According to Zagzebski (2001), understanding something is justified by the exercise of cognitive skills and intellectual virtues the knower possesses. Zagzebski develops her view by suggesting that “understanding has internalist conditions for success” (2001, p. 246). Against this view, Grimm (2017) raises an objection: what justifies understanding is the reliability of the processes by which we come to understand, and we need not be aware of the outcome of all reliable processes. Understanding is no exception, so, given that understanding something results from reliable processes, we need not always be aware of what we understand. I reply to Grimm’s objection; I argue that Zagzebski’s internalist requirement is best conceived as accessibility to conscious reflection. The accessibility condition is satisfied because understanding solves problems on the knower’s research agenda. And whenever problem-solving is non-trivial (in most real-life cognitive situations), the knower needs to reflect on what the best solving strategy is.
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To say that a method for forming beliefs is reliable is to say that most of the beliefs thus formed are true. The reliability of the method is given by the ratio of true beliefs formed divided by all beliefs formed by that method. This is a rough and ready formulation of what reliability is (compare Goldman 1986), but it will serve for the purposes of this paper. Whatever alternative conception of reliability one supplants (e.g., a counterfactual one, or a modal probabilistic one), nothing in the main dialectic of this paper needs to change. Mutatis mutandis for processes that help form an understanding of something.
This is not to say that additional requirements on what counts as understanding something couldn’t be imposed. It is important to know that they would be additional to, rather than constitutive of, what makes understanding justified.
Compare: many of our reasoning and memory routines are unconscious. And, even when we experience them, it is unclear whether our experience controls our cognitive performance, or whether it is a mere epiphenomenon of that performance.
Grimm’s objection can clearly be generalized to marks of what makes understanding internal other than conscious reflective experiences, including whether one is motivated to understand what one does, or whether understanding results in a better (more flourishing, more coherent, more helpful) epistemic life. For each of these marks that would make understanding internal, Grimm’s challenge can be rehearsed: processes can lead to our understanding something, and reliably so, without exhibiting these marks.
Presumably, these are not processes that fulfill some natural function, nor are such processes developmentally hardwired.
Note that here we should distinguish internalism about understanding from internalism about skills. As Sosa (2007) argues, we may have an externalist conception of intellectual virtues (which, for him, include cognitive skills). But this does not automatically mean that Zagzebski is wrong about internalism about understanding. Sosa, who is an externalist about skills, has a partly internalist take on which kind of knowledge can constitute understanding, viz., reflective knowledge. My development of Zagzebski’s view will closely follow this part of Sosa’s view. Contrast, though, Sosa’s externalism about cognitive skills with Annas’ (2011) internalism about skills and Zagzebski’s (1996) internalism about intellectual virtues.
These reasons support why this is a good criterion to measure internalism about understanding against. The reasons don’t by themselves establish that internalism about understanding is true.
For a cognitive-scientific review of how experiences of insight (or, equivalently here, of understanding) and problem-solving relate, cf. Bowden et al. (2005).
We should do better to approach understanding not by seeking a unique common element to, say, understanding a painting and understanding how to count, but by focusing on those exemplary cognitive achievements that we take to illustrate understanding to the highest extent—the achievements of Aristotle, Newton, Darwin, Cantor, and the like. If we find an account of “genuine” understanding that does justice to these paradigm cases to a larger extent than competitors, that seems a more promising strategy than watering down what “understanding” means so as to cover cases as different as understanding how to prove Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and understanding how to ride a bike.
I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for raising this question, and for providing insightful examples in its support.
Acknowledging the role of reflectiveness in understanding answers another possible objection. We might wonder what the possibility of reflection amounts to. Surely it isn’t a bare possibility; otherwise, it would be easy to retort that any thought may pop into our minds as a fulguration which our reflection would then have to take notice of. Admitting that understanding is reflective because it involves reflectiveness averts the objection. The conceptions we have of what we understand, and which constitute how we understand it, are accessible to our conscious reflection because—and to the extent that—we would be properly exercising our virtue of reflectiveness by bringing them to the fore of conscious reflection. We may, precisely by exercising the virtue of reflectiveness, not consciously reflect on a matter—because no reflection was, there and then, needed.
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This work was supported by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation through a John S. Lillard fellowship.
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The corresponding (and only) author declares that there is no conflict of interest.
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Mărăşoiu, A. Understanding, Problem-Solving, and Conscious Reflection. Acta Anal 34, 71–81 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12136-018-0355-6