Idealizations and scientific understanding

Philosophical Studies 160 (2):237-252 (2012)
Abstract
In this paper, I propose that the debate in epistemology concerning the nature and value of understanding can shed light on the role of scientific idealizations in producing scientific understanding. In philosophy of science, the received view seems to be that understanding is a species of knowledge. On this view, understanding is factive just as knowledge is, i.e., if S knows that p, then p is true. Epistemologists, however, distinguish between different kinds of understanding. Among epistemologists, there are those who think that a certain kind of understanding—objectual understanding—is not factive, and those who think that objectual understanding is quasi-factive. Those who think that understanding is not factive argue that scientific idealizations constitute cognitive success, which we then consider as instances of understanding, and yet they are not true. This paper is an attempt to draw lessons from this debate as they pertain to the role of idealizations in producing scientific understanding. I argue that scientific understanding is quasi-factive.
Keywords scientific understanding  scientific idealization  ideal gas law  objectual understanding
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