Recap of Gary Hardcastle’s Talk

Gary Hardcastle

Gary Hardcastle, Associate Professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University, came to Bucknell University on November 20th to give a talk entitled “(Really) Recovering Understanding: James B. Conant’s Theory of Understanding and its Contemporary Relevance.”

James Bryant Conant

Professor Hardcastle’s talk focused on Conant’s theory of understanding, as well as the social, political, and pedagogical projects he associated with it. At the center of these projects is On Understanding Science: An Historical Approach, published in 1947 and based on his 1946 Terry Lectures. At this point, Conant (1893–1978) had been President of Harvard University for ten years; he had served as the Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee during WWII, overseeing the Manhattan Project; he had, with Vannevar Bush, laid the foundation for what would be America’s National Science Foundation; and he had brought into being a model of post-war university education, a vision distilled in 1945’s General Education in a Free Society, aka the Harvard “Red Book.” These achievements brought Conant to regard public understanding of how science works as vitally important to human survival, spurring him to articulate a theory of the understanding of science and its transmission, a project he would continue for the rest of his life. Though Conant’s thinking about understanding was acutely tuned to WWII and the ensuing Cold War, Professor Hardcastle argued that his questions are just those that have motivated a resurgence of interest in understanding in the (heretofore somewhat insulated) fields of epistemology and philosophy of science: “Why,” Conant asks, “should any but a relatively few experts need to understand science,” and what, for that matter, does it mean, to “understand science?”

The most notable feature of Conant’s view, as Professor Hardcastle presented it, is that general science education should focus primarily on helping students understand the history of science rather than transmitting contemporary scientific knowledge. By examining case studies from the past, students learn about what it’s like to be a scientist. In this way, we can learn how scientists think and so how science makes progress—which, according to Conant, is not just by  collecting more data, but by developing new concepts. For the student, the result is not a gloss on current knowledge; it is a respect for—and understanding of—how science works. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to claim that contemporary science education falls seriously short in this respect, and that we could learn a good deal from Conant’s vision. Thank you, Professor Hardcastle, for bringing it to our attention!

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!