Understanding and Explanation

Academic Year: 
Course Description: 

What is understanding and what is explanation? How are the two related and how do they relate to knowledge and truth? Do explanation and understanding mark the boundary between natural sciences on the one hand and social sciences and humanities on the other hand? Can there be explanation without understanding (as it has been claimed with respect to contemporary modeling practice in sciences) and can there by understanding without explanation (as it has been claimed with respect to cases where causal inferences of the usual sort are not required)? Can there by understanding that does not require knowledge (if indeed understanding lies deeper than knowledge) and can there be explanation that refers to what is possible rather than what is actually the case? How does explanation and understanding differ from prediction and description? When is understanding and explanation epistemically valuable, i.e., what are the epistemic values that guide us in having understanding and giving explanation? By focusing on these and similar questions, the course will connect history of philosophy, epistemology as well as philosophy of science, also bridging the conventional divide between analytic and continental approaches.

After an introduction, we will discuss classic and contemporary works on the above-mentioned questions in Part I of the course (Wk 1-5). Part II (Wk 6-8) will be dominated by a more explorative course method. Students will get an “Explore your Field” research training, as part of which they learn to find their way in a field, given a specific research question. This includes training on how to organize references, on how to not lose track and stay focused, on how to summarize and select material for a research paper, and on how to adapt your question depending on what material you find. As a result students will have to produce a 1-page literature report and select one reference as the best work they found for making progress regarding their research question. After approval from faculty, the chosen papers will be distributed to everyone and will be the basis for class discussion in Part III of the course (Wk 9-11). Part IV (Wk 12) is devoted the first drafts of the term papers (4000 words without references, which can reuse in revised form parts of the literature report). The drafts will be discussed as part of triadic peer-feedback groups, which trains students in giving and taking critique.

Learning Outcomes: 

Students will 

- understand the core philosophical issues involved regarding the topic; 

- practice their reading skills as well as their analytic and discussion skills;

- get in-depth training in philosophical research, in particular with respect to digital humanities techniques (e.g. database search) 


Grading derives from the following:
• Final paper (4000 words, excluding references): 60% of the grade
• Literature report: 20%
• In class participation: 20%