:: Article

Understanding understanding

Stephen R. Grimm interviewed by Richard Marshall.

Stephen R Grimm has a chillin’ $3.85 million for a philosophical project looking at ‘Varieties of Understanding’. He thinks interdisciplinary approaches are crucial and hopes the x-phi crew will join the work. He thinks understanding may have a different object than knowledge, and that understanding how the universe works has intrinsic value. He thinks about whether practical stakes can effect whether someone knows or not, about wisdom and whether reflection has anything to do with that, about the relationship between his theological and philosophical commitments, about naturalism, and the role of understanding in universities. All in all, this is a deep mull groove.

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher? You began as a theologian didn’t you? What happened?

Stephen R. Grimm: From a very young age, probably as young as 5 or 6, I felt a basic wonder at the world—that it existed at all, why it existed, why things were one way rather than another. Wordsworth’s description of a sense of “something far more deeply interfused” was not too far off the mark.

This interest in basic questions grew when I took a philosophy course in high school at about the age of 17. There I read Plato, and Aristotle, and Machiavelli, and fell in love with the kind of fundamental topics we were discussing, along with the give-and-take of argument. There were about 9 people in that class, and 3 of us went on to get doctorates in philosophy. It was a very inspiring course.

My study of theology came later, after majoring in philosophy at Williams College and doing a year of volunteer work with the Jesuits. Theology was attractive because it too asked very fundamental questions, and as a Catholic I was interested in learning more about the history and development of the Church. Soon enough, it became clear to me that the questions that were really driving me were philosophical ones—now not just the basic ones that drove me when I was younger but more focused ones about what we can know, what it is rational to believe, and how we should live. So I turned again to philosophy, happily.

3:AM: You’re the project leader for a new research initiative ‘Varieties of Understanding’ worth $3.85 million. The first thing to note is that this is a multi-disciplinary approach. Is this cross fertilization with other disciples something you see as being valuable to philosophy? It seems closely aligned to the approach found in x-phi. Is this an x-phi project?

SG: I do think that an interdisciplinary approach is crucial to the project. At one level, the project is focused on the sort of understanding that science offers of the world. Does it come from a grasp of laws, or causes, or mechanisms, or some combination of the above? And what sort of cognitive resources, exactly, are important for scientific understanding?

But in addition I am also very interested in trying to clarify the sort of understanding that other disciplines offer. For example, how does the sort of understanding offered by philosophy, or history, or the study of literature differ from the sort of understanding offered by the sciences? Do these different areas require the exercise of different cognitive resources—for example, empathy or imagination or something else—that one does not find in scientific understanding?

But all of this talk of “cognitive resources,” by my lights, begs not just for a philosophical treatment but for a psychological one. It’s the psychologists who can best inform us about the different ways in which the mind grasps or makes sense of the world. So it’s not exactly x-phi in the sense that it is often carried out these days, but I do welcome input from that approach and I hope experimental philosophers will apply for funding.

3:AM: Can you give us the background issues that the project is going to be looking at? Is the issue a new version of the Sellarsian one which wonders how folk understandings can survive the new frontiers of scientific understanding?

SG: The broadest issue, the one that unites the particular questions mentioned a moment ago, is: What is understanding, and how does it differ from other cognitive accomplishments such as knowledge? The sort of knowledge that has mainly interested epistemologists to this point has been knowledge of discreet propositions: what it takes to know that I have a hand, or that murder is wrong, or that 7+5=12. But understanding by its nature seems to be focused on larger structures or systems or relationships. We desire to understand how Congress works, or why the Yankees are going to be bad this year, or what makes Americans reluctant to believe in evolution.

So understanding seems to have different objects than knowledge, and it also seems to have a different psychology. When it comes to understanding, we often speak of “grasping” or “seeing” how different elements of a system are related to one another—acts of grasping or seeing that seem to be much richer than the simple acts of belief or assent we often find with cases of knowledge. But how should we unpack these metaphors of “grasping” and “seeing”? And how does something like the celebrated “Aha!” experience fit into the story?

These basic questions about the nature of understanding—how to characterize, at a general level, its distinctive psychology and objects—then break out into the sort of more specific questions mentioned a moment ago: How does scientific understanding differ from the sort of understanding we receive from philosophy, or literature? Are there different background psychologies that ground the moment of grasping in different areas, and so on?

3:AM: You’ve written about understanding as a species of knowledge – the knowledge of causes. Is this your position?

SG: Yes, of a sort. As I think about this, to know the cause in a way that yields understanding is to have a very distinctive sort of knowledge, not primarily directed at propositions. On my view understanding instead comes from grasping how the various elements of a system (or structure or network) depend upon one another. If you think of causation broadly enough, perhaps in the broad sense that Aristotle thought of it, I’m happy to say that understanding comes from a grasp of causes.

3:AM: The project raises issues about the value of understanding. Why investigate ‘understanding’ rather than ‘knowledge’?

