Rational understanding: toward a probabilistic epistemology of acceptability

Finnur Dellsén*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


To understand something involves some sort of commitment to a set of propositions comprising an account of the understood phenomenon. Some take this commitment to be a species of belief; others, such as Elgin and I, take it to be a kind of cognitive policy. This paper takes a step back from debates about the nature of understanding and asks when this commitment involved in understanding is epistemically appropriate, or ‘acceptable’ in Elgin’s terminology. In particular, appealing to lessons from the lottery and preface paradoxes, it is argued that this type of commitment is sometimes acceptable even when it would be rational to assign arbitrarily low probabilities to the relevant propositions. This strongly suggests that the relevant type of commitment is sometimes acceptable in the absence of epistemic justification for belief, which in turn implies that understanding does not require justification in the traditional sense. The paper goes on to develop a new probabilistic model of acceptability, based on the idea that the maximally informative accounts of the understood phenomenon should be optimally probable. Interestingly, this probabilistic model ends up being similar in important ways to Elgin’s proposal to analyze the acceptability of such commitments in terms of ‘reflective equilibrium’.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2475-2494
Number of pages20
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.

Other keywords

  • Acceptability
  • Catherine Elgin
  • Optimizing versus satisficing
  • Probabilistic epistemology
  • Reflective equilibrium
  • Understanding


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