Fordham faculty member uses $4.2 million grant to support 'Varieties of Understanding'

The John Templeton Foundation is a philanthropic catalyst for research on human purpose and reality. | File photo

Epistemologist Stephen Grimm secured a $4.2 million grant from the Templeton Foundation — the largest humanities grant in Fordham history — to support “Varieties of Understanding,” a three-year study culminating in a June 22-24 conference at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus in New York City.

Philosophy, psychology, and theology intersect in this new space. Each academic involved in the project produced material exploring the essence of human comprehension.

“This vibrant new field has led to more inquiry, more discussions [and] more debates, all of which are helping to increase our understanding of understanding itself,” Stephen Grimm, a Fordham associate professor of philosophy who was instrumental in achieving the funding, said. “There are some kinds of knowledge that we ‘grasp’ … But … things like literary understanding [are] more receptive and attentive. That’s a different kind of understanding.”

Conference speaker and Fordham philosophy professor Jennifer Gosetti-Ferencei said that some learning is best done passively—by allowing the material to permeate the reader naturally, rather than consciously attempting to parse it. 

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson described the role of language in comprehension, adding that because academia tends toward precise terminology, audiences tend to view jargon with a false sense of accuracy. Language, Robinson said, is “complex and endlessly open to new complications, more like a brilliant companion of humanity than its creation.”

The John Templeton Foundation is a philanthropic catalyst for research on human purpose and reality. Project participants included faculty from the University of California at Berkeley, New York University and Princeton Theological Seminary.

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