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.
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.
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!