Humane Understanding Conference

Fordham University, New York City (Lincoln Center Campus)

May 31-June 1, 2019

As work on the nature of understanding has expanded in recent years, there has been increasing interest in the question of what might be distinctive about our understanding of other people, or humane understanding.

Our conference will explore this question, and consider how recent debates might be enriched by insights from areas such as epistemology, the philosophy of science, the philosophy of social science, the hermeneutical tradition, and the “verstehen” tradition in Continental philosophy.



Olivia Bailey (Tulane)

Carlo Davia (Fordham)

Kristin Gjesdal (Temple)

Stephen R. Grimm (Fordham)

Michael Hannon (Nottingham)

Kareem Khalifa (Middlebury)

Antonia Peacocke (NYU/Stanford)

Michael Strevens (NYU)

Karsten Stueber (Holy Cross)

Christiana Werner (Göttingen)

Commentators at Large:

Remy Debes (Memphis)

Alexander Prescott Couch (Oxford)

Some Pictures


Titles and Abstracts:

Olivia Bailey

"Empathy and the Value of Humane Understanding"

Abstract: Empathy is a form of emotionally charged imaginative perspective-taking. It is also the unique source of a particular form of understanding, which I will call humane understanding. Humane understanding consists in the direct apprehension of the intelligibility of others’ emotions. This apprehension is an epistemic good whose ethical significance is multifarious. In this paper, I focus on elaborating the sense in which humane understanding of others is non-instrumentally valuable to its recipients. People have a complex but profound need to be humanely understood. Because we respond to others’ very real need when we pursue this sort of understanding of their emotions, empathy is best understood as itself a way of caring, rather than just a means to promote other caring behavior.

Carlo Davia

“How and Why We Understand History”

Abstract: There is a compelling view that history and natural science both seek to understand structures, and that both consequently come with the same intrinsic epistemic benefits. To understand the structure of an object is, as Stephen Grimm puts it, to grasp how the parts of the object “depend upon and relate to one another.” Newton’s second law, for example, reflected his understanding of the relationship between the mass, acceleration, and force of physical objects. This paper argues that, while the social and natural sciences
may, indeed, both offer explanations of structure, they do so in an essentially different way. The natural sciences work under the assumption that objects of nature can be understood without taking into consideration their relationship to the inquiring subject; indeed, it is a mark of “objective” scientific method that the object of inquiry is considered without regard to, or in abstraction from, the values and perspectives of the inquirers. History, by contrast, understands historical objects by understanding how those objects are significant or meaningful to the historian and her time. Such understanding requires what Hans-Georg Gadamer calls "application" (Anwendung) to the present. This, then, is the essential difference between the natural sciences and social sciences like history: for the latter but not the former, application is an essential part of

Kristin Gjesdal

“Acknowledging the Second Person: Schleiermacher on the Philosophical Problem of the Other”

Abstract: This talk explores the relationship between philosophy of interpretation, on the one hand,  and discussions of the second person, on the other. Taking as its point of departure the philosophical contribution of Friedrich Schleiermacher, it seek to demonstrate the resources of romantic hermeneutics for our thinking about the human sciences and calls for a rehabilitation of this position within contemporary philosophy of interpretation.

Stephen R. Grimm

“Humane Understanding”

Abstract: I defend the idea that "a sense of possibility" is at the heart of all forms of understanding--our understanding of the natural world as well as our understanding of other people.  Understanding the natural world involves grasping how the various items of the world are related, and in particular how various changes would lead (or fail to lead) to other changes.  Understanding the world is thus inextricably linked to our sense of how what is possible or impossible for various items in the world, and how those possibilities might be realized (or not).  Understanding people, by contrast, involves "occupying" their possibility space, and thus appreciating what it possible or not possible for them, and perhaps what is forbidden for them or permissible. I will also indicate how literature and history help us to occupy the possibility space of others, and hence to understand them.

Michael Hannon

"Empathetic Understanding and Deliberative Democracy"

Abstract: Epistemic democracy is standardly characterized in terms of “aiming at truth”. This presupposes a veritistic conception of epistemic value, according to which truth is the fundamental epistemic goal. I will raise two objections to the standard (veritistic) account of epistemic democracy, focusing specifically on deliberative democracy. I then propose a version of deliberative democracy that is grounded in non-veritistic epistemic goals. In particular, I argue that deliberation is valuable because it facilitates empathetic understanding. I claim that empathetic understanding is an epistemic good that doesn’t have truth as its primary goal.

