Understanding and propositional knowledge

     Linda Zagzebski (Zagzebski, Linda 2001) argues that understanding is not a necessary condition for propositional knowledge. I attempt to examine this claim and disagree with Zagzebski’s argument.


     According to Zagzebski, understanding is a state of comprehension of non-propositional structures of reality. According to her, understanding involves ‘seeing’ how the parts of a body of knowledge fit together. Understanding attempts for comprehensiveness rather than exactness.

Knowledge and Understanding

     Zagzebski argues that one can have (propositional) knowledge (for example, of a phenomenon) without having an understanding (of that phenomenon). An example which she provides in support of this claim is as follows. When John came back from the office, he found that his house is burned down. John asked to an expert who examined his home that, why did the fire occur. The expert told to John that the fire occurred because of faulty wiring. In this case, Zagzebski points out, John has the knowledge that ‘fire occurred because of faulty wiring’. One can argue that John has knowledge because;

  1. John has the belief that ‘fire occurred because of faulty wiring’.

  2. John’s belief is justified (because he heard it from an expert who is reliable in this matter).

  3. John’s belief is true because in fact it is the case that the fire occurred due to faulty wiring.

     Zagzebski argues that, though John has the knowledge that ‘fire occurred due to faulty wiring’, he may not have the understanding of the occurrence of fire. He does not understand the occurrence of fire since he is not able to see the relationship between various factors that are involved in the occurrence of fire. Thus Zagzebski conclude that one can have knowledge (of a phenomenon/process for example) without having an understanding (of the phenomenon/process).

Examining the relation between Understanding and Propositional knowledge

     Let us consider the above discussed example. In the example, as we have already seen, Zagzebski holds that John knows that ‘fire occurred because of faulty wiring’ but he does not understand the occurrence of fire. My contention is that, some degree of understanding is presupposed John’s believing the proposition that fire occurred because of faulty wiring. In order for John to know the proposition in question, he has to believe it. In order to believe a proposition, John has to cognise it. To cognise and then to believe the proposition, John has to recognize a causal relation between the faulty wiring and the occurrence of fire. To put it in another way, without grasping the relationship between faulty wiring and its causing fire, John cannot believe the proposition that ‘fire occurred because of faulty wiring’. John have figured out this relationship from the words of the expert and not from his own training in the field of electricity and so on , but still it is one way of figuring out the relationship between faulty wiring and the occurrence of fire. To recognize the relationship between two parts(faulty wiring is one part and the occurrence of fire is another part in the process of faulty wiring causing fire) is to recognise a pattern, at least partly. To recognize a pattern of a phenomenon/process is to ‘see’ the relationship between the parts; i.e. to ‘see’ how the parts fit together; which is what Zagzebski calls as understanding. Therefore, when John believes the proposition that ‘fire occurred because of faulty wiring’ he has some degree of understanding of the occurrence of fire. The understanding may be considered as having only a low degree since John does not see the relationship between all the factors that are involved in the occurrence of fire due to faulty wiring. If this line of thinking is correct, it follows that a minimal degree of understanding is a prerequisite for propositional knowledge. One might argue, therefore Zagzebski’s claim that one can have (propositional) knowledge without having an understanding is problematic.

     It might be argued that the understanding that is presupposed in propositional knowledge is not necessarily be seen as a minimal/partial one. To make this point clear let us consider the example we discussed above. John does not know all the details of the faulty wiring causing fire. However John recognise that faulty wiring can lead to fire and that is what happened to his home. Here, one can say that John has sufficient understanding which he requires. It is a sufficient understanding because John was asking an ordinary question in a day today conversation. John was not seeking a scientific explanation. John does not have an understanding of the phenomenon/process in question if John is a scientist who is trying to understand the phenomenon/process. Therefore, it is unfair to say that to have an understanding of the occurrence of fire he should understand all the minute details that are involved in that process. Thus apart from construing understanding in terms of degrees it is to be construed in terms of contexts as well.

     One might say, by falling back on Plato’s notion of understanding, as Zagzebski hints at several places, that to understand is not merely to ‘see’ the relationship between various parts and seeing how they fit together. According to Plato, as Zagzebski characterize it, understanding is to be gained through some non-cognitive practices. The one who understand not merely see the relationship between the parts, but is also able to solve problems. I tend to think that it is a too stringent demand for the use of the term ‘understanding’. One can meaningfully say that ‘I understand how seasons change’ even thought (s)he is unable to do any manipulation to the change of season. It seems to be fair to say that one understands how seasons change even though one does not know all the relevant factors that are involved. Contextual elements too have to be taken in to account in deciding the truth value of the utterance of ‘I understand how the seasons change’. We will grant the understanding to a child who does not know many details of the seasonal change. But we will not grant understanding to a scientist, who is researching on seasonal change, with the same degree of understanding as that of the child. So to use the term ‘understanding’ as Plato use it is to use it in a very problematic manner.


Zagzebski, Linda (2001) “Recovering Understanding”,. Knowledge, Truth, and Duty: Essays on Epistemic Justification, Responsibility, and Virtue. (Ed). Matthias Steup. New York: Oxford University Press,. pp.235–251.

4 comments on “Understanding and propositional knowledge

  1. its seems to me a problem of internalism externalism…………i ll discuss with u later.

  2. Good contention and it seems that you have driven your point safely in to home.
    “In order to believe a proposition, John has to cognise it”.
    Is it right to say “that one has to cognise a belief”. I am not sure.

    • @Shinod: I admit that my claim which you pointed out needs argument. My intuition for making the claim under discussion is as follows. In order to believe that ”X is Y’ (for example, the chair in Shinod’s room is brown) one has to have a grasp of some concepts and its relation to each other. It seems to me that this grasp is a prerequisite for believing. when one believes that the chair in Shino’d room is brown, (s)he has to have a notion of chair, brown, room, the notion of something being in something else etc and a grasp how the things these notions represent relates to one
      another. It seems to me that the “grasp” that I am talking about can be called as ‘cognition’. Still I admit that some confusion is hovering around this claim and it requires clarification and arguments. Thanks for the remark

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