Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy
The central questions I'm concerned with in my dissertation are: What is it to understand a person, and what value or significance does it have in our moral life? Instances of such understanding, misunderstanding, or lamentable lack of attempts at understanding permeate our lives, from our personal relationships (Mom, you just don't understand me!) to impersonal relationships or interactions (I understand the pressure you face to excel academically, but I can't change the grade on your paper), from moral situations faced by individuals (Put yourself in her shoes before you blame her), to social or political problems faced by groups (The country's policy makers need to understand the cultural background of the Islamic radicals and their thinking). Yet despite the importance we attach to understanding of persons in our personal and public life, there has not been a satisfying, unified philosophical account that both explicates what this understanding consists in, and illuminates why it plays the role it does in our life. The Verstehen tradition rightly sees understanding of the person's subjective point of view as distinctive to understanding human behavior, but more needs to be said about its role in our life. Care ethicists recognize a close connection between understanding and caring; attitudes in a caring person, such as attunement, receptivity, and responsiveness, promote understanding. However, they fall short of telling us what understanding is. My dissertation is an inquiry into understanding of persons. It intersects with discussions of empathy and (moral) judgment, since there seem to be close affinities between understanding and empathy on the one hand, but tension between understanding and judging on the other. The first part of my dissertation distinguishes understanding from empathy, drawing on insights from epistemology, hermeneutics, literature and other fields for an analysis of understanding of persons. The second part offers a new way of thinking about a series of topics in moral philosophy having to do with moral judgment, response to wrongdoing, and personal relationships, by highlighting and clarifying the role understanding plays in these aspects of our life.