Frederica Malfatti, MA (Univ. of Innsbruck): Modelling Understanding

Datum / Uhrzeit:
26.11.19   /  18:30 - 20:00

Institut für Theoretische Philosophie

24.53.01 Raum 81



My aim in this talk is twofold. First, to provide a tentative model of understanding; second, to show that, if this model is approximately correct, understanding and knowledge turn out to be different kinds of epistemic states. 

I will tackle the question of what understanding is indirectly, starting off from the question of what happens, and of what it feels like, when one struggles in understanding something. By exploring the various dimensions in which one’s effort to understand might fail, I will shed light on which conditions must be satisfied, from an epistemic agent’s perspective, for understanding to succeed. The upshot of my analysis will be a conception of understanding that matches in significant respects the one defended by Schurz and Lambert (1994). The idea is that understanding phenomena is at best conceived as the end result of a process of appropriate modification and rearrangement of one’s noetic system (or of relevant subsets of it), to the effect that the informational units representing the phenomena to be understood properly fit into the system in question. The notion of “fitting” here involved can be explicated in the following terms: In order for an informational unit p to fit into a noetic system W, (i) p has to be derivable from W; (ii) p has to be consistent with W; (iii) p has to be properly connected with other elements already belonging to W and bearing on the same subject matter.

With this notion of understanding in the background, I will tackle the questions of how understanding relates to knowledge, and of whether understanding reduces to knowledge or not. I will show that it is possible for an informational unit to properly fit into one’s noetic system without being justified in the system, and vice versa. I will argue that this holds both under externalist and internalist conceptions of justification. If the understanding–as–fitting model of understanding is approximately correct, thus, and as long as knowledge is conceived as (non–luckily formed) justified true belief, understanding and knowledge are different kinds of epistemic states.


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