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Understanding and Its Role in Inquiry

In this dissertation, I argue that understanding possesses unique epistemic value. I propose and defend a novel account of understanding that I call the management account of understanding, which is the view that an agent A understands a subject matter S just in case A has the ability to extract the relevant information and exploit it with the relevant cognitive capacities to answer questions in S. Since inquiry is the process of raising and answering questions, I argue that without understanding, it would be impossible to engage in successful inquiry. I argue that understanding is indispensable for effective cognition and that it is irreducible to other epistemic categories, such as knowledge, justification, or rationality. Understanding is an irreducible component of epistemic excellence. In arguing for this account, I focus on the nature and requirements of cognition and pay less attention to intuitions about hypothetical cases, in contrast to previous approaches to understanding. I draw upon psychology and cognitive science, especially work on the frame problem, to demonstrate the importance (and difficulty) of finding relevant information and exploiting it in relevant ways to answer questions. One’s cognitive system must be organized in such a way that one has the ability to think the relevant thoughts in the relevant ways to answer the relevant questions. This reveals well-defined directions in which future research on understanding should move. In addition to proposing and defending the management account of understanding, I explore several features of understanding, including some interesting consequences of the management account. I argue that the management account and commonly used methods of measuring degrees of understanding imply that understanding can be based on false beliefs. I argue that the management account (and any account of understanding that implies understanding is an ability) implies that understanding can be acquired by luck. I also argue that understanding is ontologically prior to explanation: a good explanation is essentially an act that produces understanding in the relevant cognitive background.
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