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Daniel Dennett

Daniel Clement Dennett (born March 28 1942 in Boston, MA, USA) is a prominent American philosopher. Dennett's research centers on philosophy of mind and philosophy of science, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science.


Dennett spent part of his childhood in Beirut, where, during World War II, his father, a counter-intelligence agent with the Office of Strategic Services, had a cover job at the American Legation. The young Dennett and family returned to Massachusetts in 1947 after his father died in an unexplained plane crash.[1][2]

Daniel Dennett attended Phillips Exeter Academy then received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University (Cambridge, MA) in 1963. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. in philosophy from University of Oxford (Oxford, England), where he studied under the famed philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Dennett is currently (August 2005) the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, University Professor, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies (with Ray Jackendoff) at Tufts University (Medford, MA).

Daniel Dennett in Tahiti in 1984

He 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 also an avid sailor.

Dennett is the author of several major books on evolution and consciousness. He is a leading proponent of the theory known by some as Neural Darwinism (see also greedy reductionism). Dennett is also well known for his argument against qualia; he claims 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. This argument was presented most comprehensively in his book, Consciousness Explained.

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 and fruitful to 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, and he frequently refers back to them in subsequent writings.

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). His most recent book, Breaking the Spell, is an attempt to subject religious belief to the same treatment, explaining possible evolutionary reasons for the phenomenon of religious groups.

While it is clear that Dennett does not subscribe to a number of categories (such as Cartesian materialism and Dualism), it is less clear which ones he fits into. As Dennett discussed:

[Others] note that my 'avoidance of the standard philosophical terminology for discussing such matters' often creates problems for me; philosophers have a hard time figuring out what I am saying and what I am denying. My refusal to play ball with my colleagues is deliberate, of course, since I view the standard philosophical terminology as worse than useless — a major obstacle to progress since it consists of so many errors.

— Daniel Dennett, The Message is: There is no Medium

Dennett self-identifies with a few terms. 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 a sort of verificationalist". In Breaking the Spell he admits to being "a bright", and defends the term on several occasions. A qualophile is Daniel Dennett's nickname for a philosopher who believes in 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 has led to some backlash from Gould and his supporters, who allege that Dennett overstated his claims and misrepresented Gould's.[3]


  1. "Dennett the philosopher was born in 1942 in Beirut, where his father had gone to complete a Harvard PhD in Islamic history at the American University, and his mother (from Minnesota) was teaching English at the American Community School. When America entered the second world war, his father went to work at the OSS (later the CIA), and was killed in an air crash on a secret mission in Ethiopia in 1947 when Daniel was five." "The semantic engineer", by Andrew Brown; 17 April 2004
  2. Dennett, Daniel C. [08 2004] (2005-09-13). "What I Want to Be When I Grow Up" John Brockman Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, New York: Vintage Books.
  3. 'Evolution: The pleasures of Pluralism' — Stephen Jay Gould's review of Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Partial bibliography

Texts on Dennett

  • "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)
  • Dennett is mentioned on numerous occasions in David J. Chalmers' The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, as Chalmers discusses his theory (ISBN 0-19-511789-1).

Select quote

The first stable conclusion I reached … was that the only thing brains could do was to approximate the responsivity to meanings that we presuppose in our everyday mentalistic discourse. When mechanical push comes to shove, a brain was always going to do what it was caused to do by current, local, mechanical circumstances, whatever it ought to do, whatever a God's-eye view might reveal about the actual meaning of its current states. But over the long haul, brains could be designed — by evolutionary processes — to do the right thing (from the point of view of meaning) with high reliability. … Brains are syntactic engines that can mimic the competence of semantic engines. … The appreciation of meanings — their discrimination and delectation — is central to our vision of consciousness, but this conviction that I, on the inside, deal directly with meanings turns out to be something rather like a benign 'user-illusion.'

— Daniel Dennett, Brainchildren

See also

External links

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