Recap of Catherine Elgin’s Visit

[Our Research Assistants will be writing up profiles of visiting speakers’ visits. First up: Julia profiles Catherine Elgin’s visit. — M&J]

Elgin lecture

Catherine Elgin’s lecture; for more photos from her visit, click here.

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 talk entitled “Making an Example of it” on the idea of exemplification in art and science, demonstrating how our understanding can benefit from fictional representations. Exemplification in this sense highlights certain defining features of a system or object in order to describe, in a more targeted manner, an essential component or process that is taking place. Would making use of exemplifications generate the right degree of understanding when communicating our science to the public? Should we be aiming to produce understanding via examples and representations rather than taking a more straightforward route?

According to Elgin, using examples is extremely beneficial and widely practiced as a method of producing understanding. She began by describing that art exemplifies by exaggerating certain values or characteristics of the subject of its representation. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as a well-known work of literary art, gives us an understanding of the corruption of power and violence by exemplifying those traits in characters throughout the play. Arguing against the notion that science is strictly factual, Elgin advocated that like art, science often advances our understanding through examples and models. Oftentimes, we use representations of systems in science that appropriately exaggerate our area of focus, such as frictionless surfaces. These frictionless systems, as Elgin pointed out, are models that are not true and do not claim to be true. However, by highlighting the basic properties of Newtonian mechanics, students in introductory physics courses are able to develop an understanding of its fundamental properties.

Another example Elgin provided was the fictional aspects of the ideal gas law, PV=nRT. Used commonly throughout science, this idealization of gasses assumes that particles are dimensionless spheres that are not subject to friction or mutual attraction. Similarly, pictorial diagrams and thought experiments in science do not offer us knowledge in that they do not aim to provide us with truths about the science. Elgin believed that instead, the understanding that is gained from these fictions is reminiscent of the aesthetic understanding of art. If we are able to suspend disbelief and accept scientific models as idealizations, as Elgin pointed out, we will advance our understanding of these concepts.

On Friday afternoon, I had the pleasure of driving Elgin back to the Williamsport airport, allowing for a stimulating follow-up conversations regarding her visit. Most notably, was our conversation about different types of understanding. Elgin told me about her recent inquiry about the different derivations of the Pythagorean theorem, bringing into question what method is best. Does the means by which we acquire the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of mathematical and scientific processes contribute to our overall degree of understanding? Or do multiple pathways all leading up to the same end result contribute equally to our interpretations of these processes? These questions, along with many others asked throughout Elgin’s time at Bucknell, remained up in the air after her much appreciated visit to Lewisburg.

Social Epistemology on Tap

goldman-and-whitcombSince we’re now at the beginning of Stage 1, we’re starting both the planning process for events connected with the project and digging into some foundation/refresher readings in social epistemology. In recent decades, philosophers have become increasingly interested in  socially-oriented epistemology. But the focus here has been on the production, distribution, and transmission of knowledge. At the same time, the difference between knowledge and understanding has been very much on the agenda of analytic epistemology. And in this case, it is quite individualistically-oriented. We want to socialize understanding (or “understand-ize” social epistemology?).

But first, we need to get our bearings a bit more in social epistemology. Alvin Goldman and Dennis Whitcomb, eds., Social Epistemology: Essential Readings seems like a good starting point. Thus, over the next two weeks, we’ll be reading and discussing papers in this collection.