CASIP International Lectures #4

Understanding Scientific Understanding


It is widely acknowledged that a central aim of science is to achieve understanding of the world around us, and that possessing such understanding is highly important in our present-day society. But what does it mean to achieve this understanding? What precisely is scientific understanding? These are philosophical questions that have not yet received satisfactory answers. While there has been an ongoing debate about the nature of scientific explanation since Carl Hempel advanced his covering-law model in 1948, the related notion of understanding has been largely neglected, because most philosophers regarded understanding as merely a subjective by-product of objective explanations. By contrast, his book Understanding Scientific Understanding puts scientific understanding center stage. It is primarily a philosophical study, but also contains detailed historical case studies of scientific practice. In contrast to most existing studies in this area, it takes into account scientists' views and analyzes their role in scientific debate and development. The aim of Understanding Scientific Understanding is to develop and defend a philosophical theory of scientific understanding that can describe and explain the historical variation of criteria for understanding actually employed by scientists. The theory does justice to the insights of such famous physicists as Werner Heisenberg and Richard Feynman, while bringing much-needed conceptual rigor to their intuitions. The scope of the proposed account of understanding is the natural sciences: while the detailed case studies derive from physics, examples from other sciences are presented to illustrate its wider validity.

Speaker: Henk W. de Regt (Radboud University)

Chair: Yanjing Wang (Peking University)


Wei Wang (Tsinghua University)

Liqian Zhou (Shanghai Jiao Tong University)

Lu Teng (NYU Shanghai)

Tung-Ying Wu (CASIP)

Time: Friday, 5th November 2021 4:30PM—6:30PM(UTC+8)

Online Platform: Zoom

Meeting ID: 489 550 5875

Zoom Address:

Language: English

Organizer: Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CASIP)


Since the turn of the millennium a lively debate on scientific understanding has emerged in the philosophy of science. In my talk, I will sketch this development and review the most important current views on scientific understanding. Next, I will outline my own contextual theory of scientific understanding, and illustrate it with a case study from the history of physics. Finally, I will address an issue that is central in the current philosophical debate, namely the relation between understanding and knowledge, and the question of whether truth is a necessary condition for understanding.


Hendrik Willem De Regt is a Full Professor of Philosophy of Natural Sciences at the  Institute of Science in Society, Faculty of Science, Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands. His areas of specialization are general philosophy of science, foundations of physics, and history of modern physics. His research centers around the theme of 'understanding': he has investigated the nature of scientific understanding, as it is produced by expert scientists, via philosophical analysis and historical case studies. This has led to the development of a contextual theory of scientific understanding that acknowledges the historical and disciplinary variation in criteria for understanding. His work on scientific understanding has culminated in the monograph 'Understanding Scientific Understanding' (Oxford University Press, 2017), which received the Lakatos Award in 2019. In his future research, he wants to extend the analysis of understanding to questions regarding the interaction between science and society, such as public understanding of science, the nature of expertise, and inter- and transdisciplinary communication and understanding.