SOPhiA 2021

Salzburgiense Concilium Omnibus Philosophis Analyticis

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Programme - Talk

Understanding symbolic understanding
(Epistemology, )

In various contributions to the epistemological debate on understanding, Christoph Baumberger has drawn useful distinctions between types of understanding. One of these distinctions concerns the division between what he (2014, p. 70) calls factual understanding and symbolic understanding. The former pertains to the understanding of facts, events, or subject matters, whereas the latter concerns the understanding of symbolic representations such as sentences, explanations, diagrams or theories. While factual understanding has received ample attention from epistemologists, symbolic understanding seems to have been somewhat neglected in the literature thus far. Despite there being a tacit consensus that symbolic understanding requires the exercise of cognitive or behavioural competences pertaining to the usage of symbols, theorists have been reluctant to develop this idea into a full-fledged theory. Arguably, this reluctance is due to the concern that symbolic understanding is too heterogeneous a category to be captured in a unified framework. In my talk, I present a proposal for how we might develop the as of yet rough conception of competent symbol-usage in more detail, without abandoning the aim of theoretical unification. I do so, first of all, by explaining in very general terms what I take symbols to be, and by outlining how I conceive of the notion of usage. Then, I shall draw on work by Ernest Sosa, Thomas Kuhn and Nelson Goodman to argue that one?s use of a symbol is competent just in case one?s success in using it is due to the right kind of learning process. More specifically, that learning process must involve past exposure to so-called exemplars: particulars that make reference to the universals they instantiate. The claim to be defended, then, is that a symbol is used competently if and only if one?s past exposure to exemplars relevant to that symbol explains one?s present success in using it. I close off my presentation by offering some suggestions as to how my proposal may account for the fact that competence comes in degrees. Baumberger, C. (2014). "Types of understanding: Their nature and their relation to knowledge", Conceptus: Zeitschrift für Philosophie, 40:98, pp. 67-88.

Chair: Lena Mudry
Time: 10:00-10:30, 11 September 2021 (Saturday)
Location: HS E.002

Stefan Sleeuw 
(University of Groningen, )

After completing the Philosophy Bachelor programme in Groningen with a thesis on accounts of circular reasoning in argumentation theory, I enrolled in the faculty's Research Master programme, specialising primarily in contemporary analytic philosophy. During the Research Master, I developed an interest in the concept of understanding in epistemology. Having started a PhD project on this topic in 2018, I am currently investigating whether and how we might develop an account of symbolic understanding based on Nelson Goodman's ideas about exemplification and Charles Sanders Peirce's work on signs and symbols

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