Communication plays a vital role in our attempts to gain, share, and evaluate knowledge and beliefs about the world around us. Much of our knowledge is gained through accepting the word of people we trust. Similarly, when we come to question our beliefs, or change our minds about an issue, it is often through disagreements or disputes with others. Each of these activities relies on communication. Thus, to understand their nature, we must first understand the nature of communication itself. What does it mean to successfully communicate with another person? How often do we succeed in communicating with one another? What are the obstacles to communicating effectively? These questions are important because different answers give rise to different views concerning how much knowledge we gain from others, how easy it is to acquire this knowledge, and what can be done to improve our ability to learn through communication. The dominant view in the philosophy of knowledge is that it is relatively easy to communicate effectively and so it is relatively easy to gain and evaluate knowledge through communication. This project aims to show that this dominant view is mistaken, and to develop an alternative picture of the role of communication in our attempts to improve our knowledge of the world. According to the view developed in this project, communication between two people succeeds to the degree that they understand each other; however, the initial level of mutual understanding achieved in communication is typically lower than has been previously recognised. Because of this, it is often difficult to gain knowledge from others and, in our disagreements, we are often talking past each other to some extent. When we do gain knowledge from others, this is more often the result of extended efforts to understand one another better, rather than a simple matter of accepting someone's word.
Communication plays a vital role in our attempts to gain, share, and evaluate our knowledge and beliefs about the world around us. Much of the knowledge we possess is apparently formed on the basis of trust in another person’s say-so. Similarly, when we come to question or revise our beliefs, it is often as a result of disagreements or disputes with other people. Understanding these epistemic activities requires investigating their communicative foundations. What does it mean to successfully communicate with another person? How often does communication succeed? What features of an interlocutor’s context or environment might undermine her communicative attempts? These questions are important because different answers may have significant implications for our understanding of how we gain and evaluate knowledge through our interactions with others. Surprisingly, within epistemology, very little attention has been paid to these foundational issues. Instead, authors typically assume a naïve ‘content preservation’ model of communication according to which the audience in a communicative exchange can easily and often grasp, or decode, precisely what the speaker has said. The central aim of this project is to develop and motivate an alternative model of communication to serve as the basis for our understanding of how communication facilitates the sharing and evaluation of knowledge. This new model, which is motivated by contemporary work in philosophy of language, semantics, and pragmatics, has sceptical implications: our attempts to share knowledge will often be less successful than is popularly thought, and the appearance of substantive peer disagreements may more often turn out to be at least partially verbal disputes. The project's positive model provides a framework for understanding the role of these non-ideal communicative exchanges in our epistemic ecology.