SG: That’s a very good question. Ultimately, I don’t think this is an either/or issue. Knowledge is obviously important to us as we navigate the world—we need to know where our keys are and what time the next train arrives and who just knocked at the door, but there is something about understanding that makes it seem more desirable in itself.

We naturally want an understanding of what the world is like and how we fit into it—even if no practical payoff were to come from this understanding.

Stephen Colbert recently had a great exchange about this with one of the guests on his show.

Stephen Colbert: “What do we get from knowing about the Higgs-boson? Do I get my jet-pack now, or teleportation, or light sabers?”
Sean Carroll: “We get the happy feeling that we understand how the universe works.”
Stephen Colbert: “So…how much did this cost?”
[The Colbert Report, airdate Nov. 29, 2012]

This is funny, I take it, because we all seem to recognize a kind of intrinsic value in understanding how the universe works, light sabers and jet packs aside. Our epistemology would therefore be impoverished if we focused only on simple or commonplace epistemic goods, such as knowing that there’s a table in front of me, or that Jones owns a Ford.

3:AM: Are there really different ways of understanding things? A skeptic about this sort of pluralism might push back and say that there is just one way of understanding but some of us are just making mistakes and getting things wrong. Is this something you’ll be trying to work out or are you already pretty clear on this?

SG: I’m definitely still trying to work this out, but my own inclination is to say that there are a variety of ways to understand the world, and that there’s no single method or perspective that encompasses them all.

Perhaps I can only understand your own experiences, for example, if I have lived through something comparable. If I relied only on the detached, 3rd person sort of understanding employed by the sciences, I might well miss something important.

And perhaps there are different sorts of prerequisites for other forms of understanding: perhaps volitional or emotional prerequisites. Tolstoy for instance once claimed that “without love there is no understanding.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that, but perhaps it is the idea that without love, or sympathy, or something along those lines, you cannot truly understand another person. Similarly, St. Augustine was fond of saying “unless you believe you will not understand,” suggesting that there is a kind of volitional aspect to certain sorts of understanding, and perhaps especially to religious understanding.

I am also very interested by the idea that there are certain types of understanding that can only be achieved through literary devices such as metaphor and analogy—that if all of your understanding of the world were at the propositional level you would be leaving something out. That when Shakespeare has Romeo say, “My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand,” some sort of understanding is conveyed that cannot be conveyed in more direct form.

So I’d like to get as good of a sense as possible of all of the different ways in which we understand the world.

3:AM: You have thought about how knowledge and practical interests are related. Can you say something about this? And what have rising tides got to do with this issue?

SG: This has to do with the question of whether practical stakes can effect whether someone knows, or whether it can become harder to know some proposition when the stakes go up (say, when lives are at stake) than when nothing much is at issue.

I’m one of those who think this is true, that knowledge is harder to come by when the stakes go up. In fact, I do not quite understand how something other than practical considerations could determine what it takes to know. Are our “purely epistemic concerns” supposed to determine this? Since I don’t even know what our purely epistemic concerns are, I’m not sure how this could do the trick.

That said, it is not easy to determine exactly whose practical stakes matter. If I’m wondering whether your belief on a topic amounts to knowledge, is it your stakes that determine what it takes to know, or my own as an evaluator? Different people in the literature have defended different views. My own view is that elevated stakes for any of the parties at issue could raise the stakes for all, in virtue of how we depend on one another as information-sharing beings. This is where the “rising tides” idea comes in: rising costs for any person in the relevant information context makes it harder for anyone in that context to know.

There are of course things to be worried about with this view—such as why it doesn’t have sceptical consequences—but I currently like it a lot better than the alternatives.

3:AM: Do you see understanding as closely aligned with wisdom? And are these both connected to reflection – and is this something that makes them distinct from knowledge?

SG: In ancient and medieval philosophy there was a close relationship between understanding and wisdom. Understanding was taken to be a grasp of causes or dependencies, and wisdom was taken to be a grasp of the most basic causes, especially those pointing to God.

One thing I’m very much interested in is why the concept of wisdom dropped out of the picture in contemporary philosophy. We usually tell our students on day 1 that “philosophy” means “the love of wisdom” but then wisdom is typically never mentioned again, and it is unclear how the philosophy we practice in the classroom or in the study is supposed to lead to wisdom.

Your mention of reflection is also very interesting to me, because I don’t fully understand why philosophical reflection was supposed to have such a special relation to wisdom or happiness. Suppose Socrates is right that the unreflective (unexamined) life is not fully happy. Why can’t we satisfy this need for reflection through non-philosophical means—through therapy, or Buddhist mindfulness, or the sort of spiritual exercises that Igantius of Loyola (the founder of the Jesuits) developed?

3:AM: How much of your philosophical thinking is rooted in philosophy of religion – and is this philosophy possible without belief? And would different beliefs make a difference?

SG: As a sub-discipline of philosophy, “philosophy of religion” can definitely be practiced (taught, written about) by philosophers of all stripes. In my own home department at Fordham, one of my colleagues is no believer but has recently written a great book about the problem of evil.

