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Understanding Understanding


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialization History and Philosophy of the Science

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialization Philosophy of Natural Sciences, or Philosophy of Psychology.


For most of the twentieth century, philosophers in the analytic tradition had little interest in the notion of understanding. Epistemologist preferred to focus on knowledge, while philosophers of science discussed the topic of explanation but not that of understanding. Understanding was supposed to be nothing but a subjective feeling and not a fit subject for philosophical analysis.

This attitude is changing. Over the last two decades, both epistemologists and philosophers of science have started to take understanding seriously – as of course they should, since understanding the world and our place in it is among our most important cognitive goals. And it turns out that we don’t understand this goal very well. What is it that has to be added to knowledge to turn it into understanding? Is knowledge even necessary for understanding? And what about truth? Can false scientific theories give us understanding? And what if we know that they are false? Is explanation the only source of understanding? Is there a relation between the different things we call understanding – understanding a phenomenon, understanding a sentence, understanding a theory, understanding why something is the case – and if so, what is that relation? What is the value of understanding; that is, why do we care about it so much? What is the link between the ability to do something with an object and our understanding of that object?

The aim of this course is twofold. First, we want to gain a thorough understanding of the current debates about understanding. Since the field is still young, we will be able get a good grasp of the major ideas, problems and positions relatively quickly. Second, we want to experience the process of philosophical research and of writing a paper for an academic journal. From early on in the course, we will focus on finding and commenting on literature, formulating and defending philosophical question and positions, writing short articles, discussing those in class, and peer review. Writing of the final essay – in the form of an academic paper – will receive a lot of attention in class and online; and the teacher will participate with an attempted article of his own. Depending on student numbers and practical details, we will try to end the course with a small research symposium where we present our best ideas.

Course objectives

This course aims to teach the students about the philosophy of understanding in recent analytic philosophy in a research-intensive way, with much emphasis on collecting literature, formulating philosophical problems and writing and presenting academic philosophical articles.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of :

  • the epistemology of understanding, and its relations to belief, knowledge and truth;

  • the role of understanding in science, and its relation to explanation, unification, models; approximations, false theories, and so on;

  • the relationship between epistemology and philosophy of science;

  • the process of academic research and publication in philosophy.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • formulate and defend serious philosophical theses about understanding in a way that approaches the writing of a serious academic article;

  • actively participate in a research seminar, where cutting edge research and one’s own new ideas are presented and discussed.


The timetable is available on the MA Philosophy website
MA Philosophy 60 EC, or MA Philosophy 120 EC

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Online (Blackboard or other tools)

Class attendance and online participation are required.

Course Load

Total course load: 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours

  • Attending seminars (3 hours x 13 weeks): 39 hours

  • Weekly literature and assignments (including presentation) (10 hours x 13 weeks):130 hours

  • Writing final paper (including research / reading additional literature): 111 hours

Assessment method

  • Small mid-term paper (30%)

  • Presentation (20%)

  • Final paper (50%)


The final mark for the course is established by determination of the weighted average of several subtests (midterm, final test etc, as indicated above). A subtest can be graded as unsatisfactory.

Class and online participation is a mandatory requirement for taking the tests.


One resit will be offered, consisting of the final paper. No separate resits will be offered for mid-term tests paper or presentation. The resit covers the entire course content and the mark will replace all previously earned marks for subtests.

Class and online participation is a mandatory requirement for taking the resit.
Students who have obtained a satisfactory grade for the first examination(s) cannot take the resit.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • announcements

  • distribution of some texts

  • online discussion board

Reading list

Texts will be announced and/or distributed during the course.


Enrolment for courses and exams through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetables for and exams in the column under the heading “uSis-Actnbr”.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. V.A. Gijsbers


Not applicable.