Modeling, Knowing, and Knowing Models

Featured Image is an illustration of Ptolemy’s system by Bartolomeu Velho.

What is a model?

The answer used to seem obvious to me. I was of one mind with Wittgenstein:

For we can avoid unfairness or vacuity in our assertions only by presenting the model as what it is, as an object of comparison—as a sort of yardstick; not as a preconception to which reality must correspond. (The dogmatism into which we fall so easily in doing philosophy.)

But to Aristotelians and Platonists, the model appears to belong to reality rather than being some separate thing we construct as a yardstick. And to Heidegger and Gadamer, preconceptions are front and center in establishing the conditions of understanding.

I wandered through conceptual murkiness as I attempted to understand these various lines of thought. When I encountered the Wittgenstein quote above, a particular conception of the model came sharply into focus.

In what follows, I will argue that Wittgenstein is right, but—as he would no doubt have happily conceded—incomplete in his treatment of models. I will integrate it into Heidegger’s notion of the fore-structure of understanding, which makes up our hermeneutic situation. I will try to avoid being overly technical—you can think of the hermeneutic situation as your standpoint, including your prejudices as well as the traditions of thought and practice in which you are embedded, and specifically how those things pre-form your interpretations.

I believe that people relate to models in three ways.

  • It can be present-at-hand
  • It can be ready-to-hand
  • Or it can vanish into the fore-structure of our understanding

All three of these terms are Heidegger’s.

When we first encounter models, they often feel unnatural. As Wimsatt puts it, models by their nature are frequently incomplete, over-simplified, or outright false. Yet Wimsatt, like Wittgenstein, still says that such models are useful. Before they become useful, we have to reorient our relationship to them.

So in Econ 101 we may have to practice answering a bunch of questions about moving along or shifting supply and demand curves, though it’s unnatural to think of the world in those terms.

But eventually thinking in terms of supply and demand curves begins to feel like a second nature. To begin with, when just mechanically following along with what our instructor has told us to do in a particular case, the model was present-at-hand—that is, it seemed meaningless, almost unintelligible. The shift to intelligibility and standing in a meaningful relationship to the model is the process in which it becomes ready-to-hand.

Supply and demand curves, as ready-to-hand tools, are something we naturally reach for to solve some specific problem. Say we’ve noticed that housing prices have spiked in a given area, and can’t think of why it would be. We can call up the supply and demand curve framework and use it to structure our thinking about what we know, or what questions we ought to be asking.

But models are different from other ready-to-hand tools, because they are tools of meaning. Which means they’re capable of disappearing from view entirely, and simply becoming part of our fore-structure of understanding.

If you’re not comfortable with Heidegger’s terminology, you might say that models might simply cease to be an explicit tool and instead become part of our background assumptions. It is precisely this ability of models to disappear into the background that distinguishes them from a mere scientific instrument, such as a calculator or a scale.

I am tempted to say something here about the risks associated with this, or how conversation and mutual criticism put those background assumptions into play again. But I’ve touched on that in many places, and this post is long enough. I’m sure I’ll return to scratch this perpetual itch again, at a later time.

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2 thoughts on “Modeling, Knowing, and Knowing Models

  1. Interesting post, Mr. Gurri. I think when building models it is necessary to distinguish if we are modelling facts or events (in Collingwood’s sense). The first use seems legitimate and has led to the progress of natural sciences, the second not so much, although the examples you provide belong to that category. In Windelband’s terms, the first kind give rise to nomothetic disciplines, the second to idiographic ones…
    If you have the time and inclination, I develop such idea here in a somewhat satirical way (if you come from economics you may find it a bit too controversial):

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