Philosophy and History of Science (Budapest University of Technology and Economics). In the summer of 2009, and again in the first half of 2011, he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh.

He has widely published on History of Philosophy, Epistemology of Testimony, Epistemology, Philosophy of Science and Technology. You can read more of him on his page on Academia.

The above picture shows a portrait of David Hume (1711-1776) by Allan Ramsay, now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Öster­reichi­sche Aka­demie der Wissen­schaften
Institut für Kultur- und Geistes­geschichte Asiens
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