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.
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.
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.