Recap of Stephen Grimm’s Visit

Stephen Grimm, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University and Project Leader for the Varieties of Understanding Project (the main funder of the PoPUS Project), paid a visit to Bucknell earlier this month. His first stop was Professor Leddington’s Theory of Knowledge seminar on Monday evening. Our discussion focused on the nature of understanding and putting Grimm’s views in context with other philosophers. Grimm participated in the discussion and was very helpful in thinking and talking through examples to further our understanding of understanding. The members of the discussion were enthusiastic and engaged.

Stephen Grimm visiting Professor Leddington's Epistemology class

Stephen Grimm visiting Professor Leddington’s Epistemology class

The next day, Professor Grimm gave a public talk about how understanding people is different from understanding the natural world. There are two main views about this. One, the naturalistic approach, holds that understanding people is basically the same as understanding the natural world. The other is that we need a fundamentally different approach to understanding people—something like empathy—because human actions are fundamentally different from the behavior of a nonhuman. Grimm’s view falls somewhere between these extremes.

Stephen Grimm

For more photos from the visit, click here.

Grimm says that when we try to understand why someone performed an action purely naturalistically, there is a variety of understanding missing. Here’s his example: Your neighbor goes running only on certain days of the month. You have no idea why he runs on certain days and why he doesn’t on others. When asked, your neighbor tells you that he goes running only when there is a gibbous moon. When you get this information, you now have a better understanding of why he goes running only on certain days—a naturalistic understanding that stems from understanding the regularity. However, you might still have questions. For example, why would the gibbous moon be better for running than other moons? You still lack some type of understanding. You can’t really wrap your head around why your neighbor does what he does.

According to Grimm, while much of our understanding of people is structured like the understanding of the natural world, based on mechanisms and structures, the difference is that we also have to be able to make sense of their actions as desirable or choice-worthy in order to fully understand them. This is what he calls “understanding-as-taking-to-be-good,” and it is to be distinguished from empathy. Empathy involves putting yourself in the shoes of another person; however, understanding-as-taking-to-be-good involves no more than recognizing a certain end as desirable.

Grimm concluded his talk by discussing the relationship between understanding, morality, and our need to make sense of our own agency. He provided some well-known quotes insisting on the moral importance of understanding—for instance:

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

“If you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and almost always leads to love.” – John Steinbeck

Grimm’s hypothesis is that thinking of understanding in terms of taking-to-be-good rather than as grasping of structure promises to help us make sense of these sorts of connections between understanding and morality. Moreover, he thinks that if we try to think of our own actions merely naturalistically, then we will fail to understand ourselves as agents.

The Production of the Public Understanding of Science Research Team is thrilled to have had the opportunity and privilege to meet Professor Grimm. We all learned a lot!

Upcoming Talk: “How Understanding Human Beings Differs from Understanding the Natural World”

Stephen Grimm

Stephen Grimm, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University Tuesday, Nov. 4, 4:30pm  » Willard Smith Library, Vaughan Literature Building Abstract: When we try to understand the natural world, we often appeal to things like causes or mechanisms or laws. But what happens when we try to understand other people? Do we need to appeal to something […]

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Recap of Catherine Elgin’s Visit

Elgin Visit 1

[Our Research Assistants will be writing up profiles of visiting speakers' visits. First up: Julia profiles Catherine Elgin's visit. — M&J] On October 2nd and 3rd, philosopher and Harvard professor of education, Catherine Elgin came to speak about understanding and knowledge, explaining their relation to science and art. On her first afternoon, she held a public […]

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Research Team Formed

PoPUS Research Team for 2014–15

We were extremely lucky to have assembled a team of seven undergraduate researchers for our project, including three first-year Presidential Fellows, three talented sophomores, and one experienced senior. They are helping us with organization aspects of the project as well as pursuing basic research concerning focused aspects of our three major case studies. Look forward to much more from them in […]

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Fall Semester Colloquia Update

We’re planning three exciting colloquia in the fall semester. First, Catherine Elgin (Harvard) will speak on Thursday, Oct. 2. The title of her talk is “Making an Example of It” in Academic West 108. Here’s her abstract: I will argue that thinking with things often involves taking them to exemplify some of their features. Rather […]

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“Defanging Denialism” — Pacific APA update

We’ve drafted a paper entitled “Defanging Denialism by Seeing for Yourself” that captures some of our recent thinking on public understanding of science. It’s been submitted for consideration for a symposium at the 2015 APA. Here it is! Defanging Denialism Comments very welcome.

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Understanding the Fine Print

An interesting NPR story came on the other day about two researchers at Dartmouth trying to get more easily-digestible drug facts on pharmaceutical company’s packaging. Aside from their main message about the public’s ability to understand quantitative, statistical information about drug effectiveness, one thing that stood out for me was how they communicated a simple […]

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In the news…

Bucknell has posted a news item announcing and describing our project. Thanks to Matt Hughes for a fun interview and for his great work on the write-up!

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PSA 2014

In addition to organizing a series of talks on understanding for the fall semester, we’re planning to travel to the 2014 meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, to be held November 6-8 in Chicago. Matthew will be giving a paper, and Jason will be soaking in the phil sci vibe, as this will be his first PSA. […]

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2015 Pacific APA

We’re happy to announce that our first grant-supported product will be a submission for the 2015 meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association, to be held from April 1-5 in Vancouver, BC. The paper is currently in progress and will focus on some of our reasons for thinking that public understanding of science is preferable to mere public […]

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