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Summary Understanding and explanation are both central topics in philosophy of science and epistemology. But how are the two related? One popular view is that understanding is just the cognitive state you are in then you can explain something. Another view is that understanding involves explanation, but also involves other cognitive abilities, such as an ability to explain other things. Finally, some argue that understanding needn't even involve explanation at all.
Key works Early work on explanation which emphasize its role in generating understanding include Friedman 1974 and Salmon 1993. Strevens 2013 and Khalifa 2012 (see also Khalifa 2013) both argue that understanding and explanation are roughly two sides of the same coin. Grimm 2010 argues that understanding is the goal of explanation, and Hills 2015 argues that understanding amounts to a kind of cognitive (and partly explanatory) know-how.  Lipton 2009 argues that there are cases that show that understanding needn't involve explanation. Kvanvig 2009 argues that there is a type of understanding -- objectual understanding -- that isn't necessarily explanatory. Khalifa 2013 demurs.
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  1. added 2018-12-12
    Explanation, Understanding, and Belief Revision.Andrés Páez - 2018 - In Marco Ruffino, Max Freund & Max Fernández de Castro (eds.), Logic and philosophy of logic. Recent trends from Latin America and Spain. London: College Publications. pp. 233-252.
  2. added 2018-11-14
    String Theory, Non-Empirical Theory Assessment, and the Context of Pursuit.Frank Cabrera - 2018 - Synthese:1-29.
    In this paper, I offer an analysis of the radical disagreement over the adequacy of string theory. The prominence of string theory despite its notorious lack of empirical support is sometimes explained as a troubling case of science gone awry, driven largely by sociological mechanisms such as groupthink (e.g. Smolin 2006). Others, such as Dawid (2013), explain the controversy by positing a methodological revolution of sorts, according to which string theorists have quietly turned to nonempirical methods of theory assessment given (...)
  3. added 2018-11-12
    Idealizations and Understanding: Much Ado About Nothing?Emily Sullivan & Kareem Khalifa - forthcoming - Australasian Journal of Philosophy.
    Because idealizations frequently advance scientific understanding, many claim that falsehoods play an epistemic role. In this paper, we argue that these positions greatly overstate idealizations’ import for understanding. We introduce work on epistemic value to the debate surrounding idealizations and understanding, arguing that idealizations qua falsehoods only confer non-epistemic value to understanding. We argue for this claim by criticizing the leading accounts of how idealizations provide understanding. For each of these approaches, we show that: (a) idealizations’ false components only promote (...)
  4. added 2018-10-27
    Non-Factive Understanding: A Statement and Defense.Yannick Doyle, Spencer Egan, Noah Graham & Kareem Khalifa - forthcoming - Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für Allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie.
    In epistemology and philosophy of science, there has been substantial debate about truth’s relation to understanding. “Non-factivists” hold that radical departures from the truth are not always barriers to understanding; “quasi-factivists” demur. The most discussed example concerns scientists’ use of idealizations in certain derivations of the ideal gas law from statistical mechanics. Yet, these discussions have suffered from confusions about the relevant science, as well as conceptual confusions. To that end, we shall argue that the ideal gas law is best (...)
  5. added 2018-09-28
    Understanding, Explanation, and Intelligibility. [REVIEW]Insa Lawler - 2018 - Metascience:1-4.
  6. added 2018-06-21
    Beyond Explanation: Understanding as Dependency Modeling.Finnur Dellsén - 2018 - British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
    This paper presents and argues for an account of objectual understanding that aims to do justice to the full range of cases of scientific understanding, including cases in which one does not have an explanation of the understood phenomenon. According to the proposed account, one understands a phenomenon just in case one grasps a sufficiently accurate and comprehensive model of the ways in which it or its features are situated within a network of dependence relations; one’s degree of understanding is (...)
  7. added 2018-06-20
    The Ontic Conception of Scientific Explanation.Cory Wright - 2015 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 54:20-30.
    Wesley Salmon’s version of the ontic conception of explanation is a main historical root of contemporary work on mechanistic explanation. This paper examines and critiques the philosophical merits of Salmon’s version, and argues that his conception’s most fundamental construct is either fundamentally obscure, or else reduces to a non-ontic conception of explanation. Either way, the ontic conception is a misconception.
  8. added 2018-06-12
    Review of Chrysostomos Mantzavinos's Explanatory Pluralism. [REVIEW]Alexander Beard & Cory Wright - forthcoming - Analysis 78 (3):any031.
