Understanding in contemporary epistemology
Gordon, Emma Catherine
My main aim is to contribute to the exploration of the nature of the epistemic state of understanding. It seems that the most productive way in which this might be done is by (i) investigating what sort of conditions must be fulfilled in order for one to understand, and (ii) comparing understanding’s place in certain contemporary debates to the place that knowledge has in those debates. Regarding conditions for understanding, I will argue that there are two types of understanding that are most relevant to epistemology—objectual understanding and atomistic understanding. I will contend that atomistic understanding is entirely factive while objectual understanding is moderately factive, that objectual understanding admits of degrees, that both types involve some sort of grasp of explanatory relations, that both possess a measure of luck immunity, and that both are cognitive achievements with instrumental, teleological, contributory and (crucially) final value. It must be stressed that the general accounts of both types of understanding that I attempt to provide are not supposed to be exhaustive sets of necessary and sufficient conditions—I remain particularly open to the possibility that there are further necessary conditions that are as yet undiscovered, especially for objectual understanding. Regarding understanding’s place in contemporary debates, it is perplexing that existing work does not capitalise on the thought that treating understanding in conjunction with many of the most prominent issues in recent epistemology is a worthwhile project that could yield interesting and important results. I will summarise understanding's potential significance for a number of these topics, looking at all of the following (in varying degrees of detail): factivity, coherentism, norms of assertion, the transmission of epistemic properties, epistemic luck, the nature of cognitive achievement, and epistemic value. This last topic is one that I think is particularly important to an investigation into understanding, because it is quite plausible that there is a particularly strong revisionist theory of epistemic value focused on understanding. Such a view would be one on which knowledge is not finally valuable, but one by way of which we could nonetheless explain why we might pre-theoretically think that knowledge is finally valuable. Since revisionist views often involve a claim that we should think of a different, closely related epistemic state as distinctively valuable, it is natural to consider understanding as a prime candidate for the focus of such a theory.