Objectives & Methodology


The main problem besetting the current philosophical literature on understanding is that a study of conscious experiences accompanying understanding, and a study of what epistemic norms govern understanding, are almost exclusively pursued as two different inquiries.

Correspondingly, my project has four specific objectives:

(i) to identify a provisional set of properties that conscious experiences of understanding enjoy;

(ii) to identify a provisional set of epistemic norms governing understanding;

(iii) to identify possible links between conscious experiences and epistemic norms for understanding;

(iv) to assess whether these phenomenal-epistemic links hold only with natural necessity (as a matter of how we are cognitively built), or whether they hold with metaphysical necessity (so that we couldn’t reap the epistemic benefit of understanding without undergoing the experiences in question, and we couldn’t have those experiences without satisfying the associated epistemic norms).


I will appeal to case studies in the history and philosophy of science to document exemplary instances of scientific understanding (Kuhn 1962, Toulmin 1971, Morgan and Morrison 1999, Niiniluoto 2002). And I relate these to studies in the psychology of creativity concerning how we come about novel conceptions of phenomena now understood whereas previously opaque (Kaplan and Simon 1990, Kubovy 1999, Ansburg and Hill 2003, Bowden et al. 2005).

I address the question of whether we can provide a purely computational reductive account of insight-based explanatory understanding (Thagard and Stewart 2011). And I consider developmental prerequisites for domain-specific understanding (Carey 2010), and the relation between understanding and expertise (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi 2002, Cianciolo et al. 2006).

These studies are approached within a larger inquiry of conceptual analysis (Goldfarb 1992, Cooper 1994), aimed at clarifying what the core cognitive features of understanding are (Nersessian 2002, Bird 2012), and whether they may generalize from scientific understanding to other areas, e.g. aesthetic understanding (Elgin 1992) or mathematical understanding (Avigad 2008, Bangu 2015).

The novelty of my approach is to pursue an investigation into the epistemology and phenomenology of understanding jointly, investigating their inter-relations. A central benefit of my approach is to offer a common language, and framework, to philosophers of mind, epistemologists, and philosophers of science to talk about understanding, and to relate their specific concerns to each other.