About

As human beings we have a natural desire to understand the world and our place within it. In different ways, it is a desire that has fueled the development of science, philosophy, and theology across time.

But what exactly is understanding? What are the different forms it takes, and how do we acquire it?

When it comes to understanding another person, for example, it is necessary to have lived through similar experiences? Or is it enough to be able to predict—perhaps on the basis of well-confirmed theory—how that person will behave?

Or again, in what way do the sciences provide an understanding of the world, and how does that differ from the sort of understanding we acquire from literature, or philosophy, or the study of history? Are there types of understanding that these other pursuits provide that are somehow inaccessible to the sciences?

Background

Despite the obvious importance of these questions for grasping how the mind makes sense of the world, until recently they have not been a focus of scholarly attention.

Among philosophers, one might have expected understanding to be a primary concern of both epistemologists and philosophers of science, but this has not been the case. Thus for the most part epistemologists have been concerned not with what it takes to understand the world but rather with what it takes to acquire knowledge of quite commonplace facts—facts such as "that Jones owns a Ford" or "that the bank will be open on Saturday." This is not particularly surprising, because contemporary epistemology largely developed in response to the sceptical challenges of Descartes and Hume, which seemed to threaten all of our knowledge of the world, even the most basic. But in responding to these challenges "higher" epistemic goods such as understanding were largely lost from view.

In the philosophy of science the connection between explanation and understanding was also lost for many years, as relatively formal definitions of explanation became the focus of attention, with understanding taken to be a "merely" psychological upshot of explanatory inquiry. Although many philosophers of science gradually came to find the separation between explanation and understanding unnatural, it was not clear how to remedy the problem.

The Current Landscape

Fortunately, over the last several years important work has been done on recovering the notion of understanding, especially in epistemology and the philosophy of science, and a parallel emergence has occurred in psychology. For instance, cognitive and developmental psychologists have documented the "mental models" and "intuitive theories" of children and adults for various domains, researchers in cognitive psychology have considered how people understand passages of text and figures, and social psychologists have studied how we understand others and ourselves. More broadly, several proposals have been made about how best to characterize the factors that underlie the concepts and causal beliefs that seem crucial to human understanding, including the processes of learning by which such beliefs inform judgments and behavior.

But despite these avenues of important research, psychologists have yet to properly integrate this work into something like a unified account, or to directly tackle the question, "What is understanding?" And while philosophers have recently begun to examine these issues more closely, a number of big questions have barely been explored at all. For example, and as touched on above: In what ways does the understanding provided by the sciences differ from the understanding provided by other areas (such as philosophy or mathematics or history)? If different types of inquiry provide different forms of understanding, how might they be combined to produce an integrated understanding of the world? Finally, how can recent work on understanding in philosophy and psychology be applied to theology?

In short, despite the recent attention to understanding only tentative progress has been made on clarifying the nature of understanding in the sciences and we are still largely in the dark about the distinctive kinds of understanding provided by other forms of inquiry.

Project Goals

With the support of a 3.56 million dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation, and with additional support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Fordham University, and the University of California-Berkeley, the Varieties of Understanding project brings the combined efforts of some of the world's leading psychologists, philosophers, and theologians to bear on these crucial questions. By sponsoring three Requests for Proposals, two interdisciplinary conferences, and a range of other empirical and theoretical research, the project will produce an outpouring of new work on the study of understanding, including approximately 14 monographs, 1 edited collection, and 48 new articles in philosophy, psychology, and theology.

Timeline

July 1st, 2013: Official Start Date
November 1st, 2013: Letters of Intent due
March 1st, 2014: Invited full proposals due
April 15th, 2014: Full proposal decisions
July 1st–August 1st, 2014: Psychology grants start; Philosophy grants start; Theology grants start; Berkeley research starts
June 2015: Midpoint Conference at Fordham's Lincoln Center Campus in Manhattan; Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology research presented; preliminary Berkeley research presented; all capstone speakers attend; Philosophy and Theology grants end
June 2016: Capstone Conference at Fordham's Lincoln Center Campus in Manhattan; capstone talks; Berkeley final research presented; all RFP winners attend; Psychology grants end
June 30th, 2016: End Date