12 July 2008

The testimony of scripture

Lately i've been dipping into Baldwin's Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology (1901-2) in connection with my ongoing study of Charles S. Peirce and his semiotic. I noticed that an entry on ‘Testimony’, co-authored by Peirce and Baldwin, contains a very concise and cogent set of hermeneutic principles—in other words it gives some very sound guidance on critical reading of scripture—under the guise of a comment on the logic of considering testimony as evidence. I think it pretty well speaks for itself, so here it is:

There is a general tendency to believe what one is told; and, as in the case of other such tendencies, it should at first be followed, although cautiously and tentatively. Even when experience is wanting, as for example in examining a prisoner, although greater caution is required, the proper course is to begin with the presumption that the testimony is true, for unless we make such a presumption, no truth can ever be discovered. It is true that the unlikelihood of the matter of the testimony may cause immediate distrust, or even disbelief of it, but no persons are so frequently deceived as those who stop to weigh likelihoods before accepting or rejecting testimony, and who then form a confident opinion pro or con. Testimony should almost always be accepted as approximately correct, but always strictly on probation, as a subject of examination. In our legal proceedings, witnesses are subject to cross-examination. Everybody is agreed that this is an essential step in the inquiry, but in a historical inquiry no such thing is possible. Still the testimony can be tested in various ways; and this must be done. But in any case, the rendering of the testimony is a fact which needs to be accounted for; and by whatever theory it be proposed to account for it, that theory needs to be checked and tested. Properly handled, false testimony may often yield a great deal of information.

An experimental test may be readily performed by considering the least antecedently likely but necessary or highly probable consequence of the theory, which is susceptible of being confronted with observation direct or indirect. If this consequence is found, notwithstanding its unlikelihood, to be true, there is then some reason for believing in the theory proposed to account for the testimony.

The complete entry (including the first paragraph, omitted here) is on my Peirce-Baldwin page.

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