Philosophy Understanding
Stephen Grimm, Michael Hannon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 November 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0121


Understanding is a kind of cognitive accomplishment, and the objects of understanding—from people, to languages, to scientific theories, to logical proofs—are strikingly varied. As this variety suggests, debates about the nature and value of understanding occur across philosophy. In the philosophy of science, understanding is typically taken to be one of the main goods at which scientific inquiry aims; it is therefore intimately related to issues concerning scientific explanation and to debates about what it is that makes scientific inquiry distinctive. In epistemology, the interest lies in characterizing what kind of cognitive accomplishment understanding is, exactly, and how (if at all) it differs from other cognitive accomplishments such as knowledge and wisdom. In the philosophy of language, a central concern is characterizing what is involved in understanding (or grasping) linguistic items like words, sentences, or languages as a whole; similar questions about what is involved in our understanding or grasp of concepts are crucial to the philosophy of mind. Debates in additional areas will be discussed below, but one overarching question is whether the sort of understanding we have of scientific theories, languages, people, and the like are similar in name alone or whether they share certain essential traits. For example, one common thought is that across all of these areas understanding involves the discernment of structure of some kind. It is also commonly thought that to achieve understanding this structure must not be discerned in just any old way, but that it must be “seen” or “grasped.” Just how to understand the metaphors of “seeing” and “grasping” has been a central issue in work on understanding across disciplines.

General Overviews

Even though understanding plays a central role across philosophy, explicit theorizing about understanding has—until fairly recently—been relatively rare. One therefore does not find full-length anthologies or classroom texts on the nature of understanding in the same way that one finds anthologies and texts on the nature of knowledge. That said, two general introductions to epistemology written by leading scholars in the field, Zagzebski 2009 and Pritchard 2009, offer extended discussions of understanding and its relationship to other cognitive accomplishments. A high-quality collection of original articles on understanding in the philosophy of science, with a helpful overview of the main issues in the field by the volume’s editors, can be found in de Regt, et al. 2009. A similar nice collection that features work on understanding in the philosophy of language is Barber 2003. One significant exception to the general lack of reflection on understanding can be found in the philosophy of the social sciences, where work on the nature of understanding (in German, verstehen), and its distinctive role in the study of human action, has been of central interest at least since the time of Dilthey and Weber. Two good collections that feature this work are Dallmayr and McCarthy 1977 and Kögler and Stuber 2000. Grimm 2010 offers a general overview of the nature of understanding, especially as it features in epistemology and the philosophy of science. The blog Certain Doubts, administered by Jonathan Kvanvig, regularly features discussion of both the nature and value of understanding. It is an excellent resource, and one of the most important scholarly blogs in philosophy.

  • Barber, Alex, ed. Epistemology of Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    A collection of original articles by leading figures in the philosophy of language, with a special focus on what is involved, from an epistemic point of view, in our understanding of language. The editor’s introduction provides a helpful overview of the current debate and central questions.

  • Dallmayr, Fred R., and Thomas A. McCarthy, eds. Understanding and Social Inquiry. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.

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    A collection of classic articles by both advocates and critics of the verstehen tradition in European philosophy. The editors’ introduction to the volume, “The Crisis of Understanding,” summarizes the history of this tradition and its contemporary relevance.

  • de Regt, Henk W., Sabina Leonelli, and Kai Eigner, eds. Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

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    In addition to state-of-the-art essays by leading figures such as Peter Lipton, Hasok Chang, and Margaret Morrison, see the editors’ introduction for a good overview of various views about the nature of scientific understanding.

  • Grimm, Stephen. “Understanding.” The Routledge Companion to Epistemology. Edited by Sven Berneker and Duncan Pritchard. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    Surveys the recent literature on understanding, especially in epistemology and the philosophy of science, and suggests that the most fruitful way to approach the nature of understanding is by dividing it into three issues: concerning its object, its psychology, and its normative status.

  • Kögler, Hans Herbert, and Karsten R. Stueber, eds. Empathy and Agency: The Problem of Understanding in the Human Science. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2000.

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    A collection of original articles by leading scholars on the verstehen tradition in European philosophy and its relevance to contemporary debates, with a helpful introduction by Kögler and Stueber.

  • Kvanvig, Jonathan. Certain Doubts.

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    A scholarly blog focused on epistemology that regularly features discussion of understanding.

  • Pritchard, Duncan. “The Value of Knowledge.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. 2007.

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    See especially Section 5 of this entry for Pritchard’s informative discussion of some of the main contemporary questions about understanding, including the value of understanding vis-à-vis the value of knowledge and whether understanding should be counted as a kind of knowledge.

  • Pritchard, Duncan. Knowledge. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

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    See especially chapter 8 for an extended discussion of understanding and its status as a cognitive accomplishment. A good, clear introduction to the question, and one that develops Pritchard’s own important stance.

  • Zagzebski, Linda. On Epistemology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009.

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    See especially chapter 6 of this textbook for a good introduction to debates about both the nature and value of understanding. Zagzebski’s discussion of understanding’s varying prominence in the history of philosophy is also distinctive.

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