contrastivism, understanding, and value-driven epistemology

One of the primary influences that can be seen in contrastivism is the pragmatic tradition stemming from Pierce and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Dewey. One way to develop this approach is to adopt a particular account of knowledge and argue as Schaffer does that careful attention to linguistic data supports contrastivism over alternatives viewpoints, beginning from the question of the function of knowledge ascriptions and tying the resulting theory to the theory of inquiry.

Pragmatists are wont to sound more dramatic here, however, to insist that one eschew concern over the degree to which the view is encoded in present linguistic practice. One way to do this would be to drop the claim that the theory was a theory of knowledge, and instead describe it as a theory of intellectual achievement or success, but if one wanted to use the term ‘knowledge’ for describing the achievements in question, pragmatists would be happy to hear one claim to be doing so because of the fact that ‘knowledge’ has the right honorific aspect to it, making it natural to use this term even if the resulting theory is not wholly in accord with, or supported by, present linguistic usage.

If the language of knowledge is still used, Schaffer’s linguistic arguments (binding, existential instantiation, the data about noun ascriptions and interrogative ascriptions, etc.) would still be important to such a pragmatist orientation, since they help to justify the co-opting of a term of ordinary language for theoretical use.

Why would one favor such a pragmatist contrastivism?

I’m not a great fan of recent versions of pragmatism, but I am a fan of value-driven epistemology, and here a fully pragmatist contrastivism is noteworthy. On this approach, we first isolate the function of the language of epistemic appraisal or the significance of the achievements that such language describes. What makes these states valuable or important? Here the pragmatic tradition urges that this be understood in terms of inquiry, in terms of questions or perturbations in mentation, in terms of the logical space and partitioning of possible answers. If, in the process of developing such a value-driven account of cognitive achievement, we fail to offer a complete theory of the ordinary notion of knowledge (or of justification), that would be a problem according to the pragmatists only to the extent that what’s left out is important, important enough that a full understanding of cognitive success requires something beyond what this version of contrastivism provides.

There is something worth thinking about here, I think. Such a view has the virtue of avoiding the conservative tendencies of thinking that our present linguistic usage reflects what is truly important and what isn’t. In addition, it allows a fully diachronic approach to the life of the mind rather than hoping to build such an approach by cementing together the various time-slices generated by a synchronic theory of knowledge or justification, and above all, it honors the dictum that above all what is worth philosophizing about is what matters.

There may be a way to pursue such an approach without the hamfisted jettisoning of ordinary language characteristic of much pragmatist material. What I’m thinking about routes the view through the concept of understanding, which is implicitly holistic right from the outset in just the way that a suitable theory of inquiry, characterized in terms of questions and the logical space of possible answers, is holistic. One achieves progress toward complete understanding by eliminating parts of the logical space of possible answers, and the partial understandings that result along the way are properly characterizable in contrastivist language. Complete understanding, perhaps only an ideal of inquiry, is achieved when one can pin down exactly in which partition of the logical space of answers the correct answer is found. What one is achieving in the process is better characterized in terms of degrees of understanding, and not simply in terms of knowledge, even though knowledge is a normal byproduct of understanding. Equally important, if my views about the value of knowledge are correct, is that this approach will be an instance of value-driven epistemology, since even if knowledge doesn’t have the value we thought it had, such suspicions do not extend to the concept of understanding. For one thing, the concept of understanding matches our drive for comprehensive and systematically organized bodies of information in a way that the concept of knowledge doesn’t.


contrastivism, understanding, and value-driven epistemology — 6 Comments

  1. Hi Jon,

    First-time caller, long-time listener. I agree with you that Schaffer’s ideas about knowledge can be importantly applied to questions concerning understanding/explanation (I know his work has strongly influenced my own thoughts on the latter issues), but you say a few things about understanding that I wasn’t quite sure about.

    First, you suggest that understanding involves discriminating across “a logical space of possible answers.” Why a *logical* space? Suppose I take myself to understand why the window shattered (rather than remained intact, one of its other physically possible states): namely, because it was struck by a large rock. In other words, I take it that the rock is the thing that discriminates among the “remain intact” alternative and the “shatter” alternative (along with many other physically relevant alternatives). But what could possibly do that discriminating within *logical* space? Presumably, for instance, it is logically possible for the window to turn into (say) an apple. But is the impact of the rock really the sort of thing that can make the difference between the “remain intact” alternative and the “change into an apple alternative”? It doesn’t look like it. Perhaps you had something else in mind by the “logical space” language. If so, I’d be interested to hear it.

    Second, towards the end of your post you suggest that understanding has a sort of standing epistemic value (or importance or worth) that knowledge lacks. I used to think something like that, now I’m not so sure.

    Suppose a friend and I are playing Monopoly. My friend roles his die, lands on my property, and forks over $200 in rent money. Moreover, I take myself to understand *why* he forked over the money (rather than bought the property himself, or simply waited for his next turn): because he landed on one of my properties! Indeed, I also understand several other things: e.g., I understand why he forked over $200 (rather than some other amount of money): because I had X hotels on the property rather than Y. And so on.

