Understanding Scientific Understanding

Henk W. De Regt

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 Natural Sciences at the Instititute for Science in Society, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands.