Dennett, Daniel Clement (1942–)

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Daniel Clement Dennett obtained his first degree at Harvard, where, as he tells us in Brainchildren (1998), he vigorously resisted the most influential American philosopher of the twentieth century, Willard van Orman Quine. He then did a D. Phil. in Oxford in a brief two years under Gilbert Ryle, the most influential Oxford philosopher of his time, finishing in 1966.

His first book was Content and Consciousness (1969). These two words, content and consciousness, encapsulate much of Dennett's mission. Content refers to the contents of the mindall the beliefs, desires, values, emotions, hopes, expectations, memories, and so forth that make up the mind. Consciousness refers, of course, to consciousness. In Dennett's view, the correct order in which to examine these topics is content first and then consciousness. Dennett's central project is already clear in this book, the project of "naturalizing the mind." This is the project of showing that mind and consciousness are simply aspects of brain and behavior, just as much open to investigation by cognitive psychology and neuroscience as other aspects of cognition. He has never waivered in this commitment.


Dennett's next book was a collection of essays, Brainstorms, written during the 1970s. This work helped launch a unique publishing enterprise, Bradford Books. Founded by Harry and Betty Stanton and subsequently absorbed by MIT Press, the Bradford insignia has become one of the most important collections of books in philosophy of mind and cognitive science in the English language.

Brainstorms begins with the first full articulation of Dennett's distinctive approach to mental content, the approach that he calls the intentional stance. According to Dennett, we can approach something in order to explain it from three stances: the physical stance, the design stance, and the intentional stance. Each has its own advantages and costs, but none is describing reality from the one correct perspective.

After editing, with Douglas Hofstadter, a charming collection of works by others on the mind, The Mind's I (1981), Dennett next turned to decision making and responsibility in an idiosyncratic little book called Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984). The book began life as John Locke Lectures in Oxford and espouses a brisk compatibilism between decisions being causally determined and decisions being free in any way that is "worth wanting." Interestingly, he returned to the topic of free will nearly twenty years later in Freedom Evolves (2003).

The year 1987 saw his second major collection of papers on content, The Intentional Stance. The papers in this collection are probably the most influential papers that Dennett has written. Near the end of the collection are two papers on evolutionary theory, a topic that was to loom large in his thinking in the 1990s.

Dennett's work on mental content has led him to questions about such topics as artificial content (AI [artificial intelligence]), the evolution of content, the relationship of content to the environment and brain (neuroscience), content in nonhumans (cognitive ethology), the nature of explanation in psychology and science generally, how content is represented and the different styles of mental representation, the relationship of representations to the brain, and how we ascribe mental content to ourselves and others.


At this point Dennett turned to consciousness, and a large book, Consciousness Explained (1991), ensued. For the first time, Dennett wrote a book deliberately aimed at a wide audience (it was not the last). Dennett laid out methods for studying consciousness, built a model of consciousness as a cognitive system, and discussed the nature of introspection (the consciousness we have of ourselves and our own mental states). He considered how consciousness evolved, pathologies of consciousness such as dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder), whether there is any real difference between how a mental state functions in us and how it feels to us (what philosophers call qualia or felt quality), what selves might be, the neural implementation of consciousness, and so onjust about every issue pertaining to consciousness.

This book has two main targets. One is the picture of conscious states that the tradition received from Descartes. This is the idea that there is something to a conscious state, some felt quality, that is unmistakably clear and clearly different from anything else in the world. The other is what Dennett calls the Cartesian theater, the idea that the conscious system is a kind of screen on which conscious states play before a little homunculus sitting in the middle of the theater. To replace the Cartesian picture in both its parts, Dennett proposed what he calls a Multiple Drafts Model (MDM) of consciousness. MDM treats consciousness as a kind of mental content, almost a matter of programming.

Dennett next wrote a shorter book pulling the two sides of his work together: Kinds of Minds (1996). Then he turned to a task that had been awaiting him for a long time: evolutionary theory. Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995) was also published as a trade book and also enjoyed phenomenal success. Here Dennett argues for two main claims: (1) Darwin's theory of evolution is a "universal acid" that dissolves all manner of intellectual "skyhooks" and other pseudoscientific props that philosophers (and not just philosophers) have dreamed up to try to patch up hopeless theories; (2) yet contrary to those who see Darwin as the destroyer of all morality, the theory of evolution leaves one perfectly satisfactory approach to morality and political philosophy untouched: traditional western liberalism. Among the most important claims introduced in this book is that it is language that makes it possible for us to have our kind of mind, a kind of mind that, by being able to cooperate with other minds and record the results of cooperation for others to build on, can figure out the physics of the universe, find cures for serious diseases, build Hubble telescopes and the Channel tunnel, and so on.

The book set off a stormy debate with Steven Jay Gould and others in the New York Review of Books in 1997. Gould insisted that Dennett had espoused an ultra-adaptionist position, assigning change in species to natural selection (selection on the basis of survival and reproductive fitness) over almost all other sources of change over time, such as cataclysmic changes in weather, exhaustion of habitats. Despite the heat that the debate generated (and some astonishingly uncollegial language), with the passage of time it now seems clear that the elements of agreement between the two of them are far greater than the elements of disagreement.

In the late 1990s, Dennett published another collection of essays, Brainchildren (1998), a remarkably diverse array of pieces mostly on consciousness and artificial intelligence. His most recent book is Freedom Evolves (2003). He is working on a book on religion. There are many sides to Dennett's contribution, but one of the most important is the way he challenges orthodoxies. He is a master at showing what is wrong with points of view with which he disagrees. One of his most characteristic techniques is to go after comfortable ideas with what he calls intuition pumps. Following is an example, the case of Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn:

Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn both used to like a certain coffee. More recently it has lost its appeal. The reasons they give seem to differ markedly. Chase: "The flavor of the coffee hasn't changed but I just don't like that flavor very much now." Sanborn: "No, no, you are quite wrong. I would still like that flavor as much as ever. The problem is that the coffee doesn't taste that way anymore." (reconstructed from Dennett 1988, p. 50)

Dennett's target is the idea that there is always a clear distinction between a conscious state, in this case how something tastes to us, and how we react to it. When we read about Mr. Chase and Mr. Sanborn, we are meant to say to ourselves, "Hmmm, maybe the distinction is not so clear after all." One is then meant to see that similar doubts arise all over the place.

An expert high-seas sailor and an accomplished pianist and choral singer, Dennett is far from retirement. In addition to his prolific authorship of books, Dennett has written an average of ten papers per year for thirty-five years. He has taught at Tufts University for more than thirty years.

See also Cognitive Science; Consciousness.


works by dennett

Content and Consciousness. London: Routledge, 1969.

Brainstorms. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books, 1978.

The Mind's I, edited with Douglas Hofstadter. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 1984.

The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 1987.

"Quining qualia." In Consciousness in Contemporary Society, edited by A. Marcel and E. Bisiach, 4247 Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1988.

Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little Brown, 1991.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Kinds of Minds. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Brainchildren. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 1998.

Freedom Evolves. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

works about dennett

Brook, Andrew, and Donald Ross. Daniel Dennett: Contemporary Philosophy in Focus. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dahlbom, Dagmar, ed. Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Quine, Willard v. O. Word and Object (Studies in Communication). Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1964.

Ross, Don, Andrew Brook, and David Thompson, eds. Dennett's Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 2000.

Ryle, Gilbert. The Concept of Mind. London: Hutchinson, 1949.

Andrew Brook (2005)

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