  9. added 2018-05-18
    Realism and Explanatory Perspectivism.Juha Saatsi - forthcoming - In Michela Massimi & C. D. McCoy (eds.), Understanding Perspectivism: Scientific Challenges and Methodological Prospects. New York: Routledge.
    This chapter defends a (minimal) realist conception of progress in scientific understanding in the face of the ubiquitous plurality of perspectives in science. The argument turns on the counterfactual-dependence framework of explanation and understanding, which is illustrated and evidenced with reference to different explanations of the rainbow.
  10. added 2018-05-07
    Understanding in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science: A Complicated Relationship. [REVIEW]Finnur Dellsén - 2018 - Metascience 27 (2):195-198.
  11. added 2018-01-17
    Eight Other Questions About Explanation.Angela Potochnik - forthcoming - In Alexander Reutlinger & Juha Saatsi (eds.), Explanation Beyond Causation: Philosophical Perspectives on Non-Causal Explanations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    The tremendous philosophical focus on how to characterize explanatory metaphysical dependence has eclipsed a number of other unresolved issued about scientific explanation. The purpose of this paper is taxonomical. I will outline a number of other questions about the nature of explanation and its role in science—eight, to be precise—and argue that each is independent. All of these topics have received some philosophical attention, but none nearly so much as it deserves. Furthermore, existing views on these topics have been obscured (...)
  12. added 2017-09-21
    Understanding, Explanation, and Scientific Knowledge.Kareem Khalifa - 2017 - Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
    From antiquity to the end of the twentieth century, philosophical discussions of understanding remained undeveloped, guided by a 'received view' that takes understanding to be nothing more than knowledge of an explanation. More recently, however, this received view has been criticized, and bold new philosophical proposals about understanding have emerged in its place. In this book, Kareem Khalifa argues that the received view should be revised but not abandoned. In doing so, he clarifies and answers the most central questions in (...)
  13. added 2017-09-18
    Non-Causal Understanding with Economic Models: The Case of General Equilibrium.Philippe Verreault-Julien - 2017 - Journal of Economic Methodology 24 (3):297-317.
    How can we use models to understand real phenomena if models misrepresent the very phenomena we seek to understand? Some accounts suggest that models may afford understanding by providing causal knowledge about phenomena via how-possibly explanations. However, general equilibrium models, for example, pose a challenge to this solution since their contribution appears to be purely mathematical results. Despite this, practitioners widely acknowledge that it improves our understanding of the world. I argue that the Arrow–Debreu model provides a mathematical how-possibly explanation (...)
  14. added 2017-09-14
    How Thought Experiments Increase Understanding.Michael T. Stuart - 2017 - In Michael T. Stuart, Yiftach J. H. Fehige & James Robert Brown (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Thought Experiments. London: Routledge. pp. 526-544.
    We might think that thought experiments are at their most powerful or most interesting when they produce new knowledge. This would be a mistake; thought experiments that seek understanding are just as powerful and interesting, and perhaps even more so. A growing number of epistemologists are emphasizing the importance of understanding for epistemology, arguing that it should supplant knowledge as the central notion. In this chapter, I bring the literature on understanding in epistemology to bear on explicating the different ways (...)
  15. added 2017-09-14
    Taming Theory with Thought Experiments: Understanding and Scientific Progress.Michael T. Stuart - 2016 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 58:24-33.
    I claim that one way thought experiments contribute to scientific progress is by increasing scientific understanding. Understanding does not have a currently accepted characterization in the philosophical literature, but I argue that we already have ways to test for it. For instance, current pedagogical practice often requires that students demonstrate being in either or both of the following two states: 1) Having grasped the meaning of some relevant theory, concept, law or model, 2) Being able to apply that theory, concept, (...)
  16. added 2017-07-27
    Varying the Explanatory Span: Scientific Explanation for Computer Simulations.Juan Manuel Durán - 2017 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 31 (1):27-45.
    This article aims to develop a new account of scientific explanation for computer simulations. To this end, two questions are answered: what is the explanatory relation for computer simulations? And what kind of epistemic gain should be expected? For several reasons tailored to the benefits and needs of computer simulations, these questions are better answered within the unificationist model of scientific explanation. Unlike previous efforts in the literature, I submit that the explanatory relation is between the simulation model and the (...)
  17. added 2017-06-03
    Idealization and the Aims of Science.Angela Potochnik - 2017 - Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
    Science is the study of our world, as it is in its messy reality. Nonetheless, science requires idealization to function—if we are to attempt to understand the world, we have to find ways to reduce its complexity. Idealization and the Aims of Science shows just how crucial idealization is to science and why it matters. Beginning with the acknowledgment of our status as limited human agents trying to make sense of an exceedingly complex world, Angela Potochnik moves on to explain (...)