    Now suppose that throughout all this my wife is sitting nearby on the couch, reading a book. She doesn’t know the rules to Monopoly, and hence doesn’t understand why we are acting as we do. Moreover, she could care less; she has no interest in understanding whatever it is we are doing as we play the game. Is she being (epistemically) obtuse? That is, is she lacking sensitivity to something with intrinsic epistemic value? Is she epistemically missing out? Your remarks about value suggest that she is, but it doesn’t look like it.

    Or again, suppose I take myself to understand why Man United lost their match today: because their goalie had been out drinking late last night, and his reflexes were dulled. My friend and I discuss this question ad naseum while my wife once more sits nearby on the couch, reading her book, entirely uninterested in why Man U. (plausibly) lost, and unwilling to learn. Again, is she being obtuse? Is she missing out on the valuable epistemic thing? Were she to come to understand why the game was won rather than lost, would she take herself to be the better (epistemically) for it?

    Those are all the questions I have for now.


  2. Hi Stephen, I think the first thing to do in offering a theory of understanding is to sort through the various syntactic forms of understanding ascription, which mirror quite regularly those of knowledge ascription. In particular, both display interrogative ascription, which employ a wh-headed complement phrase, as in understanding why, understanding where, understanding what, understanding when. In each such case, these ascriptions embed questions and questions involve contrasts. Once we notice this point, it is fairly simple to reduce interrogative ascriptions to declarative ones, with standard contrastivist placeholders. Moreover, since interrogative ascriptions embed questions, it is in this sense that understanding involves a logical space of answers to the embedded question.

    Also, as you note, to remark on the value of understanding over that of knowledge is not to maintain that everything a person might understand is valuable. It is, in a sense, code for some further explanation. In my view, understanding is more valuable in that appeal to it presents a more natural account of the goal of cognition than does knowledge, and it is more valuable in that it can satisfy the demands of Socrates’ discussion in the Meno as to why the epistemic achievement in question is more valuable than its parts. Understanding has this property, but knowledge does not (or say I claim).

  3. Thanks for your clarifications, Jon. As I understand your position, inquiry is driven by questions, and the relevant contrast class is given by the presuppositions of these questions (or, of these embedded questions). Understanding is thus gained by ruling out possibilities within the relevant contrast class; alternatively, to use some of your terminology, by ruling out possibilities within the logical space defined by the question’s presuppositions.

    I have significant worries about identifying the sort of possibility space relevant to understanding (in other words, the sort of possibilities we have to rule out to gain understanding) with the presuppositions of questions, however. My main reason for worry is that questions often contain *false* presuppostions, and hence that the sort of understanding gained from answering these questions will be illusory at best. A community of delusional wizards, for example (perhaps they’ve read a few too many J.K. Rowling novels), might take it that windows are capable not only of shattering when struck by rocks, but also (say) of turning into apples. But whatever odd story it is that allows them to rule out the “apple” possibility on a given occassion is not, we want to say, something that facilitates an understanding of why a given window actually shattered. On the other side of the coin, we can also easily imagine questions that embed presuppositions which rule out a certain possibility as relevant (i.e., as *not* a eligible member of the contrast class) when it really is (perhaps, an explanation which tells us why a certain horse won the race, when the explanation fails because it applies equally well to another, unrecognized horse entered in the race). Again, the problem with allowing the presuppositions embedded in questions to define the relevant contrast class is that it makes understanding alternatively too easy or too hard, depending on the worth of the presupposition.

    One last point about the relative value of knowledge and understanding. I’m wondering why you seem to think that knowledge can’t serve as a goal of inquiry, or anyway that understanding is a more natural candidate for this role. Surely there are many archeologists, say, whose goal in their excavations is to *know* what layout of a certain ancient house or town was like. And this is quite plausibly something that has intrinsic epistemic value for them, apart from any further understanding-related use to which they might put this knowledge (say, to understand more about ancient economies or the like). Basically, once we are willing to grant that it is not understanding per se which is epistemically valuable (as my last post argued), but rather certain types of understanding, I wonder why we can’t grant that it is not knowledge per se that is epistemically valuable but rather certain types of knowledge.

  4. Stephen, the point of questions for the contrastivist is to define the logical space in question. It is not the presuppositions of the question that define the logical space, but rather than question itself; so the contrast class is defined by possible answers to the question, not by the presuppositions.

    Whether it is possible to achieve understanding based on false presuppositions is an interesting question. Since a body of information that constitutes understanding can itself contain some falsehoods, I expect that it is possible to achieve understanding even when one is presupposing some falsehoods. But the extent of falsehoods has to be carefully circumscribed, and I don’t find it plausible to attribute much understanding if any to the delusional wizards in your example. In general, to understand that p rather than q requires that q is false, since “understanding that” is factive and constrasts are mutually exclusive. Given that point, maybe the only kind of understanding that can withstand some falsehoods is objectual understanding.

  5. Can anyone suggest any recent publications making a more developed use of ‘value-driven’ epistemology? It sounds like a highly fruitful idea, but I’d be curious as to how it looks when someone tries to develop it in a more sustained format than a blog entry….

  6. Lurker, opinions will vary on the degree to which this has been done already. My book, The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding, is an investigation of the issue. In addition, the general category of virtue epistemology tends to be value-oriented, among which I include the works of Sosa and Plantinga. I’m sure I’m missing some things here, but maybe others can fill in the gaps.

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