Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy (MCMP)

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Zoom Talk: Alice Murphy (MCMP) und Federica Malfatti (Innsbruck)

Meeting-ID: 9443 3194 088

14.07.2021 16:00  – 18:00 

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Alice Murphy (MCMP): Imagery and Understanding

Abstract: Attitudes towards the imagination in science have started to change. With the rise of the fiction view of models, as well as discussions of the epistemic value of imagination in other areas of philosophy, philosophers of science have started to attend to how scientists use their imaginations in modelling and theorising.

But what is meant by “imagination”? Salis and Frigg (2020) argue that it is the propositional imagination only that is relevant to scientific practice. However, their focus appears to be on imagination as a route to knowledge, and they do not consider other epistemic goods such as understanding. Similarly, while the imagination literature has discussed the epistemic role of mental imagery, the focus has been on uses of imagination in gaining knowledge. This is especially interesting since accounts of understanding in science often employ language of “seeing” and some, such as De Regt (2017), have explicitly discussed visualisation. But these views have not engaged with the imagination literature.

This talk aims to bring these debates together in order to get clearer on the links between understanding and “seeing” or visualising. I’ll explore the ways in which mental imagery might contribute to the grasping of some theory or phenomenon, and I’ll end by discussing how strong we should regard this connection between mental imagery and understanding in light of issues concerning mere feelings of understanding and aphantasia; the reduced ability to create conscious mental imagery.

Federica I. Malfatti (Innsbruck): Grasping or Seeing in Understanding

In her recent book True Enough (MIT Press, 2017) Elgin argues that “epistemology should shift its center of gravity from knowledge to understanding … or at least broaden its focus to comprehend understanding as well as knowledge” (p. 14). Many authors have enthusiastically followed Elgin in claiming that epistemology should cast its net more widely into the epistemic waters to catch a variety of neglect edepistemic phenomena worthy of attention – most notably, understanding. For the enthusiasm to be justified and for the enterprise to make sense, however, understanding must turn out to be a different cognitive-epistemic state thanknowledge. But is it?

Prima facie, there is a difference between knowing that and even why something is the case and understanding the corresponding fact. Knowing that and why something is the case can be avery “local” matter in our system of thought. E.g., it is possible for an epistemic agent to acquire knowledge that and why p merely by trusting a reliable expert on the matter in an epistemically friendly environment, even when the agent knows or understands close to nothing about the expert’s domain of expertise. Understanding does not seem to work in this way. For understanding to succeed, more seems to be required on the part of the epistemic agent. Butwhat exactly is this “more” involved in understanding?

Reductionists claim that the additional component of understanding can actually be unpacked in terms of true beliefs orknowledge. An epistemic agent will understand, say, a subject matter, in that she will form a significant amount of justified true beliefs or in that she will accumulate knowledge about this subject matter. Antireductionists, on the other hand, claim that accumulating true beliefs or knowledge might notbe enough for acquiring understanding. An epistemic agent, antireductionists claim, might even come to believe all or most of the (true) relevant information about a topic, without actually coming to understand it. This is allegedly because understanding is not only – and maybe not even primarily – a matter of assenting to true propositions; rather, it is a matter of “seeing” or“grasping” how things are related to one another. But then, what is this grasping or seeing allegedly involved in understanding?

In this talk, I’ll review the accounts of grasping/seeing available in the literature and highlight their strengths and weaknesses. I’ll then sketch and defend a simple model of understanding (phenomena) that is reductionist in spirit, and that has there sources to explain all the differences in the process of acquisition of knowledge and understanding that antireductionist accounts of grasping are meant to explain.