Topics in Understanding

Convenor: Andrei Mărăşoiu (University of Virginia)

What is it to understand something? Is understanding something we come to possess and then hold on to, or is it episodic and can easily be lost? Is understanding a purely cognitive activity, or does it ineliminably depend on representational supports – theories, models, methodologies – in aid of conceptualizing the world around us? Is understanding unified, so that it may make sense to speak of, say, scientific and aesthetic understanding as sharing something substantive which makes each qualify as a species of understanding tout court? Is our understanding always accurate, or do we ever – perhaps even often – understand by means of false theories and inaccurate models? Is what we understand due to our cognitive skills and abilities, and to our intellectual virtues, or may it sometimes be due to the unforeseen intervention of cognitive biases? Finally, is there something special and irreducible about understanding language and how we use it, or is linguistic understanding in some important sense continuous with understanding aspects of the world depicted by our use of words?

These are only a handful of questions of the many raised in the recent literature. Organized around classical texts of the last 15-20 years, our bi-weekly summer meetings aim to briefly survey recent topics in the philosophy of understanding.


1.Introduction: classical approaches to understanding – 15 June, 18.00-20.00

The introductory session covers approaches to understanding that have started some of the most important recent debates. Linda Zagzebski, Jonathan Kvanvig, Henk de Regt and Dennis Dieks, Stephen Grimm and Catherine Elgin offer insightful contributions that have generated a sizable literature, and are ripe with fresh suggestions.

Zagzebski, L. (2001) Recovering Understanding. In: M. Steup (ed.), Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue (pp.235-249). Oxford University Press.

Kvanvig, J. (2003) Knowledge and Understanding. In: The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding (pp.185-203). New York: Cambridge University Press.

de Regt, H.W., & Dieks, D. (2005) A Contextual Approach to Scientific Understanding. Synthese 144, pp.137-170.

Grimm, St. R. (2006) Is Understanding a Species of Knowledge? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 57, pp. 515-535.

Elgin, C.Z. (2007) Understanding and the Facts. Philosophical Studies 132, pp.33-42.


2.Conscious experiences of understanding, and their variety – 29 June, 18.00-20.00

The second meeting is devoted to conscious experiences of understanding. Is there something it is like to understand – irrespective of what, in particular, is being understood? David Bourget’s recent contribution is an excellent starting point, as he characterizes understanding something in terms of grasping – an intellectual act which seems unified, in point of what it is like to undergo it, across the many things one can understand. Does the variety of conscious experiences of understanding threaten a substantive phenomenological description of grasp? Keeping Galen Strawson’s rich discussion in mind, it is worth pausing to consider whether a distinction between insight and intellectual intuition (Rachel Henley) might characterize two different modes in which conscious understanding occurs, and two different ways in which grasp could be conceived. Michael Lynch argues that coming to understand something (manifested in experiences of insight) differs from exercising an understanding one already masters (manifested, we might think, in intellectual intuitions). Insight may be explored from several standpoints: problem-solving and creativity, whether it amounts to a transformative experience (Laurie Paul), and what roles it plays in scientific and religious conversion (Bas van Fraassen). Our meeting will set out to explore how these standpoints may relate.

Strawson, G. (1994) Mental Reality. MIT.

Henley, R. (1999) Distinguishing insight from intuition. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, pp.1-8.

van Fraassen, B. (1999) How is Scientific Revolution/ Conversion Possible? Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 73, pp. 63-80.

Paul, L.A. (2014) The Shock of the New. In: Transformative Experience. Oxford University Press.

Bourget, D. (2015) The Role of Consciousness in Grasping and Understanding. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 91, online first.

Lynch, M. (forthcoming) Understanding and Coming to Understand. In: St. R. Grimm (ed.), Making Sense of the World: New Essays on the Philosophy of Understanding. Oxford University Press.


3.Do cognitive biases pose a threat to understanding? – 13 July, 18.00-20.00

Conscious experiences of understanding may constitute, or at least manifest, our understanding of something. What their role in knowledge is, however, cast into doubt by widespread cognitive biases. Relying on results summarized in Asher Koriat’s review concerning the feeling of knowing, Joseph Trout has suggested that it would be positively misleading to take our conscious experiences of understanding as marks of a correct grasp of how things stand. If Trout’s challenge is that cognitive biases prevent us from accurately understanding something, J.Adam Carter and Duncan Pritchard suggest that the unlucky operation of cognitive biases, as well as their lucky absence, prevents our understanding from aptness, i.e., from manifesting our cognitive skills, rather than biases or happenstance. Jennifer Saul brings much of the empirical literature to bear on the issue of skepticism, and her work forms the background of Carter and Pritchard’s distinctive brand of understanding skepticism. In the face of such well-posed challenges to understanding, it is worth considering whether we can do anything – prospectively or in retrospect – to correct for the threat of bias. Henk de Regt gives a qualified answer for the case of scientific understanding; he thinks that members of an epistemic community may be aided by maintaining an equilibrium between their cognitive skills and the theoretical virtues exhibited by the theories their community produces. Timothy Wilson and his collaborators explore the role reflection might play in conscious de-biasing, and the kinds of circumstances in which success is more likely than not.

