Emily Sullivan


Dissertation Abstract

Expert Knowing: A Propostional Account of (Scientific) Understanding


Teachers aim at understanding. Albert Einstein has even said “any fool can know, the point is to understand.” This suggests that understanding is distinct from and has greater value than knowledge. However, it also seems that often times when we lack understanding why, the best remedy is to seek out an explanation why. This suggests that understanding is simply knowing an explanation. Perhaps, we can adopt both these intuitions by endorsing the following simple view: to understand is to grasp an explanation. My dissertation takes scientific understanding as a case study to evaluate and develop this simple view.


I begin with 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 examples of so-called 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. In particular, I look at renormalization group explanations in physics and optimality explanations in biology that seek to explain universal phenomena between disparate systems.

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. If understanding is factive like knowledge, then we do not have very much scientific understanding at all. 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 the attitude that makes up understanding should not at first be taken to be a grasping. Grasping implies success. 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. This view goes against an early consensus that understanding is a non-propositional attitude more like knowledge-how. I seek to strike a balance between our intuitions about understandings relationship to knowledge-how without doing away with the propositional object of understanding.

On my view, understanding, while being a different propositional attitude from knowledge, still is 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: a marker of expertise. The ideal epistemic agent does not just seek to be a knower, but seeks to become an expert—an understander.