Expert Knowing: A Propositional Account of (Scientific) Understanding

Emily Mumm, Fordham University


What is the nature and value of understanding? In this dissertation use scientific understanding as a case study to evaluate and develop the following view: to understand is to grasp a correct explanation. I begin with exploring the nature of scientific explanation. Not just any explanation can give rise to understanding. I argue that scientific explanations are causal explanations. While there are many purported examples of noncausal explanations, I argue that when we take care to isolate what it is we are seeking to explain and the role that abstraction plays in explaining, these examples are best understood as instances of causal explanation after all. What’s more, scientific explanations are often idealized and distort the facts. This suggests that a truth criterion on scientific understanding wrongly undermines the epistemic status of our best science. However, I argue that idealized explanations do in fact give rise to true understanding when idealizations point out what does and does not make a difference to the causal story. After exploring what kinds of explanations give rise to understanding, I move on to the epistemological thesis about what it means to grasp an explanation and how it is different from knowing a explanation. I argue that we need the conceptual space that allows for a neutral (afactive) cognitive state—an analog to belief—that is the primary attitude of understanding. I call this an “apparent-grasp”. I argue further that apparent-grasping is a propositional attitude. On my view, understanding, while being a different propositional attitude from knowledge, still does amount to a function of how much one knows. This means that understanding’s distinct value does not come from the kind of epistemic achievement it is. Rather, the added value that understanding has comes from its unique social function as a marker of expertise. The ideal epistemic agent does not just seek to be a knower, but seeks to become an expert—an understander.

Subject Area

Epistemology|Philosophy of Science|Philosophy

Recommended Citation

Mumm, Emily, "Expert Knowing: A Propositional Account of (Scientific) Understanding" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10125221.