Impact & Workplan

Impact

Publishing four journal articles, a book, and organizing two conferences are the deliverable items measuring the impact of my projected postdoctoral studies.

A first research output is publishing ISI indexed academic articles, two per academic year. This is the standard way of producing innovation in the philosophical community.

A second research output is elaborating a book manuscript. This would be based on the dissertation recently defended on understanding, and the postdoctoral research I would carry out as a UEFISCDI and University of Bucharest scholar. The book would concern how conscious experiences of understanding relate to the epistemic norms governing understanding – such as explanatoriness, problem-solving, and aiming at the truth.

This book project would be submitted to a reputed publishing house (e.g., Oxford University Press, Palgrave MacMillan or Routledge) before Summer 2022. The book would include contributions in both the phenomenology and epistemology of understanding and, especially, toward answering the question of how the two are related.

A third research output is organizing two academic conferences on understanding – one on its phenomenology, and one on its epistemology – at the end of each academic year in my postdoctoral studies. (The budget below provides for these conferences.) The aim of these conferences is to benefit the philosophical community by creating common ground between its different subgroups.

Specifically, I aim to find common ground between the work philosophers of mind have done on the phenomenal character of grasping, and, respectively, the work on the epistemic norms of understanding that epistemologists and general philosophers of science have carried out.
This would be innovative both in Anglo-Saxon phenomenology and in epistemology, as well as in related fields such as the psychology of discovery (“Aha” experiences and problem-solving strategies) and the history and sociology of science (investigating how differing paradigms or research traditions have shaped what counted as genuine novelty for the scientists working within those traditions).

Workplan

As prerequisite material for the book manuscript, I need to first finalize four article manuscripts and circulate them to academic journals. Publishing them includes, then, four intermediary research goals. Here are the abstracts of the manuscripts I intend to publish:

(1) Intellectual virtues and biased understanding: Biases affect much of our epistemic lives; do they affect how we understand things? For Zagzebski (2001), we only understand something when we manifest intellectual virtues or skills. Relying on how widespread biases are, Carter and Pritchard (2016) raise a skeptical objection to understanding so conceived, following Saul (2013). The challenge runs as follows: Most of us seem to understand many things. We genuinely understand only when we manifest intellectual virtues or skills, and are cognitively responsible for so doing. Yet much of what we seem to understand consists in conceptions whose formation could have easily been due to biases instead. And the work of biases is opaque to reflection. If conceptions constituting how we understand things could have easily been due to biases, then we’re not cognitively responsible for them because we can’t reflectively endorse them. So we are mistaken in thinking we genuinely understand most of the time. I will defend the grounding of understanding in intellectual virtues and skills from Carter and Pritchard’s objection. We are cognitively responsible for understanding when we manifest our expertise. We can do so, I will argue, without being required to reflectively endorse our own understanding.

(2) Justified by thought alone: The new rationalists – BonJour (2001), Bealer (2000), and Peacocke (2000) – have characterized one type of a priori justification as based on intellectual intuitions or seemings. I argue that they are mistaken in thinking that intellectual intuitions can provide a priori justification. Suppose that the proposition that a surface cannot be red and green all over strikes you as true. When you carefully consider it, you couldn’t but realize that no surface could be both red and green all over. Ascertaining the truth of what you believe (when you believe that a surface cannot be red and green all over) requires conscious experiences of thinking. The character of such experiences (propositions’ striking you as true, and the sense of incoherence you would experience were they to be false) is what justifies your belief. It should follow that the justification for such propositions (and your believing them) is a posteriori, i.e., based on conscious experience. Your cognitive phenomenology plays a constitutive role in justifying your belief. Hence your belief is not a priori justified, contra the new rationalists.

(3) The truth in understanding: Intuitively, understanding is factive: when we understanding something, our conceptions of the phenomena understood are accurate. Elgin (2004) has advanced an objection against this view, drawn from the history of scientific inquiry. She argues that, since scientific understanding often consists partly in “felicitous falsehoods,” understanding isn’t factive. I readily admit that false conceptions may be valuable: they may serve as stepping stones towards achieving more accurate conceptions and genuine understanding, or they may be inextricably mixed with true conceptions provided by a theory. As Kvanvig (2009) and Strevens (2013) have noted, we can acknowledge all this while maintaining that genuine understanding consists only of true conceptions, and false conceptions are at best instrumentally useful, helping us to attain understanding. Who is right? I argue that the factivity debate cannot be settled, because we have no conclusive basis on which to ascertain if a false conception is merely instrumental to achieving understanding, or constitutive of understanding. In particular, we should consider the cognitive role of idealizations in actual understanding irrespective of whether those idealizations can in-principle be eliminated or not.

(4) We understand by attending: Understanding has both epistemic and phenomenal aspects. I start from preliminary conceptions of each and ask how they are related. As preliminary conceptions: Epistemically, understanding is partly constituted by the skilled use of models that represent factors that make a difference to how the phenomenon understood occurs, models often used in order to explain that phenomenon (de Regt 2004, Strevens 2013, van Riel 2015, Dellsén forthcoming). And when understanding is phenomenal (or consciously manifested), it is manifested in experiences of insight, intuition, or fluency (Bourget 2017, Lynch 2017, Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2002). Given these preliminary conceptions, the question I tackle is how the epistemic and phenomenal aspects of understanding relate to each other. On my account, there are three modes of understanding, corresponding to insights, intuitions, and experiences of fluency. These modes are, respectively: coming to understand something for the first time, manifesting a discursively articulated understanding we already possess, and manifesting a tacit understanding we already possess. In each of these modes, we attend differently to the content understood. How experiences of understanding fulfill their epistemic role varies, I argue, with the mode in which understanding occurs.

One possible risk is that these articles may not be ready for final publication in time. In order to mitigate this risk and insure a timely research output, I already have first drafts of these articles written. My time as a postdoctoral student would primarily be devoted to rethinking and revising these manuscripts in light of my mentor and journal reviewers’ comments.