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How Understanding Makes Knowledge Valuable

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Ayca Boylu*
Affiliation:
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA22904, USA

Extract

Many have suggested that understanding is a worthier goal for theoretical reflection than is propositional knowledge. Some have even claimed that, unlike knowledge, understanding is always intrinsically valuable. In this essay, I aim only to show that there is a basic value in understanding and that when knowledge conduces to understanding, it gets this basic value extrinsically from understanding. After distinguishing two kinds of understanding, namely, teleological and non-teleological understanding, I will conclude that teleological understanding has more of this basic value than does non-teleological understanding.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Authors 2010

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References

1 About two decades ago some prominent historians began to suggest that the Greek discussion of ‘episteme’ was in fact not a discussion of what we call ‘knowledge’ but of what we call ‘understanding,’ and hence that contemporary epistemology was not a faithful continuation of the theoretical inquiry into episteme found in Plato and Aristotle. These historians held that we uncover an independently interesting and unjustly ignored theoretical inquiry when we attain a proper understanding of the focus of these Ancient inquiries. See J.M.E., MoravcsikUnderstanding and Knowledge in Plato's Philosophy,’ Neue Hefte Für Philosophie 15/16 (1979) 5369;Google Scholar Burnyeat, M.F.Aristotle on Understanding Knowledge,’ in Aristotle on Science: The ‘Posterior Analytics,Berti, E. ed. (Padova: Editrice Antenore 1981);Google Scholar Benson, Hugh H. Socratic Wisdom: The Model of Knowledge in Plato's Early Dialogues (New York: Oxford University Press 2000).Google Scholar For discussions pertinent to the value of knowledge see Epistemic Value, Part One, Haddock, A. Millar, A. & Pritchard, D.H. eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Brewer, Talbot The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Kvanvig, Jonathan L. The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding (New York: Cambridge University Press 2003);CrossRefGoogle Scholar Kvanvig, J.L.Pointless Truth,’ Midwest Studies in Philosophy 32 (2008) 199212;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Riggs, W.Reliability and the Value of Knowledge,’ Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 4 (2002) 7996;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Riggs, W.Beyond Truth & Falsehood: The Real Value of Knowing that p,’ Philosophical Studies 107 (2002) 87108;CrossRefGoogle Scholar Roberts, Robert C. and Wood, Jay W. Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology (New York: Oxford University Press 2007),CrossRefGoogle Scholar Ch. 6; Zagzebski, L.Recovering Understanding,’ in Knowledge, Truth and Obligation, Steup, M. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press 2001).Google Scholar

2 See, for instance, Kvanvig, The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding; Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics, Ch. 8.

3 Henceforth, ‘knowledge’ will be used to designate ‘propositional knowledge’ unless indicated otherwise.

4 Roberts and Wood, Intellectual Virtues, 157

5 Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics, Ch. 8

6 Roberts and Wood, Intellectual Virtues, 156

7 Sosa, Ernest Knowledge In Perspective: Selected Essays In Epistemology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1991),CrossRefGoogle Scholar Part 4, Sec. 13

8 Ibid., 244

9 Following Zagzebski, Kvanvig points out that the fact that a true belief is produced by someone or some faculty or some process that is reliable does not add to the value that true belief already has. As Kvanvig claims, seeing such external reliability as adding any epistemic value would be similar to finding a piece of beautiful furniture aesthetically more valuable upon finding out that it has been produced by a factory that produces beautiful furniture most of the time. Kvanvig, The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding, 49-50. This is a serious difficulty for most externalist accounts.

10 Roberts, and Wood, Intellectual Virtues, 208Google Scholar

11 Even though I shall refer to this category by ‘hows and whys,’ in fact it also involves objects such as when to exit pauses in playing a certain sonata or to whom to talk to when one needs advice or to which diving style resembles life more or to what one owes her unique voice or where a certain event might have taken place or whether this machine works, etc.

12 Whether all the salient hows and whys can be captured by facts is worth investigating; however, I will not undertake that task here.

