Daniel Dennett

Daniel Clement Dennett (born March 28 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts) is a prominent American philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is also a noted atheist and advocate of the Brights movement.


Dennett spent part of his childhood in Beirut, where, during World War II, his father was a covert counter-intelligence agent with the Office of Strategic Services posing as a cultural attaché to the American Embassy in Beirut. The young Dennett and family returned to Massachusetts in 1947 after his father died in an unexplained plane crash.

He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, where he was a student of W.V. Quine. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. in philosophy from Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under the ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Dennett is currently (May 2007) the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, University Professor, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies (with Ray Jackendoff) at Tufts University.

Dennett describes himself as "an autodidact — or, more properly, the beneficiary of hundreds of hours of informal tutorials on all the fields that interest me, from some of the world's leading scientists."

Dennett gave the John Locke lectures at the University of Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. In 2001 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize and gave the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He was the co-founder (1985) and co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts University, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. He is also an avid sailor.

In October 2006, Dennett was hospitalized due to an aortic dissection. After a nine-hour surgery, he was given a new aorta. In an essay posted on the Edge website, Dennett gives his firsthand account of his health problems, his consequent feelings of gratitude towards the scientists and doctors whose hard work made his recovery possible, and his complete lack of a "deathbed conversion".

He lives with his wife in North Andover, Massachusetts, and has a daughter, a son, and two grandsons.

Philosophical views

Dennett has remarked in several places (such as "Self-portrait", in Brainchildren) that his overall philosophical project has remained largely the same since his time at Oxford. He is primarily concerned with providing a philosophy of mind that is grounded in empirical research. In his original dissertation, Content and Consciousness, he broke up the problem of explaining the mind into the need for a theory of content and for a theory of consciousness. His approach to this project has also stayed true to this distinction. Just as Content and Consciousness has a bipartite structure, he similarly divided Brainstorms into two sections. He would later collect several essays on content in The Intentional Stance and synthesize his views on consciousness into a unified theory in Consciousness Explained. These volumes respectively form the most extensive development of his views.

In Consciousness Explained, Dennett's interest in the ability of evolution to explain some of the content-producing features of consciousness is already apparent, and this has since become an integral part of his program. He defends a theory known by some as Neural Darwinism. He also presents an argument against qualia; he argues that the concept is so confused that it cannot be put to any use or understood in any non-contradictory way, and therefore does not constitute a valid refutation of physicalism. Much of Dennett's work in the 1990s has been concerned with fleshing out his previous ideas by addressing the same topics from an evolutionary standpoint, from what distinguishes human minds from animal minds (Kinds of Minds), to how free will is compatible with a naturalist view of the world (Freedom Evolves). In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell, Dennett attempts to subject religious belief to the same treatment, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious adherence.

Dennett self-identifies with a few terms: Yet, in Consciousness Explained, he admits "I am a sort of 'teleofunctionalist', of course, perhaps the original teleofunctionalist'". He goes on to say, "I am ready to come out of the closet as some sort of verificationist". In Breaking the Spell he admits to being "a bright", and defends the term. A "qualophile" is Dennett's nickname for any philosopher who believes in the reality of qualia.

Role in evolutionary debate

Dennett's views on evolution are identified as being strongly adaptationist, in line with the views of ethologist Richard Dawkins. In Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Dennett showed himself even more willing than Dawkins to defend adaptationism in print, devoting an entire chapter to a criticism of the views of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. This stems from Gould's long-running public debate with E. O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists over human sociobiology and its descendant evolutionary psychology, which Gould and Richard Lewontin opposed, but which Dennett advocated, together with Dawkins and Steven Pinker. There have been strong disagreements between Dennett and Gould and his supporters, who allege that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould's to reinforce what Gould describes as Dennett's "Darwinian fundamentalism".

Dennett's theories have had a significant influence on the work of evolutionary psychologist, Geoffrey Miller.

Dennett has also written about and advocated the notion of memetics.

Selected books

See also


Further Reading

  • "Dennett: Reconciling Science and Our Self-Conception" Matthew Elton (Polity Press, 2003) (ISBN 0-7456-2117-1)
  • Daniel Dennett edited by Andrew Brook and Don Ross (Cambridge University Press 2000) (ISBN 0-521-00864-6)
  • Dennett's Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment edited by Don Ross, Andrew Brook and David Thompson (MIT Press 2000) (ISBN 0-262-18200-9)
  • Dennett, among others, is discussed in John Brockman's The Third Culture.
  • On Dennett John Symons (Wadsworth Publishing Company 2000) (ISBN 0-534-57632-X)
  • Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, P. Hacker and M.R. Bennett (Blackwell, Oxford, and Malden, Mass., 2003) (ISBN 1-4051-0855-X) has an appendix devoted to a strong critique of Dennett's philosophy of mind

External links

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