Koriat, A. (2000) The Feeling of Knowing: Some Metatheoretical Implications for Consciousness and Control. Consciousness and Cognition 9 (2): 149-171.

Trout, J.D. (2002) Scientific Explanation And The Sense Of Understanding. Philosophy of Science 69, pp.213-233.

de Regt, H.W. (2004) Discussion Note: Making Sense of Understanding. Philosophy of Science 71, pp. 98-109.

Saul, J. (2013) Skepticism and Implicit Bias. Disputatio 37, pp. 243-264.

Carter, J.A., & Pritchard, D. (2016) Cognitive Bias, Skepticism and Understanding. In: St.R. Grimm, C. Baumberger & S. Ammon (eds.), Explaining Understanding (pp.272-292). Routledge.

Wilson, T.D., Centerbar, D.B. & Brekke, N. (2002) Mental contamination and the debiasing problem. In: Th. Gilovich, D.Griffin & D.Kahneman (eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment (pp. 185-200). New York: Cambridge University Press


4.Scientific explanations and problem-solving – 27 July, 18.00-20.00

Once we have a firmer grip on the cognitive contours of understanding, it is natural to ask what epistemic benefits we can reap from understanding something. Two kinds of benefits understanding may procure are scientific explanations and solving problems on one’s research agenda. Dov Gabbay and John Woods tackle the question of how agendas are best conceived. If research agendas are lists of problems that need solving, then, presumably, only solving interesting problems contributes to a better understanding. As Larry Laudan describes them, conceptual problems are prime examples for what members of a research tradition need to grapple with. And, as Ilkka Niiniluoto’s discussion reveals, the importance of problem-solving for scientific progress is vivid regardless of whether one embraces realism in the metaphysics and methodology of science or not. If one frames progress in scientific understanding in terms of problem-solving, the question arises if important problems can be solved even in the absence of presupposing or giving any kind of explanation. In other words, can understanding be had when no explanation is to be had? Peter Lipton’s classical text argues that we can understand without explaining, while Michael Strevens argues, to the contrary, that (for that kind of explanation typifying scientific understanding) no understanding can be had without thereby being able to explain what is being understood. Kareem Khalifa raises doubts about the entire debate, suggesting that recent debates in the metaphysics of understanding merely recapitulate older debates in the philosophy of science about the nature of explanation. However, as Margaret Morrison points out, the variety of scientific problems – whose solutions gain us understanding – clearly suggests that
understanding has cognitive benefits in its own right. The further question, which our fourth meeting tackles, is whether ascertaining how understanding may relate to problem-solving advances ascertaining how understanding may relate to the giving of explanations of phenomena being understood.

Laudan, L. (1977) Progress and Its Problems. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Niiniluoto, I. (2002) Realism in Methodology. In: Critical Scientific Realism (pp.160-204). OUP.

Gabbay, D.M., & Woods, J. (2003) Agenda Relevance. In: Agenda Relevance: A Study in Formal Pragmatics (pp.155-194). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Lipton, P. (2009) Understanding without Explanation. In: H.W. De Regt, S. Leonelli & K.Eigner (eds.), Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives (pp.43-63). University of Pittsburgh Press.

Morrison, M. (2009) Understanding in Physics and Biology: From the Abstract to the Concrete. In: H.W. De Regt, S. Leonelli & K.Eigner (eds.), Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives (pp.123-145). University of Pittsburgh Press.

Khalifa, K. (2012) Inaugurating Understanding or Repackaging Explanation? Philosophy of Science 79, pp.15-37.

Strevens, M. (2013) No understanding without explanation. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 44: 510-515.


5.Wittgensteinian approaches – 10 August, 18.00-20.00

In spite of many emerging differences, approaches to what it is to understand something tend to agree that what we understand depends on the circumstances in which we understand it. This raises the question (as Neil Cooper and Jeremy Avigad remark) of whether a conception of understanding, articulated in full generality, is tenable, or whether, as Ludwig Wittgenstein seems to have strongly suggested, quietism about the cognitive aspects of understanding is more in agreement with common sense. Another, equally powerful, challenge raised by Wittgenstein, and articulated by Warren Goldfarb, is that the objects of our understanding may be so varied as to afford no informative generalizations. John McDowell critically appraises the suggestion that variety in what we understand should have any definitive bearing on whether understanding – as a type of mental state in general – can be characterized or not. Also taking advantage of a rich tradition in Wittgenstein studies at the University of Bucharest, our last meeting explores the plausibility of Wittgensteinian objections when compared to more substantive metaphysical views about understanding as a type of cognitive process.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe (transl.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Goldfarb, W. (1992) Wittgenstein on Understanding. Midwest Studies in Philosophy 17, pp.109-122.

Cooper N. (1994) Understanding. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Suppl. Vol. 68, pp.1-26.

Avigad, J. (2008) Understanding Proofs. In: P. Mancosu (ed.) The Philosophy of Mathematical Practice (pp.317-351). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDowell, J. (2009) Are Meaning, Understanding, etc., Definite States? In: The Engaged Intellect (pp.79-95). Harvard University Press.