The literature on the nature of understanding can be divided into two broad camps. Explanationists believe that it is knowledge of explanations that is key to understanding. In contrast, their manipulationist rivals maintain that understanding essentially involves an ability to manipulate certain representations. The aim of this paper is to provide a novel knowledge based account of understanding. More specifically, it proposes an account of maximal understanding of a given phenomenon in terms of fully comprehensive and maximally well-connected knowledge of it and of degrees of understanding in terms of approximations to such knowledge. It is completed by a contextualist semantics for outright attributions of understanding according to which an attribution of understanding is true of one just in case one knows enough about it to perform some contextually determined task. It is argued that this account has an edge over both its explanationist and manipulationist competitors.
KeywordsUnderstanding Knowledge Explanationism Manipulationism
Thanks to the audiences of the following events for helpful feedback on this paper or the material presented in it: ‘Towards an Epistemology of Understanding: Rethinking Justification’ at the University of Berne, the ‘Explanatory Power II: Understanding through Modelling’ at Ruhr Universität Bochum, EPSA 2013 at the University of Helsinki, GAP8 at the University of Konstanz, ‘Epistemology Meeting: Doxastic Attitudes’ at the University of Ghent and ‘Philosophy Colloquium’ at University of Duisburg-Essen. Special thanks to Anna-Maria Eder for a thoughtful commentary that I hope I will be able to address in a more satisfactory way in the future. Finally, thanks to the members of the Leuven Epistemology Group for helpful discussion of the paper and related issues.
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