Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Georgi J. Gardiner

Committee Members

Jon F. Garthoff, Eldon J. Coffman, Jeff T. Larsen, Elisabeth M. Camp


We commonly say that an explanation for something we do not quite understand ‘resonates’. And we seem to take the resonance of the explanation to count epistemically in its favor. What is resonance and what is its epistemic value? I propose that resonance is a psychological state in which a consciously considered explanation coheres with the unconscious representational content in the mind of an individual, and that this psychological state is metacognitively signaled by a feeling which we also call ‘resonance’. This account of resonance implies that theoretical understanding, rather than knowledge, is the epistemic domain of its functioning. That is, when an explanation resonates, the usual case is that a consciously considered explanatory framework coheres with a rich, unconscious representational nexus associated with the object purportedly explained.

I pursue the question of the value of resonance by developing the features of theoretical understanding. Theoretical understanding of an object, I take it, is when an individual grasps an accurate explanatory framework for that object. Hence, understanding is normed by both accuracy and grasping. Accuracy, however, is secured through warrant. Resonance, I argue, can increase one’s warrant, but not very much. Grasping, on the other hand, is a stop-and-go process of integrating explanations and representational content in long-term memory. Resonance, I argue, improves grasping by ensuring coherence and motivating persistence. Further, resonance seems to be practically necessary to theoretical understanding, insofar as understanding aims toward an aspirational mastery. Resonance enables us to invest cognitive resources in explanatory frameworks we do not yet understand and it prevents us from becoming rigidly attached to a familiar but failing explanatory framework.

I conclude by addressing three worries about the epistemic value of resonance: (1) that the feeling of resonance cannot be distinguished from similar, non-epistemic feelings, (2) that the pleasantness of this feeling conflicts with the accuracy norm for understanding, and (3) that an explanatory framework might resonate with false unconscious beliefs, thus inhibiting accuracy in one’s understanding. Of these, the last is the most worrisome and suggests that attuning to resonance is only one part of a virtuous epistemic life.

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