"Revealed Testimony: Social Epistemology in Aquinas, al-Ghazali, and Saadya Gaon"
Ancient and Medieval philosophers largely took it for granted that most human knowledge comes from listening to a reliable speaker and is never personally verified—whether scholars reading experts, students listening to teachers, children obeying their parents, or even pedestrians inquiring of strangers. Thus, unlike contemporary Social Epistemology, few testimonial theories were explicitly laid out despite evidence of them interspersed throughout a thinker’s writings. To date, the working theory of testimony underpinning the works of medieval philosophers has not been codified (with few exceptions). Thus, there is a large gap in the recorded epistemologies of most medieval scholars. This is particularly relevant for the Abrahamic faiths since they originate with testimony from God himself. The goal of this dissertation is to explore how the generation and transmission of religious knowledge appears in an exemplary thinker from each faith: Saadya (Saadiah) Gaon of Judaism (882-942AD), al-Ghazali of Islam (1058-1111AD), and Thomas Aquinas of Christianity (1225-1274AD). While not contemporaries, these exemplars are theological philosophers who are like-minded in their desire to maintain an orthodox faith while possessing philosophical approaches to truth. Thus, they maintained sophisticated epistemological theories of transmission within their own religious contexts. The current status quaestionis concerning theories of testimony in medieval systems of thought consists of a handful of studies pertaining to Aquinas on testimony conducted within only the past few years and a complete lack of comparable studies of this type in the current literature for Saadya and al-Ghazali. The research on Saadya and al-Ghazali will thus be innovative and insightful while the section on Aquinas will serve to build on and contribute to this burgeoning conversation in Thomistic and medieval studies.
Social Epistemology appreciates that testimony is a distinctive type of social evidence undergirding vast amounts of knowledge and beliefs. A central question of Social Epistemology is whether testimony itself serves as a source of justification for knowledge. The responses of testimonial theories are typically encompassed by three approaches: 1) reductionism which claims testimony may be accepted based on the reliability of the speaker, but justification ultimately reduces to perception or memory; 2) anti-reductionism which claims testimony itself is justified since it counts as evidence unless proven false; and 3) the assurance view which claims that testimony is justified through assurance or trust in the speaker. This analytic approach provides a framework to help analyze the testimonial theories of Aquinas, al-Ghazali, and Saadya integrated throughout their numerous works. Saadya Gaon, writing in Judeo-Arabic (Hebrew alphabet with Arabic words and grammar) stresses that knowledge from both revelation (derived form of the Arabic word samah, “to hear”) and testimony (chabar, “tradition” or literally “a report”) is on par with the knowledge from reason. Knowledge via tradition is stronger since it is traceable back to the words of God himself heard by the prophets. Contemporary analysis of Saadya’s emphasis on reliable tradition (al-kabar as-sâdiq) as evidence in itself for the justification of theological knowledge puts him in line with anti-reductionism. Al-Ghazali is much more skeptical of testimonial knowledge; however, al-Ghazali indicates that the most certain form of knowledge (dhawq—literally a “tasting” of the divine comparable to “actual seeing and handling”) can pass via testimony from reliable Sufi mystics who have experienced dhawq. According to Social Epistemology, al-Ghazali appears to be a reductionist who allows for the acceptance of testimonial claims from reliable speakers, but reduces the justification of testimonial knowledge to underlying perceptual experiences, even divine ones. For Aquinas testimony appears as a type of “faith” since it involves assent to the unseen as explained in the division of revealed (Articles of Faith) and natural knowledge (Preambles of Faith) in Summa Contra Gentiles I.4. Aquinas sees testimonial justification as largely trust based, and God is the most trustworthy speaker. From a contemporary perspective, Aquinas’s trust in a divine speaker puts him in line with the assurance view.
Aside from the historical contribution of examining these previously overlooked medieval theories of testimony, the inclusion of this research will at the very least serve contemporary Social Epistemology with the addition of new examples from even earlier times. The examination of these theories may be incorporated into the ongoing debate by providing new arguments and objections for and against the typical approaches. Analyzing these medieval perspectives could also reveal that none of the contemporary testimonial approaches adequately reflects the historical theories. If the new data from these medieval thinkers does defy contemporary categories, Social Epistemology would need to make accommodations by modifying the existing approaches or create a new approach that accounts for the relevant differences.
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“Biblical Inspiration & Islamic “Instrumental Causality: Aquinas on the two authors of Sacred Scripture”, The Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ Graduate Student Workshop, Marquette University, March 2018.
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“Social Epistemology & Communities of Faith: Is Aquinas’s Epistemic Division of Labor ‘Elitist Fideism’?,” The Aquinas and ‘the Arabs’ Graduate Student Workshop, Marquette University, February 2015.