Thursday, November 29, 2007

Douglas Walton

Isfahan, November 2007

There is an interesting discussion of understanding in Douglas Walton's work. Walton notices that a number of philosophers of science have stated that scientific explanation is based on some sort of understanding, including Achinstein, Salmon, Friedman, Kitcher, and von Wright. However, Walton reports a lack of clarity among most writers on the subject about just what understanding is.

But how can we understand understanding? According to Schank (1982), to grasp the nature of understanding, we need to think of it as a spectrum. At one end there is the kind of understanding called complete empathy, exemplified in understanding between twins or very old friends. At the other end, the minimal kind of understanding that Schank calls “making sense”, is exemplified by a conjectural and incomplete understanding between two parties. According to the original theory of Schank and Abelson (1977), communicating agents share common knowledge in the form of what are called scripts. Described by Schank, Kass and Riesbeck (1994, p. 77) as “frozen inference chains stored in memory”, scripts represent knowledge people can generally be presumed to have about common situations, and knowledge they have about routine ways of doing things. In the usual example, called the restaurant script (Schank, Kass and Riesbeck, 1994, p. 7), a person can be taken to know when he or she goes to a restaurant that there is a set of routine actions and common expectations about what is or is not done in that setting. According to Schank’s theory, when there is a failure of understanding, it is because there is a gap in a situation that generally makes sense to us, but there is one particular point in which it fails to make sense - an anomaly or inconsistency. Responding to a request for explanation of such an anomaly is best seen as a kind of repair process used to help someone account for the anomaly by using scripts, and perhaps other devices like plan libraries, that impose a framework of what is usually or normally to be expected in a situation in which something is abnormal. (p. 4)
According to this, we should expect a lack of understanding to be felt by people in unfamiliar situations. When dealing with people of other cultures, behavior that fails to conform to expectations based on one's own experience can lead to feelings of a lack of understanding, or to misunderstandings. Misunderstandings arise when false attributions are made because behavior is interpreted to have a meaning that is expressed in one's own culture by this behavior but not in the other's culture. What is intended as simple courtesy or an indication of respect by someone from an Eastern culture may be interpreted by a European as obsequious insincerity.
Douglas Walton is a Canadian academic and author, well known for his many widely published books and papers on argumentation, logical fallacies and informal logic. He is presently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.
The principle of charity can help to avoid misunderstanding. The principle of charity combined with openmindedness can help a person to understand another person from a different culture. Conflict based on false attributions of intentions to others may be avoided by seeking to understand them by utilizing the principle of charity and keeping an open mind. Maybe this can help to give some content to the slogan, "Peace through Understanding."


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