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THE EPISTEMIC AND MORAL ROLE OF TESTIMONY

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  • I am very thankful for the helpful comments I have received on earlier drafts of this paper from Berber Bevernage, Ewa Domanska, María Inés La Greca, Nicolás Lavagnino, and Hayden White. I am grateful to Manuel Cruz and Fina Virulés who gave me the opportunity to discuss the article in Barcelona. I would like to thank Brian Fay for suggestions that helped to improve the final version. Finally, I am thankful to Juleen Audrey Eichinger for editing the English version.

ABSTRACT

My aim in this article is to provide a critical-productive appreciation of witness testimony that avoids the false and crooked dichotomies that pervade contemporary philosophy of history and historical theory. My specific, pragmatist approach combines the recent accounts of Hayden White about “witness literature” with the “generative-performative” consideration of testimony by Martin Kusch. The purpose is to appreciate, in a non-foundationalist way, the epistemic and moral role of testimony in the constitution of the representation of the recent past. To achieve this I examine the assumed epistemic and political privilege of the testimonies of survivors of state terrorism from the recent past, and I draw on insights of three of the most relevant survivor witnesses: Primo Levi, Victor Klemperer, and Pilar Calveiro. The essay tries to avoid both an epistemic and a moral posture based on something like “the privileged victim's perspective,” and instead approaches the specific analysis of production and circulation of witness discourse in terms of its contribution to the constitution of the past. That is, it recommends that one look at witness testimony not as an attempt to return to the past but as an action in the present. The result in so doing is to follow some recent results discussed in the new epistemology of witness testimony, which insist that: first, trust in testimony is an irreducible function of the acceptance of knowledge (this means that testimonies should not be treated as secondary sources of knowledge or as parasitical on experience and reason); and second, the production-circulation of testimonies does not function only in the context of justification but is also legitimately constitutive of knowledge.

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