Project Overview

Introduction and example

Think of your own experience: what is it, for you, to understand something? Consider an example. When you play chess, you often understand the position on the board. This involves not just knowing how to move the pieces according to the rules, but also knowing how the game is going: if you can launch a king-side attack, if you hold the center, what move is most effective in delaying the opponent’s development, and so on. You typically see patterns on the board, but not as a garbled overlay of distinct patterns. Rather, your appreciating the position for what it is involves a kind of intellectual seeing: you simply grasp the position as a whole. This grasp enables you to explain it to others too, giving reasons for what moves and game-plans are better than others.
In this example, two kinds of aspects are intertwined. Understanding the position on a chessboard has phenomenal aspects, aspects pertaining to conscious experience: you recognize patterns, suddenly realize how things stand, or see things in a new light. Understanding also has epistemic aspects, pertaining to what you know about the game – which moves are appropriate or what strategy you’re pursuing -, what models you’re using (e.g., which openings you favor, and why), and, often, pertaining to how well you can explain your conception of the game. In chess as elsewhere, it is plausible to think that, when we understand something, our cognitive activity is unified. Phenomenal and epistemic aspects of understanding should, then, somehow correspond to each other: the question I pursue is how they do so, in principle.

State of the art in the literature on understanding

To make headway with this question, we need preliminary conceptions of both conscious experiences of understanding, and its typical epistemic aspects. Here I rely on the state of the art in the literature.

Typically, conscious experiences of understanding are identified either with intellectual intuitions or with “Aha!” experiences, also called insights (Gopnik 1998, Grimm 2014, Lynch 2017). These may be more phenomenally vivid, or less introspectively obvious. And, typically, from an epistemic point of view, 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).

Traditionally, phenomenal aspects of understanding have been approached in the philosophy of mind (Chudnoff 2013, Bengson 2015, Bourget 2017). And epistemic aspects of understanding – especially scientific understanding – have been approached in epistemology (Zagzebski 2001, Kvanvig 2003, Elgin 2004, Hills 2015) and general philosophy of science (Lipton 2009, Khalifa 2012, Wilkenfeld 2013, Kelp 2015, Dellsén forthcoming).

One important current limitation of the state of the art in the literature on understanding is that different people – and different philosophical subgroups – investigate the conscious experiences of understanding and, respectively, what epistemic norms govern understanding. This has made it easier for each sub-group to only deal in passing with the research of the other sub-groups.

The importance of my project consists in initiating a dialogue between Anglo-Saxon phenomenology, the epistemology of understanding, and the philosophy of scientific explanation. Phenomenal and epistemic aspects of understanding have to relate in a structural way if common sense is right to assume that understanding something – chess, weather patterns, or economic cycles – is a distinct type of state of mind, unified both by what it is like to consciously undergo it, and by its epistemic profile.

My tentative answer to the starting question of how phenomenal and epistemic aspects of understanding relate is attention: we understand by attending. We identify how we understand things by how we come to possess that understanding. For instance, in insights we shift what we attend to (Bengson 2015). And this phenomenal contrast is reflected in an epistemic contrast: we learn something new in having the insight. What we phenomenally come to attend to (and better understand), and how we attend to it (grasp, or surmise it), epistemically depends on what models are most cognitively salient to us and better fit our cognitive skills, having more explanatory power (Ylikoski and Kuorikoski 2010).

One notable difficulty facing my project of articulating how phenomenal and epistemic aspects of understanding are related is to spell out precisely which experiences meet which epistemic norms. Do “Aha” experiences contribute to finding an explanation of the phenomenon understood, and do intellectual intuitions originate in our domain-specific expertise? Or is it the other way around, namely, that “Aha” experiences are trustworthy when had by experts alone, and we gain the ability to explain what we understand in intellectual intuitions? To address this problem requires a mix of conceptual investigation and deference to the empirical results of cognitive psychology.