Explanation, Understanding, and Subjectivity
ABSTRACT: Many theorists of explanation from Hempel onward have worked with the explicit or implicit assumption that considerations of the subjective sense of understanding should be kept out of the formulation of a proper theory of explanation. They claim that genuine understanding of an event comes only from being in an appropriate cognitive relation to the true explanation of that event. I argue that considerations of the subjective sense of understanding cannot be completely removed from the process of formulating and justifying an acceptable theory of explanation. Although understanding is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for an explanation, understanding is necessary as an initial guide to the nature of explanation. The widespread method of providing counterexamples for criticizing theories of explanation presupposes that there is a neutral method of identifying at least some clear cases of explanation and some clear cases of non-explanations. I argue that the only plausible method to fill this role relies essentially on the subjective sense of understanding. Objective validation of judgments about explanatoriness comes only through a complex process of social correction of our initial intuitive judgments regarding explanation.
It is clear that understanding and explanation are related. It is unclear exactly how they are related. We speak both of explaining-why and understanding-why some event occurred. Explanations typically produce understanding in those who consider them, and the sense of increased understanding typically comes from consideration of an explanation. Consideration of an explanation can, however, fail to produce in someone an increased level of understanding of the explanandum. Further, the subjective sense of gaining increased understanding of an event can come from an account that is not the explanation of that event. Hence, we cannot say that anyone's sense of understanding is either necessary or sufficient for an account to be an explanation. However, I shall argue, we cannot completely avoid all reference to understanding in a correct theory of explanation. This situation presents a pressing problem for philosophical studies of the nature of explanation, for many theorists relegate the sense of understanding to a strictly derivative position by claiming that the subjective sense of understanding of an event comes, under appropriate (articulable) conditions, from consideration of a potential explanation, and that genuine understanding comes, under appropriate conditions, from consideration of the true explanation. (See, for example, Hempel 1948, 256-257.) According to such philosophers we should rely on a proper theory of explanation to delineate potential explanations from non-explanatory accounts and a delineation of understanding will follow. I shall argue that this is not a workable option.
One can also express the issue at hand in terms of the...