Varieties of Understanding

By Julia Munemo

Varieties Of UnderstandingOur smartphones are always within reach. Any question we have can be Googled in seconds from almost anywhere—the car, the kitchen, the classroom. We have access to more information than ever before, and that access is only becoming more immediate as devices become smaller. But what do we do with all this knowledge, and does it help—or hinder—our understanding of the world?

Stephen Grimm ’93, associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University in New York City, intends to find out. With $3.85 million in grants, he’s undertaking a wide-ranging, three-year project to examine human understanding—including the various ways human beings understand the world, how these types of understanding might be improved, and how they might be combined to produce a more sophisticated, integrated sense of understanding.

Grimm’s project, “Varieties of Understanding,” combines philosophy, psychology and theology. With his collaborators—University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Tania Lombrozo, New York University philosopher Michael Strevens and Princeton Theological Seminary theologian Gordon Graham—he’ll distribute nearly $2 million in funding to other researchers and convene two conferences on the Fordham campus—one halfway through the project and one at the end—to showcase the results of the research.

Funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and additional support from the Henry Luce Foundation, Fordham and UC-Berkeley, “Varieties of Understanding” is a natural extension of the work Grimm has been doing for years. He’s an epistemologist who, like others in his field, has long asked questions about what makes our beliefs rational or irrational, justified or unjustified, well-supported or not. “In focusing on whether we can know humdrum things, such as that we have two hands, epistemologists have lost sight of more prized intellectual goods, such as understanding,” he says.

Grimm hopes the research will ask and answer a wide range of questions, including how understanding differs from knowledge.  “I speak about understanding involving ‘seeing’ or ‘grasping’ connections among a range of facts, but what exactly does that amount to?” he asks. “How does it differ from the more straightforward attitude of just believing something, without ‘seeing’ how that thing is connected with others?”

He also hopes to gain insight into how understanding differs between students of science and those of literature, history or philosophy. “For example, the methods of science seem so different from the methods of philosophy that it’s natural to think they each help us to understand the world in distinct ways,” he says. “But how is that possible, exactly?”

Grimm’s interest in the study of understanding was sparked during an epistemology course he took at Williams his sophomore year. Speaking of his own “Mark Hopkins and the log” experience and how it relates to this project, Grimm says there is another goal he hopes to reach: “I would like to figure out which educational strategies are the most conducive to understanding, because I think that is the fundamental goal of education, rather than merely gaining knowledge.”

Visit www.varietiesofunderstanding.com for more information about Grimm’s project.