Riggs on understanding

Wayne Riggs has a really interesting post about understanding in response to this post over at Fake Barn Country. He says,

Understanding is a tricky thing to get a grip on via intuitions, partly because we philosophers haven’t spent several hundred years carving it up into philosophically digestible bites yet. But having said that, my intuitions about understanding diverge radically from my intuitions about knowledge. When I evaluate cases of putative knowledge, I want to know how easily S could have been wrong about p. I want to know whether S has the *right* to be sure about p. Just how careful was S in coming to believe p? All this has to do with how good a claim S has to having arrived at this particular truth.

But when I evaluate whether someone has understanding, my questions are very different. I want to know how well S grasps the interconnection among the different elements of the domain of her understanding, whether S gets the “big picture,” (please continue to add for yourself vague metaphorical characterizations of understanding, offered in lieu of an actual account of it…) In some cases, (understanding my car’s engine) I want to know if S can predict what will happen to one part of the system if it is perturbed in a certian way in another part. When it comes to understanding other people, I want to know if S is good at figuring out what so-and-so will do under such-and-such conditions. While such predictions don’t constitute understanding, they are good indications that it’s present.

But what’s noteworthy here is that I don’t ask questions about *how* S came to have the grasp of the big picture, the ability to predict others’ behavior, or whatever. I might be skeptical that someone has understanding because I think they’re simply *wrong*, and I might take as evidence for that their lack of justification for some of the claims that constitute their understanding, but I would say that in such a case, it is the presumed falsehood (or inaccuracy) of the person’s putative understanding that disqualifies it, not the related fact that the claim also fails to count as knowledge.

These remarks presuppose some organizational matters about the fundamental form of understanding, and treats the “subject matter” form as primary, and on that point, I’m in agreement with Wayne. What is interesting about Wayne’s comments is the difference in thought patterns cited between considering a putative case of knowledge versus a putative case of understanding. It would be interesting to see to what extent others see things the same way.

The other interesting point that is not often appreciated is the way in which any attempt to mine intuitions about understanding gets corrupted from two different directions. Intuitions about knowledge are likely to creep in when thinking about putative cases of understanding, and intuitions about explanatory adequacy as well. Wayne cites the point about intrusion by our intutions about knowledge, but it is equally possible for our intuitions about explanation to creep in as well, especially when we focus on the language of understanding why.


Riggs on understanding — 4 Comments

  1. I agree, Jon. But I would add that corruption can go in the other direction as well– that is, our intuitions about knowledge can be corrupted by intuitions about understanding as well. I think this might be going on when people try to build in coherence requirements and the like into the conditions for knowledge. They are confusing what is required for K with what is required for understanding– since S lacks understanding in a case, for example, they think S lacks knowledge as well, and so try to beef up the conditions for that.

    Also, I disagree that philosophers have not spent much time thinking about understanding. Rather, I think that the ancients and medeivals were concerned about something closer to our “understanding” then to our “knowledge.” This would explain their emphases on having an account and on grasping causes, both of which seem plausible as conditions for understanding rather than knowledge.

  2. John, that’s a very good point, the one about intuitions about knowledge being infected by ideas more appropriate to understanding. I hadn’t thought about that, but it’s certainly worth thinking about and taking into account in developing a theory. And you’re also right about the ancients and moderns, though their theorizing tended not to proceed in terms of counterexamples and the like as much as ours does…

  3. Jon,

    Whereas you think intutions about knowledge tend to “corrupt” or “interfere” with our intuitons about understanding, there’s room for a different interpretation. The fact that our intuitions about putative cases of “understanding why” seem to track, at least in part, intuitions about knowledge might be taken as evidence for the view that understanding (or at least some forms of it) is a species of knowledge.

  4. John, you’re right that this is a possibility. But I think to pursue it, you’d have to find Wayne’s description of the difference between the understanding and knowledge quite misleading. In addition, as I’m sure you already know, I think there are good counterexamples to the claim that understanding is a species of knowledge.

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