Why are you talking about understanding man?!

A few days back, a friend of mine asked me that why  these days epistemologists are talking about ‘understanding’ instead of knowledge, justification or something of that sort. Let me try to give a brief response on this from  my limited information. Epistemology is usually defined as “theory of knowledge” and was busy defining “knowledge” and related concepts such as justification. In the recent times, some of the epistemologists felt dissatisfied with epistemology’s obsession with ‘knowledge’. They suggested that epistemology should be redefined in such a way where it is able to deal with epistemic notions which fall short of knowledge. They argues that epistemology should focus on epistemic goods such as ‘understanding’, ‘wisdom’ etc. which may not have anything to do with knowledge (as ‘knowledge’ is construed in epistemology).

One argument of some of these epistemologists to make such a move is the following. They argue that it is not so clear that ‘knowledge’ is the kind of thing we should care for. They argue that we need to clarify our intuition that knowledge distinctly valuable – the “value problem” of knowledge which began with Meno. The ‘value problem’ of knowledge can be (crudely) put as follows.

a) How knowledge is more valuable than true belief?

b) How is knowledge more valuable than all its parts put together?

If I understand it correctly, a) can be understood as follows. Suppose we define knowledge as as ‘justified true belief’. In this case, let us examine that what additional epistemic value knowledge has, other than the epistemic value that true belief has. The epistemic value of justification consists in its ability to help us to arrive at a true belief (truth conduciveness). That is to say that the epistemic value of justification is depended upon the epistemic value of truth. This would mean that knowledge has no additional epistemic value other than hat of truth. If that is the case, it is difficult to see that in what sense knowledge is distinctly valuable. Option b) also can be understood on a similar line I presume (I am not attempting to elaborate on it since I have a lack clarity on this. Please shed some light on it if you have any idea).

Some epistemologyst’s argue that the value problem of knowledge shows that it is not so clear that knowledge is the most epistemically valuable state. These epistemologists are unsatisfied with the post-Gettier developments in epistemology as well. They claim that, attempts to find a fourth condition to dissolve the threat of Gettier has been very unsuccessful. They think that the attempts to find a fourth condition resulted in producing a very complex and “gerrymandered” account of knowledge which is not so intuitive. This makes one very suspicious whether knowledge (construed in this way) is what one (should) value. This line of argument should be a good enough motivation – if not a compelling reason- to look for other epistemically significant notions (such as understanding and wisdom) by leaving the obsession with ‘knowledge’ I guess.

What do you think?

8 comments on “Why are you talking about understanding man?!

  1. My awareness of Epistemology has been increased by your article. I was trying to read upon Empiricism, Idealism and Skepticism out of just pure interest. Nice post. Keep’em coming.

  2. Good to hear that you are reading topics in Philosophy. Thanks Manu

  3. I tend to agree that there has been and undue emphasis on trying to define what knowledge is and is not. I think after some considerable study we get a decent sense of the lay of the land in how knowledge should be defined and the problems that come up that put our intuitions at loggerheads. At that point it becomes pretty arbitrary whether we want to emphasize one set of intuitions over another and then define “Knowledge” one way or another.

    The more interesting question to me is when and how can our beliefs be justified. Especially in light of the possibility that our beliefs lead to or at least influence actions or can be a sort of action themselves. Not that I think believing is an action. But to the extent we can choose our beliefs, what sort of considerations should we take into account when we choose certain beliefs over others? I think this ground has not been explored nearly as much as it should.

    • Thanks for the comment. As you mentioned, the question of ‘justification’ and ‘rationality’ are interesting and significant. I presume that there has been a lot of works on this area. One question. You told that you do not think that believing is not an action. It will be great if you can tell me why do you think that believing is not an action.

      • Thanks for the comment on my blog.

        I do not think believing something is an action because I think a belief is just “a disposition to respond in certain ways when the appropriate issue arises.” I adopted this description given by W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian in their book “The Web of Belief.” I read that description early on and I never really had a reason to abandon it. It seems to intuitively fit with my understanding of belief for both epistemology and theology.

        Here is their description:

        “Let us consider, to begin with. What we are up to when
        we believe. Just what are we doing? Nothing in particular.
        For all the liveliness of fluctuation of beliefs, believing is
        not an activity. It is not like scansion or long division. We
        may scan a verse quickly or slowly. We may perform a
        division quickly or slowly. We may even be quick or slow
        about coming to believe something, and quick or slow
        about giving a belief up. But there is nothing quick or slow
        about the believing itself; it is not a job to get on with. Nor
        is it a fit or mood, like joy or grief or astonishment. It is
        not something that we feel while it lasts. Rather, believ­
        ing is a disposition that can linger latent and unobserved.
        It is a disposition to respond in certain ways when the
        appropriate issue arises. To believe that Hannibal crossed
        the Alps is to be disposed, among other things, to say “Yes”
        when asked. To believe that frozen foods will thaw on the
        table is to be disposed, among other things, to leave such
        foods on the table only when one wants them thawed.
        Inculcating a belief is like charging a battery. The bat­
        tery is thenceforward disposed to give a spark or shock,
        when suitably approached, as long as the charge lasts.
        Similarly the believer is disposed to respond in character­
        istic ways, when suitably approached, as long as the belief
        lasts. The belief, like the charge, may last long or briefly.
        Some beliefs, like the one about Hannibal, we shall proba­
        bly retain while we live. Some, like our belief in the
        dependability of our neighborhood cobbler, we may abandon
        tomorrow in the face of adverse evidence. And some,
        like the belief that a bird chirped within earshot, will
        simply die of unimportance forthwith. The belief that the
        cobbler is dependable gives way tomorrow to a contrary
        belief, while the belief in the bird is just forgotten. A
        disposition has ceased in both cases, though in different

        Now I do think our deciding to believe something might be considered a sort of action – or at least I think some volition is involved. But once we believe something it just sits there as a disposition as opposed to anything we are actively doing. Sort of like we take some action to set a mouse trap but once set, it is not really doing anything but being disposed to snap shut if a mouse takes the bait.

        I talk briefly about what it means to believe in this blog:


      • Thanks for giving me a detailed reply on this. Whether belief is an action or not is an important question for the kind of issues that I am grappling with at the moment. Virtue epistemology, the topic on which I do my research, in general think that belief is an action/performance. I will read your reply and the post in your blog carefully and will get back to you. It might take a while since I am on a vacation at the moment; please bear with me. Thanks once again.

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