Kareem Khalifa 

"Understanding in the Natural and Social Sciences"

Abstract: To what extent should the social sciences emulate the natural sciences? The former's reliance on understanding (Verstehen, empathy, etc.) is frequently held up as one reason to think that they differ profoundly from the natural sciences. Against this proposal, I will argue as follows: (1) Any differences in social- and natural-scientific understanding are either material (concerning the specific content of what is understood and that which provides understanding) or formal (the general criteria that constitute understanding independently of any particular content). (2) Material differences are not deep. (3) Formal differences do not exist. Hence, (4) social- and natural-scientific understanding have no deep differences. I illustrate these claims using examples from ethnography and physics. Additionally, I show how some prominent positions in the philosophy of social science face new challenges in light of these arguments.

Antonia Peacocke

"What Poetry Teaches—and Philosophy Doesn't"

Abstract: There is something that literature—especially poetry—does that philosophy does not: give you new phenomenal concepts. I first reconcile the claim that literature can expand your phenomenal imagination with the fact that your phenomenal imagination is constrained by the character of your own firsthand experiences. I present a model on which specific poetic devices can help you notice features of your own experiences you hadn't noticed before, and thus allow you to form phenomenal concepts of those features. Philosophy, as a critical enterprise in search of true and illuminating answers to fundamental questions, cannot give you new phenomenal concepts in the same way. This is what poetry teaches and philosophy does not.

Michael Strevens

“Humanistic Understanding”

Abstract: Historians and philosophers of history have traditionally placed a high value on historical explanations’ ability to do what’s variously described as “taking a first-person perspective”, “eliciting empathy”, or “putting yourself in historical actors’ shoes”. I will argue that this constitutes not only a difference in literary or cognitive style, but also a difference in the kind of understanding that historians strive to impart, by contrast with the understanding imparted by social scientists working on historical topics.

Karsten R. Stueber

"Expanding Conceptions of Our Selves: Understanding, Appreciating, and Evaluating Otherness"

Abstract: In the last few years, the concept of understanding has had something of a renaissance within contemporary epistemology and philosophy of science. Fortunately, it has also has also shed its association with what one might call the hermeneutic “closet,” where understanding has always been defined as the unique methodological perspective of the human sciences and defined in strict opposition to the detached and dehumanizing explanatory perspective of the natural sciences. Nevertheless, I do worry that the contemporary discussion could leave behind some of the genuine insights developed by thinkers within this “closet.” They have always maintained that understanding within the human realm possesses an essential practical or ethical dimension, emphasizing that humane understanding needs to be seen as a dynamic, dialogical, self-reflective, critical, and open-ended process.

My talk will show how best to make sense of these insights in analyzing empathy’s unique contribution to human understanding. More specifically I will argue that they are best reconstructed in light of Adam Smith’s analysis of empathy as bringing other people’s sentiment home to ourselves and in terms of Kant’s notion of a sensus communis in his third Critique, which I understand as an appreciative sensitivity to the wide range of possible instantiations of human agency. Only in recognizing a quasi-aesthetic moment in human understanding, or so I will argue, can we indeed properly situate its practical and ethical dimension.

Christiana Werner

“How Does it Feel? Interpersonal Understanding and Phenomenal Understanding”

Abstract: Understanding another person (“interpersonal understanding”) is often taken to be a matter of understanding the other person’s actions, which in turn is usually thought to involve understanding why a person acted the way she did (“explanatory understanding”). I will argue that interpersonal understanding is not exclusively explanatory and that beside actions, mental states are further objects of interpersonal understanding. One specific set of states that play a central role in a person’s psychology particularly support this claim, viz. affective states. What it means to understand such states depends on the fact that affects are essentially conscious. It is primarily in virtue of this fact that there is a specific form of understanding (“phenomenal understanding”) which focuses on what it is like for a person to be in her specific state. In the talk, I will first argue for the epistemic and interpersonal significance of phenomenal knowledge of others’ affects. But I will also discuss objections against the assumed possibility of phenomenal knowledge of other’s affects. I will then present an argument for the claim that phenomenal understanding does not reduce to phenomenal knowledge. Because understanding, unlike knowing, is not factive, phenomenal understanding can ground in phenomenal beliefs which, although false, have a content that is sufficiently close to the truth about the target’s affect.