Of course, if you think talk about God is just pure foolishness or nonsense you will not find the philosophy of religion interesting or important. But I’m not sure how many philosophers fall into that group, or who would simply deny the significance of arguments for or against God’s existence, or about the relationship between science and religion.

Although I’m interested in many topics in the philosophy of religion, since most of my reading and writing is in other areas (epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics), I’m afraid I just don’t have time to keep up with the literature there as well as I would like.

My guess though is that you’re asking more broadly about the relationship between my philosophical and religious commitments, and taken in this way there is certainly a deep connection. It is hard for me to see how there could not be. The raw materials of thinking aren’t the conclusions of arguments but rather things that are true to our own experience of the world. That God exists is very true to my own experience of the world, so I would be a dishonest thinker if I tried to deny this or if it didn’t bear on my conclusions.

That said, along with many other philosophers, I take it that the goal of philosophical discourse is (as Charles Taylor once put it) to try to engage honest thinkers of any and all metaphysical or theological commitments. So the most productive philosophy starts with premises that are true to the experience of as many people as possible. In my own work I therefore try to begin from places that most people will find compelling.

3:AM: Your work is largely epistemological. But many things people claim to understand seem to commit them to ontological commitments that are false. How do you approach this issue?

SG: I think you can certainly understand claims and views that are false—the views of a conspiracy theorist, for example. What you’re doing in that case, roughly, is supposing for the sake of argument that a certainty dependency or relation obtains that (by your own lights) really does not. Or you’re accepting certain premises for the sake of argument that you take to be false.

One interesting question is what we should say of people who are fully immersed in a false understanding of the world—who would take these dependencies to really exist, and so on. What I want to say is that they have a kind of understanding of the world, because they have done the special cognitive work of “grasping” how different elements are related, but this is only a subjective kind of understanding, or a subjective kind of grasping. It is grasping that fails to latch onto anything in the world.

3:AM: I guess this is linked to the last question: some understanding seems to be self generating rather than based on evidence. This is the sort of approach naturalists and scientists have taken against superstitions in the past. Are they mistaken? Surely understandings untethered by evidence are too precarious to defend?

SG: There are definitely dangers to some of the views about understanding I identified above. Augustine’s claim that “unless you believe you will not understand” could lead one into a cult, with its own peculiar explanations and ways of life, perhaps as easily as it could lead one into a realm of genuine understanding. And similarly Tolstoy’s claim about the relationship between love and understanding might concern some, if one worries that love might distort the truth rather than reveal it.

Ultimately, though, I do think there is something right about the claim that some kinds of understanding are only revealed to those who take risks of a certain kind: perhaps risks involving trust, or friendship, or love, or faith. Perhaps one needs to take these risks even to acquire the sort of evidence you mention.

3:AM: What do you think you’ll have found out by the end of your research project into understanding? And why will it be important?

SG: My hope is that we’ll have more clarity about the various ways in which human beings understand the world, how these types of understanding might be improved, and how they might be combined to form an integrated understanding of the world.

I’m particularly interested in this last point in the context of universities. Presumably the goal of universities is not just to pass along isolated bits of knowledge, but to reveal the connections or relationships among these bits of knowledge. Since I think it is in the appreciation of those connections and relationships that understanding is to be found, it seems best to say that the goal of university education is not knowledge but understanding.

But if that is right, then I think as residents of the university we need more self-conscious reflection on what understanding is, and the various forms it might take—on what enhances understanding and what diminishes it. As Aristotle says, the more we know about a goal, the greater our chances of realizing it.

3:AM: And finally, for the epistemically precocious here at 3ammagazine, can you give us five books that we should be reading to help us with this fascinating stuff?

SG: When it comes to epistemology proper the two people whose views have been most influential on my thinking are Ernest Sosa and John Greco, and I can particularly recommend their books Knowing Full Well (Sosa) and Achieving Knowledge: A Virtue-Theoretic Account of Epistemic Normativity (Greco). Sosa and Greco’s views are closer to the truth than anyone’s in epistemology, I think, and they both explicitly try to make room for understanding within their general epistemology.

In terms of specific work on understanding and explanation, I particularly like Peter Lipton’s Inference to the Best Explanation, and several of the essays in Jaegwon Kim’s Essays in the Metaphysics of Mind. Peter Lipton was my first teacher of epistemology when I was an undergraduate at Williams, before Lipton left Williams for Cambridge, and he was just an extraordinary person who died too young at the age of 53 in 2007. In many ways I’d like to dedicate this project to him; there are not many people who manage to combine Lipton’s exceptional intelligence, good humor, and personal warmth.

The last book I can enthusiastically recommend that touches on knowledge, understanding, wisdom, and much else is Linda Zagzebski’s Virtues of the Mind. I taught it again recently at Fordham for a graduate class and it struck me forcefully as a masterwork that is standing the test of time. The way Zagzebski weaves history, philosophy, and literature together into a fascinating, original view is extremely impressive. It’s really a tour de force book.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 26th, 2013.