A Contextual Approach to Scientific Understanding

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De Regt, Henk; Dieks, Dennis
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Achieving understanding of nature is a central aim of science. In this paper we offer an analysis of the nature of scientific understanding, which accords with actual scientific practice and accommodates the historical diversity of conceptions of understanding. Its core idea is a general criterion for the intelligibility of scientific theories, that is essentially contextual: which theories conform to this criterion depends on contextual factors, and can change in the course of time. As a preparation for our analysis we criticise standard views of scientific understanding, in particular causal-mechanical and unificationist conceptions.