  18. added 2017-04-11
    Philosophy of History and History of Philosophy of Science.Thomas Uebel - 2017 - Hopos: The Journal of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science 7 (1):1-30.
    hilosophy of history and history of philosophy of science make for an interesting case of “mutual containment”: the former is an object of inquiry for the latter, and the latter is subject to the demands of the former. This article discusses a seminal turn in past philosophy of history with an eye to the practice of historians of philosophy of science. The narrative turn by Danto and Mink represents both a liberation for historians and a new challenge to the objectivity (...)
  19. added 2017-04-10
    Must Understanding Be Coherent?Kareem Khalifa - 2016 - In Stephen Grimm, Christoph Baumberger & Sabine Ammon (eds.), Explaining understanding: new perspectives from epistemology and philosophy of science. London, UK: Routledge. pp. 139-164.
    Several authors suggest that understanding and epistemic coherence are tightly connected. Using an account of understanding that makes no appeal to coherence, I explain away the intuitions that motivate this position. I then show that the leading coherentist epistemologies only place plausible constraints on understanding insofar as they replicate my own account’s requirements. I conclude that understanding is only superficially coherent.
  20. added 2017-04-07
    Explanation and Understanding in the Human Sciences.Gurpreet Mahajan - 1997 - Oxford University Press.
    Which form of explanation is adequate for the humans sciences? Mahajan argues that social reality can be perceived in different ways--hermeneutic understanding, narrative, reason action and causal explanation--and each alters our perception of reality. A new chapter on poststructuralist and postmodern theories brings this important book up-to-date with current thinking.
  21. added 2017-04-07
    Explanation, Understanding and Typical Action.Peter Manicas - 1997 - Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 27 (2&3):193–212.
    There are immense differences in the social sciences both as regards what is to be explained and how it is to be explained. I make an initial distinction between the understanding, construed roughly as acquiring a grasp of the generative mechanisms and structures at work in the world, natural and social, and explanation, which I construe as causal. I clarify several candidates for the objects of explanation and reject the idea that the “explanation of behavior”—if that means the acts of (...)
  22. added 2017-04-07
    Understanding and Explanation. A Transcendental-Pragmatic Perspective.Karl-Otto Apel & Georgia Warnke - 1988 - Studies in Soviet Thought 35 (1):57-61.
  23. added 2017-04-07
    Understanding and Explanation: A Transcendental-Pragmatic Perspective.Georgia Warnke (ed.) - 1988 - MIT Press.
    The explanation versus understanding debate was important to the philosophy of the social sciences from the time of Dilthey and Weber through the work of Popper and Hempel. In recent years, with the development of interpretive approaches in hermeneutics, phenomenology, and language analysis, the problematic has become absolutely central. The broad literature to which it has given rise, while still split along "analytic" versus "continental" lines, shows increasing signs of a reunification in philosophy. G. H. von Wright's important book, Explanation (...)
  24. added 2017-04-07
    Cause, Explanation, and Understanding in Science: Galileo's Case.Maurice A. Finocchiaro - 1975 - Review of Metaphysics 29 (1):117 - 128.
  25. added 2017-04-06
    Scientific Understanding, Representation, and Explanation.Jan Faye - forthcoming - Epistemologia.
  26. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding Revisited.Panu Raatikainen - 2017 - In Human Condition. Philosophical Essays in Honour of the Centennial Anniversary of Georg Henrik von Wright. Helsinki: , The Philosophical Society of Finland. pp. 339-353.
    "Explanation and Understanding" (1971) by Georg Henrik von Wright is a modern classic in analytic hermeneutics, and in the philosophy of the social sciences and humanities in general. In this work, von Wright argues against naturalism, or methodological monism, i.e. the idea that both the natural sciences and the social sciences follow broadly the same general scientific approach and aim to achieve causal explanations. Against this view, von Wright contends that the social sciences are qualitatively different from the natural sciences: (...)
  27. added 2017-04-06
    What is Understanding? An Overview of Recent Debates in Epistemology and Philosophy of Science.Christoph Baumberger, Claus Beisbart & Georg Brun - 2017 - In Stephen Grimm Christoph Baumberger & Sabine Ammon (eds.), Explaining Understanding: New Perspectives from Epistemolgy and Philosophy of Science. Routledge. pp. 1-34.
    The paper provides a systematic overview of recent debates in epistemology and philosophy of science on the nature of understanding. We explain why philosophers have turned their attention to understanding and discuss conditions for “explanatory” understanding of why something is the case and for “objectual” understanding of a whole subject matter. The most debated conditions for these types of understanding roughly resemble the three traditional conditions for knowledge: truth, justification and belief. We discuss prominent views about how to construe these (...)
