What do you understand?

Written by: Kareem Khalifa


Einstein once remarked, “Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” Expressions like these are increasingly common. Saturated with social media and soundbites, many lament modern life’s flood of information and its dearth of understanding. But what exactly is understanding? In my book, Understanding, Explanation, and Scientific Knowledge, I answer this question by riffing on a position that I call “the received view” of understanding, which equates understanding with knowledge of an explanation. So, on the received view, those who understand are nothing more than the fortunate fools who know why things do what they do.

In aligning myself with the received view, I’ve put a sizable target on my back, as it faces several probing challenges. For instance, it doesn’t take much to reap explanatory knowledge by rote memorization or the passive uptake of another person’s words. But doesn’t understanding involve more skill and ability than that?

Additionally, we frequently seek to understand broader subject matters—quantum mechanics, stock markets, ecology, and the like. Is such understanding merely a cluster of explanations or does it require something more? Relatedly, our intellectual activities are sufficiently versatile that diagrams, deductions, metaphors, or machines might provide understanding without explanation.

But the received view’s difficulties don’t stop there. It’s also generally thought that both explanation and knowledge traffic in the truth. For example, the antics of gremlins do not explain why my car’s brakes squeak. In contrast, more than a few falsehoods have afforded us understanding. Consider, for instance, scientists’ use of idealizations, such as frictionless planes, infinite populations, and rational actors. Similarly, many theories now known to be false—Newtonian mechanics being the most notable—nevertheless advanced our understanding.

Finally, in light of these searching challenges, it’s easy to think that the received view doesn’t do justice to Einstein’s claim that understanding is the point. Imagine a conception of understanding that parted ways with the received view on all of the previous challenges. It would prize abilities, include more than explanation, and give several scientific achievements their due. Wouldn’t that be of far greater value than the received view’s homelier depiction of understanding?

In its earlier formulations—which can be found as far back as Aristotle but which continue into the present day—the received view did not readily address these and other questions. By contrast, my book argues that the received view should be revised but not abandoned. The central revisions are twofold. First, while the received view takes understanding to be an all-or-nothing category, I argue that it comes in degrees. (This is painfully obvious whenever I talk to my mechanic about my car.) Second, whereas the received view identifies understanding with mere knowledge of an explanation, I associate it with scientific knowledge of an explanation. Combined, these two points suggest that understanding consists of approximating scientific knowledge of an explanation to varying degrees.

Using numerous examples from the physical and life sciences, and integrating discussions from philosophy of science and epistemology, I defend this descendant of the received view against the challenges canvassed above. Perhaps you’d like to know how such defenses work. Paraphrasing Einstein: Anybody can read a blog entry. The point is to have you read my book!

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About the Author: Kareem Khalifa

Kareem Khalifa is Professor of Philosophy at Middlebury College, Vermont. He has published a number of articles in philosophy of science, philosophy of social science, and epistemology....

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