Jon Cogburn says that:
One could say that given a set of discourse relevant norms held fixed, understanding in general just is the ability to make novel predictions. For Davidson/Dennett, we assume that human systems are largely rational according to belief/desire psychology and then this puts us in a position to make predictions about them. We make different normative assumptions about functional organization of organs, and different ones again about atoms. But once those are in place, understanding is just a matter or being better able to predict.I'm writing this as a post of my own rather than as a comment at NewAPPS partly because I suspect it will be too long for a comment and partly because I don't know what all of this means and don't want to appear snarky or embarrassingly ignorant. I genuinely (non-snarkily) don't know what it means to hold fixed a set of discourse relevant norms, nor what it means to put normative assumptions in place. But what I take Cogburn to be saying is, in effect, that "understanding in general just is the ability to make novel predictions."
Winch says that being able to predict what people are going to do does not mean that we really understand them or their activity. He cites Wittgenstein's wood-sellers, who buy and sell wood according to the area covered without regard to the height of each pile. We can describe their activity and perhaps predict their behavior but we don't, according to Winch, really understand it. He surely has a point. Here's a longish quote (from pp. 114-115 of the linked edition, pp. 107-108 of my copy):
Winch talks elsewhere (see p. 89, e.g.) about what it takes for understanding to count as genuine understanding: reflective understanding of human activity must presuppose the participants' unreflective understanding. So the concepts that belong to the activity must be understood. Without such understanding all we will generate is (p. 88) "a rather puzzling external account of certain motions which certain people have been perceived to go through."Some of Wittgenstein’s procedures in his philosophical elucidations reinforce this point. He is prone to draw our attention to certain features of our own concepts by comparing them with those of an imaginary society, in which our own familiar ways of thinking are subtly distorted. For instance, he asks us to suppose that such a society sold wood in the following way: They ‘piled the timber in heaps of arbitrary, varying height and then sold it at a price proportionate to the area covered by the piles. And what if they even justified this with the words: “Of course, if you buy more timber, you must pay more”?’ (38: Chapter I, p. 142–151.) The important question for us is: in what circumstances could one say that one had understood this sort of behaviour? As I have indicated, Weber often speaks as if the ultimate test were our ability to formulate statistical laws which would enable us to predict with fair accuracy what people would be likely to do in given circumstances. In line with this is his attempt to define a ‘social role’ in terms of the probability (Chance) of actions of a certain sort being performed in given circumstances. But with Wittgenstein’s example we might well be able to make predictions of great accuracy in this way and still not be able to claim any real understanding of what those people were doing. The difference is precisely analogous to that between being able to formulate statistical laws about the likely occurrences of words in a language and being able to understand what was being said by someone who spoke the language. The latter can never be reduced to the former; a man who understands Chinese is not a man who has a firm grasp of the statistical probabilities for the occurrence of the various words in the Chinese language. Indeed, he could have that without knowing that he was dealing with a language at all; and anyway, the knowledge that he was dealing with a language is not itself something that could be formulated statistically. ‘Understanding’, in situations like this, is grasping the point or meaning of what is being done or said. This is a notion far removed from the world of statistics and causal laws: it is closer to the realm of discourse and to the internal relations that link the parts of a realm of discourse.
But does Winch get to say what counts as genuine understanding? This was a point we discussed when I was at the University of Veracruz. Several students there seemed to want less than what Winch would accept as true understanding of human behavior. They did not want to empathize. They wanted to identify patterns, and if they were able to do so well enough to be able to make accurate predictions then they would be very satisfied. A "rather puzzling external account of certain motions" is basically what they were hoping to produce, as long as it allowed them to make accurate predictions.
It looks to me as though Winch would resist or even reject such a desire, but can a desire be mistaken? And I don't know how to settle the apparent disagreement between Winch and others about what is and is not real understanding. Can we just say that as long as you see the facts you may say what you like? Or is that too easy?