  28. added 2017-04-06
    Scientific Explanation and Understanding: Unificationism Reconsidered.Sorin Bangu - 2017 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 7 (1):103-126.
    The articulation of an overarching account of scientific explanation has long been a central preoccupation for the philosophers of science. Although a while ago the literature was dominated by two approaches—a causal account and a unificationist account—today the consensus seems to be that the causal account has won. In this paper, I challenge this consensus and attempt to revive unificationism. More specifically, I aim to accomplish three goals. First, I add new criticisms to the standard anti-unificationist arguments, in order to (...)
  29. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding and the Norm of Explanation.John Turri - 2015 - Philosophia 43 (4):1171-1175.
    I propose and defend the hypothesis that understanding is the norm of explanation. On this proposal, an explanation should express understanding. I call this the understanding account of explanation. The understanding account is supported by social and introspective observations. It is also supported by the relationship between knowledge and understanding, on the one hand, and assertion and explanation, on the other.
  30. added 2017-04-06
    The Nature of Scientific Thinking: On Interpretation, Explanation, and Understanding. [REVIEW]Lina Jansson - 2015 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 29 (2):218-221.
  31. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding.von Wright Georg Henrik - 2014 - Routledge.
    This volume distinguishes between two main traditions in the philosophy of science - the aristotelian, with its stress on explanation in terms of purpose and intentionality, and the galilean, which takes causal explanation as primary. It then traces the complex history of these competing traditions as they are manifested in such movements as positivism, idealism, Marxism and contemporary linguistic analysis. Hempels's theory of scientific explanation, the claims of cybernetics the rise of an analytic philosophy of action and the revival of (...)
  32. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation, Understanding, and Control.Ryan Smith - 2014 - Synthese 191 (17):4169-4200.
    There is a recent interest within both philosophy of science as well as within epistemology to provide a defensible account of understanding. In the present article I build on insights from previous work in attempt to provide an account of two related forms of understanding in terms of the ability to form rational intentions when using specific types of mental representations. I propose first that “understanding that X” requires that one form a representation of X and, further, that one must (...)
  33. added 2017-04-06
    Explaining Understanding (or Understanding Explanation).Wesley Van Camp - 2014 - European Journal for Philosophy of Science 4 (1):95-114.
    In debates about the nature of scientific explanation, one theme repeatedly arises: that explanation is about providing understanding. However, the concept of understanding has only recently been explored in any depth, and this paper attempts to introduce a useful concept of understanding to that literature and explore it. Understanding is a higher level cognition, the recognition of connections between various pieces of knowledge. This conception can be brought to bear on the conceptual issues that have thus far been unclear in (...)
  34. added 2017-04-06
    Where Explanation Ends: Understanding as the Place the Spade Turns in the Social Sciences.Stephen Turner - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):532-538.
    Explanations implicitly end with something that makes sense, and begin with something that does not make sense. A statistical relationship, for example, a numerical fact, does not make sense; an explanation of this relationship adds something, such as causal information, which does make sense, and provides an endpoint for the sense-making process. Does social science differ from natural science in this respect? One difference is that in the natural sciences, models are what need ‘‘understanding.’’ In the social sciences, matters are (...)
  35. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding and Explanation: Living Apart Together?Henk W. de Regt - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):505-509.
  36. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding, Explanation, and Unification.Victor Gijsbers - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):516-522.
  37. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding.von Wright Georg Henrik - 2013 - Routledge.
    This volume distinguishes between two main traditions in the philosophy of science - the aristotelian, with its stress on explanation in terms of purpose and intentionality, and the galilean, which takes causal explanation as primary. It then traces the complex history of these competing traditions as they are manifested in such movements as positivism, idealism, Marxism and contemporary linguistic analysis. Hempels's theory of scientific explanation, the claims of cybernetics the rise of an analytic philosophy of action and the revival of (...)
  38. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation, Understanding, and Unrealistic Models.Frank Hindriks - 2013 - Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 44 (3):523-531.
  39. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding.von Wright Georg Henrik - 2012 - Routledge.
    This volume distinguishes between two main traditions in the philosophy of science - the aristotelian, with its stress on explanation in terms of purpose and intentionality, and the galilean, which takes causal explanation as primary. It then traces the complex history of these competing traditions as they are manifested in such movements as positivism, idealism, Marxism and contemporary linguistic analysis. Hempels's theory of scientific explanation, the claims of cybernetics the rise of an analytic philosophy of action and the revival of (...)
