Understanding why, knowing why, and cognitive achievements

Abstract

Duncan Pritchard argues that a feature that sets understanding-why apart from knowledge-why is that whereas (I) understanding-why is a kind of cognitive achievement in a strong sense, (II) knowledge-why is not such a kind. I argue that (I) is false and that (II) is true. (I) is false because understanding-why featuring rudimentary explanations and understanding-why concerning very simple causal connections are not cognitive achievements in a strong sense. Knowledge-why is not a kind of cognitive achievement in a strong sense for the same reason knowledge-that is not. The latter thesis requires showing that having (p because q) information is not equivalent to having information about facts or principles that establish the explanatory connections between the phenomena in question. I make a positive case for this claim and defend it against objections. Based on this argument, I identify an alternative feature that sets understanding-why apart from knowledge-why: The minimal condition for understanding-why and knowledge-why with respect to their contents is not identical. Knowing why p merely requires information that some explanatorily relevant dependency obtains. Understanding why p additionally requires information about facts or principles that establish the explanatory connections between the phenomena in question.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For other defenses of anti-reductionism about understanding-why see, e.g., Zagzebski (2001); Kvanvig (2003); Elgin (2007); Hills (2009, 2016); Dellsén (2017). For defenses of reductionism see, e.g., Lipton (2004); Grimm (2006, 2014); Khalifa and Gadomski (2013); Kelp (2014); Riaz (2015); Sliwa (2015).

  2. 2.

    I use round brackets to avoid scope ambiguities with respects to ‘know’.

  3. 3.

    Pritchard seems to understand these options as exclusive (cf. Pritchard 2010, p. 68). But they are not: there are cases where skill and a significant level of ability are involved, e.g., a marathon victory by a skilled runner.

  4. 4.

    Knowledge-wh is typically analyzed in terms of true answers to the so-called embedded wh-question (see, e.g., Karttunen 1977; Groenendijk and Stokhof 1982; Higginbotham 1996; Stanley and Williamson 2001; Braun 2006; Schaffer 2009; Masto 2010; for an alternative account see, e.g., Brogaard 2009).

  5. 5.

    For general arguments for (k-that\(=\)cas) see so-called robust virtue epistemology accounts (e.g., Zagzebski 1996; Sosa 2007; Turri 2011; Greco 2012; Kelp 2014; Carter et al. 2015; Navarro 2015).

  6. 6.

    Grimm argues that k-why (common analysis) captures one kind of knowledge-why and that there is another kind of knowledge-why (Grimm 2014). However, he does not reject the common analysis.

  7. 7.

    However, a full-fledged account of knowledge-why must deal with the following issues: (i) Some answers to why-questions have as their canonical form (p in order to q) propositions. So, one must show that for each (p in order to q) proposition there is an equivalent (p because q*) proposition, or one must define knowledge-why more broadly. (ii) It has been argued that why-questions are inherently contrastive (e.g., Fraassen 1980, chapter 5). One must either refute this claim or take it into account.

  8. 8.

    One explanation is that causal claims are contrastive. Whether the bald tire or the driver’s drunkenness is the cause of the crash seems to depend on the contrast in question. The contrast might be that the driver had a crash with this car rather than with some other or that thisdriver rather than some other had a crash, etc. For details, see, e.g., Dretske (1977); Achinstein (1983), chapter 6; Hitchcock (1996); Schaffer (2013).

  9. 9.

    The horizontal follow-up question in case of (p because q) is ‘Why q?’ (Skow 2016, pp. 79–80).

  10. 10.

    Skow considers vertical follow-up questions to be (equivalent to) particular why-questions, namely ‘Why is it the case that F is a reason why E happened?’ (cf. Skow 2016, p. 74). Pritchard varies between talking about how cause and effect are related and “[...] some conception of why introducing oxygen might cause the target chemical reaction [...]” (Pritchard 2014, p. 323). This varying between what, how, and why is commonplace in theories of explanations.

  11. 11.

    As one reviewer emphasized, information about facts or principles that establish the explanatory connection is information about a subject matter. If so, understanding-why threatens to collapse into so-called objectual understanding, i.e., understanding of a subject matter, such as understanding Obama’s victory in 2008 (for more on this topic, see., e.g., Kvanvig 2003, chapter 8; Elgin 2007; Grimm 2011; Carter and Gordon 2014; Baumberger and Brun 2017). However, such a (potential) collapse is an issue for all accounts that tie understanding-why to explanations. The expression ‘information about facts or principles that establish the explanatory connections between the phenomena’ is a characterization of the essence of any explanation that goes beyond identifying the cause. In the case of causal explanations such explanations are taken to be descriptions of complex phenomena, such as causal processes. I think this is why Elgin remarks that “[...] it is the conception of [objectual] understanding that is closely connected to explanation.” (Elgin 2007, p. 35) It thus does not seem obvious to me whether the (potential) collapse is a threat. Instead, it needs to be discussed how similar understanding-why and objectual understanding are (see, e.g., Grimm 2011), or whether objectual understanding is explanatory understanding (see, e.g., Khalifa 2013). But this is not my agenda in this paper.

  12. 12.

    Such knowledge-how is not a form of practical knowledge-how, such as knowing how to swim. It also seems clear that such knowledge-how can be spelled out in terms of propositional knowledge.

  13. 13.

    For those who worry that my account of non-shallow knowledge-why is a reductive account of understanding-why in disguise: Non-shallow knowledge-why and understanding-why could differ in other respects. For instance, understanding-why might demand particular abilities (see, e.g., Hills 2016) or a particular cognitive attitude (see, e.g., Strevens 2013), etc.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Raphael van Riel, Duncan Pritchard, and Christian Nimtz for discussing parts of this paper with me, as well as Peter Brössel, the audience of my talk at the workshop ‘The varieties of knowing how’ in Essen, and the participants of Thomas Spitzley’s and Christian Nimtz’s research group meetings for comments on parts of this paper.

Funding Support for this research by a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for a research stay at the University of Edinburgh, and by the Volkswagen Foundation for the project ‘A Study in Explanatory Power’ is gratefully acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Insa Lawler.

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Lawler, I. Understanding why, knowing why, and cognitive achievements. Synthese 196, 4583–4603 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1672-9

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Keywords

  • Understanding why
  • Knowing why
  • Cognitive achievement
  • Reductionism about understanding why
  • Causal explanation