13 Some hold that a fact is a true proposition. I leave it up to my reader to pick a notion of fact since it has no bearing on the points of this essay.

14 Catherine Elgin generalizes this point and argues that a proposition is never an apt object of understanding; it is always to be understood within a comprehensive body of propositions. I am not sure if this point can be generalized. It seems to me that there are certain cases where it is harder to deny that the proposition in question does not admit of understanding as such: e.g., Ida is a sensitive person. I suspect that the difference in a case like this is that the proposition in question is itself more like a summary of a coherent body of propositions. Elgin, C.Understanding and the Facts,’ Philosophical Studies 132 (2007) 3342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

15 In defining understanding a fact in terms of knowing a fact, there is another difficulty as well; we seem to be capable of understanding certain facts without having propositional knowledge of them. An adept rider might plausibly not have noticed that a bike is steered primarily by leaning rather than by turning the handlebars. In other words, the rider can understand this fact without knowing or even believing the proposition that captures it. The strength of this point turns on the question just how weak the criteria for having a concept or propositionalizing a fact can be. Since I cannot pursue that discussion here, I am relying on intuitive grounds here.

16 I thank an anonymous referee for drawing my attention to the fact that knowledge always requires a minimal understanding.

17 Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics, ch. 8Google Scholar

18 Moravcsik, ‘Understanding and Knowledge in Plato's Philosophy,’ 55-6

19 Burnyeat, Aristotle on Understanding Knowledge,134Google Scholar

20 The use of ‘coherence’ might not be the best choice here; ‘unity’ or the Aristotlean notion ‘eidos’ might be better proposals. I am employing ‘coherence’ mainly because its use is commonplace in the literature on understanding.

21 Kvanvig, The Value of Knowledge and the Pursuit of Understanding, 198Google Scholar

22 It is not only musical performances that are supposed to approximate being perfectly good qua their kind to be what they are. The coming together of two persons is supposed to approximate being perfectly good qua friendship to be a friendship at all, a string of sentences expressing philosophical thoughts must approximate being perfectly good qua philosophical theory to be a philosophical theory at all, and so on. Examples can be multiplied. Stories, knives, cars, mosques, dance performances, paintings, conversations and persons all seem to be particulars that are supposed to have some goodness qua their kind to be the kind of particulars they are. I follow Judith Jarvis Thomson in drawing the boundaries of these ‘teleological’ entities. See Thomson, Judith Jarvis Goodness and Advice (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2001).Google Scholar For a more restrictive conception of this category, see Foot, Philippa Natural Goodness (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

23 This is not to imply that one somehow first gets a grip on the ideals constituting the telos of a musical performance and then understands a particular performance. After all, one cannot understand the ideals of a musical performance without having begun understanding any particular performances. A better description seems to be that one can understand a particular musical performance only if one has some understanding of the ideals that constitute its telos, and, one advances this understanding of the telos by understanding particular musical performances. The two are interdependent in experience.

24 This is a collage composed of some of Anderszewski's reviews in The New York Times, The Guardian and The New York Sun.

25 Riggs, Understanding, Knowledge, and the Meno Requirement,’ in Epistemic Value, Haddock, A Millar, A. & Pritchard, D. H eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009), 335–6Google Scholar

26 Often ethicists mean to refer to non-instrumental value when they make use of ‘intrinsic value.’ Yet, as some have rightly argued, there are many ways in which something can have extrinsic value and having instrumental value is only one of them. For instance, Ben Bradley points out that something can have contributory value in virtue of being part of a valuable whole, or it can have signatory value because of what it signifies. See Bradley, B.Extrinsic Value,’ Philosophical Studies 91 (1998) 109–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 We see use of some of these conceptions in Brewer's defense of the claim that understanding is an intrinsically valuable activity in the Aristotlean sense and that it is the telos of theoretical reflection (Brewer, The Retrieval of Ethics, ch. 8).

28 I am greatly indebted to Talbot Brewer for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this essay.

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