  40. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding Versus Explanation? How to Think About the Distinction Between the Human and the Natural Sciences.Karsten R. Stueber - 2012 - Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 55 (1):17 - 32.
    Abstract This essay will argue systematically and from a historical perspective that there is something to be said for the traditional claim that the human and natural sciences are distinct epistemic practices. Yet, in light of recent developments in contemporary philosophy of science, one has to be rather careful in utilizing the distinction between understanding and explanation for this purpose. One can only recognize the epistemic distinctiveness of the human sciences by recognizing the epistemic centrality of reenactive empathy for our (...)
  41. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding in the Human Sciences.Gurpreet Mahajan - 2011 - Oxford University Press India.
    The book surveys the major forms of inquiry in the social sciences, including hermeneutic understanding, narrative, reason-action, and causal explanation, to examine how each method changes our perception of social reality. This edition includes a new Preface that discusses the evolution in social sciences since over the last twenty years.
  42. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding Without Explanation.Peter Lipton - 2009 - In H. W. de Regt, S. Leonelli & K. Eigner (eds.), Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives. University of Pittsburgh Press. pp. 43-63.
  43. added 2017-04-06
    Can Explanation and Understanding Be Linked?Margaret Scotford Archer - 2008 - .
    The problem of linking 'explanation' and 'understanding' remains unresolved - as Weber left it. This paper challenges the view that their reconciliation is impossible, as some theorists have maintained. Their case is that the entities involved - subjective meanings and objective relationships - are too ontologically different to be combined. From the stratified ontology of Social Realism, which acknowledges that different properties and powers pertain to different components and levels of social reality, this is no barrier in principle to their (...)
  44. added 2017-04-06
    Explanation and Understanding.von Wright Georg Henrik - 2008 - Routledge.
    This volume distinguishes between two main traditions in the philosophy of science - the aristotelian, with its stress on explanation in terms of purpose and intentionality, and the galilean, which takes causal explanation as primary. It then traces the complex history of these competing traditions as they are manifested in such movements as positivism, idealism, Marxism and contemporary linguistic analysis. Hempels's theory of scientific explanation, the claims of cybernetics the rise of an analytic philosophy of action and the revival of (...)
  45. added 2017-04-06
    Quantum Mechanics' and 'Scientific Explanation 'An Explanatory Strategy Aiming at Providing 'Understanding'.Pandora Hadzidaki - 2008 - Science & Education 17 (1):49-73.
    Empirical studies persistently indicate that the usual explanatory strategies used in quantum mechanics (QM) instruction fail, in general, to yield understanding. In this study we propose an instructional intervention, which (a) incorporates into its subject matter a critical comparison of QM scientific content with the fundamental epistemological and ontological commitments of the prominent philosophical theories of explanation - a weak form of which we meet in QM teaching; (b) illuminates the reasons of their failure; and (c) implements an explanatory strategy (...)
  46. added 2017-04-06
    A Realist Philosophy of Social Science: Explanation and Understanding.Peter T. Manicas - 2006 - Cambridge University Press.
    This introduction to the philosophy of social science provides an original conception of the task and nature of social inquiry. Peter Manicas discusses the role of causality seen in the physical sciences and offers a reassessment of the problem of explanation from a realist perspective. He argues that the fundamental goal of theory in both the natural and social sciences is not, contrary to widespread opinion, prediction and control, or the explanation of events. Instead, theory aims to provide an understanding (...)
  47. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding Through Explanation in Ethics.Torbjörn Tännsjö - 2006 - Theoria 72 (3):213-220.
  48. added 2017-04-06
    Invariance, Explanation, and Understanding.Paul Humphreys - 2006 - Metascience 15 (1):39-66.
  49. added 2017-04-06
    Understanding/Explanation.James Phillips - 2004 - In Jennifer Radden (ed.), The Philosophy of Psychiatry: A Companion. Oxford University Press. pp. 180--190.
  50. added 2017-04-06
    Can Understanding Undermine Explanation? The Confused Experience of Revolution.Charles Kurzman - 2004 - Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34 (3):328-351.
    This article makes six points, using evidence from the Iranian Revolution of 1979: (1) Causal mechanisms, indeed all explanations, imply certain inner states on the part of individuals. (2) The experience of revolution is dominated by confusion. (3) People involved in revolutions act largely in response to their best guesses about how others are going to act. (4) These guesses and responses can shift swiftly and dramatically, in ways that participants and observers cannot predict. (5) Explanation involves retroactive prediction: it (...)
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