Understanding Scientific Understanding

ISBN : 9780190652913

Henk De Regt
358 ページ
156 x 235 mm

Winner of the 2019 Lakatos Award

  • A comprehensive account of the author's influential theory of scientific understanding.
  • In-depth historical case studies that shed new light on key episodes in the history of physics.
  • The contextual approach to scientific understanding advances philosophical debates about explanation and understanding by integrating them with insights from the history of science.

It is widely acknowledged that a central aim of science is to achieve understanding of the world around us, and that possessing such understanding is highly important in our present-day society. But what does it mean to achieve this understanding? What precisely is scientific understanding? These are philosophical questions that have not yet received satisfactory answers. While there has been an ongoing debate about the nature of scientific explanation since Carl Hempel advanced his covering-law model in 1948, the related notion of understanding has been largely neglected, because most philosophers regarded understanding as merely a subjective by-product of objective explanations. By contrast, this book puts scientific understanding center stage. It is primarily a philosophical study, but also contains detailed historical case studies of scientific practice. In contrast to most existing studies in this area, it takes into account scientists' views and analyzes their role in scientific debate and development. The aim of Understanding Scientific Understanding is to develop and defend a philosophical theory of scientific understanding that can describe and explain the historical variation of criteria for understanding actually employed by scientists. The theory does justice to the insights of such famous physicists as Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman, while bringing much-needed conceptual rigor to their intuitions. The scope of the proposed account of understanding is the natural sciences: while the detailed case studies derive from physics, examples from other sciences are presented to illustrate its wider validity.



Chapter 1. Introduction: The desire to understand

Chapter 2. Understanding and the aims of science
2.1. The neglect of understanding
2.2. Understanding as an epistemic skill
2.3. Intelligibility, values, and objectivity
2.4. Understanding: a means and an end

Chapter 3. Explanatory understanding: A plurality of models
3.1. From covering law explanation to unificatory understanding
3.2. Causal conceptions of explanatory understanding
3.3. Is causal and unificatory understanding complementary?
3.4. Unifying the plurality of modes of explanation

Chapter 4. A contextual theory of scientific understanding
4.1. Understanding phenomena with intelligible theories
4.2. Criteria for intelligibility
4.3. Conceptual tools for understanding
4.4. The context-dependence of understanding
4.4.1. Contextuality and historical dynamics
4.4.2. Contextuality and the intuitions of philosophers
4.4.3. Contextuality and pragmatics
4.5. Reduction, realism and understanding
4.5.1. Understanding and realism
4.5.2. Understanding and reduction
4.6. Contextualism: risky relativism?

Chapter 5. Metaphysics and intelligibility: Understanding gravitation
5.1. The (un)intelligibility of Newton's theory of universal gravitation
5.2. The seventeenth-century debate on gravitation
5.2.1. Isaac Newton: reluctant revolutionary
5.2.2. Christiaan Huygens: the conscience of corpuscularism
5.3. Actio in distans and intelligibility after Newton
5.4. Metaphysics as a resource for scientific understanding

Chapter 6. Models and mechanisms: Physical understanding in the nineteenth century
6.1. Mechanical modeling in nineteenth-century physics
6.1.1. William Thomson: master modeler
6.1.2. James Clerk Maxwell: advocate of analogies
6.1.3. Ludwig Boltzmann: promoter of pictures
6.2. Molecular models for understanding gas phenomena
6.3. Boltzmann' Bildtheorie: a pragmatic view of understanding
6.4. The uses and limitations of mechanical models

Chapter 7. Visualizability and intelligibility: Insight into the quantum world
7.1. Visualizability and intelligibility in classical physics
7.2. Quantum theory and the waning of Anschaulichkeit
7.3. The new quantum mechanics: a struggle for intelligibility
7.4. Electron spin: the power of visualization
7.5. Visualization in post-war quantum physics
7.6. Visualization as a tool for understanding
Chapter 8. Conclusion: the many faces of understanding



Henk W. de Regt is Professor of Philosophy of Science at the Department of Philosophy, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His main research interest is scientific understanding and explanation. He has published on these topics in journals such as Philosophy of Science, Synthese, and Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. Together with Sabina Leonelli and Kai Eigner, he edited the volume Scientific Understanding: Philosophical Perspectives, which was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2009.

"The picture of scientific understanding that emerges in Understanding Scientific Understanding is well supported and powerful" - Kevin McCain, Science & Education

"[E]xamples are well reconstructed and avoid excessive technicality, ensuring that committed readers without a physics background can understand their significance for the larger philosophical argument - a goal supported by the book's clear and systematic exposition ... the book offers a compelling picture on the strength of careful argumentation. Highly recommended." - J. D. Martin, CHOICE

"This is a superb book on the timely topic of understanding by one of its main commentators and leading scholars over the years. It constitutes a thorough, intricate, detailed and well-argued development of the original and very fertile position of the author on the topic. It would be recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the topic, and it is likely to become one of the key references in this area over the years." - Mauricio Suarez, Complutense University of Madrid

"This book — which creatively synthesizes two decades of his work into an elegant and provocative account of scientific understanding — is a much anticipated and welcome addition to the literature ... De Regt's discussion of the aims of science helps to rekindle an interesting topic in general philosophy of science that has languished for some time. Additionally, de Regt's rereading of the history of physics with intelligibility and understanding at the forefront highlights underappreciated connections between different physicists' approaches to theory construction. Finally, de Regt threads the needle between empiricism, which denigrates the epistemic importance of understanding, and realism, which tethers understanding to accurate representations of nature's workings ... All told, de Regt's book provides a novel and productive framework for interpreting many aspects of scientific practice." - Kareem Khalifa, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews