I B. Dahlbom (red.) Dennett and His Critics. Demystifying Mind. Oxford: Blackwell 1993.
When other philosophers use definitions and arguments, Daniel Dennett will make his point by telling a story. So, if you ask him about his view on a specific question, he will scratch his beard and hem and haw, but only for a few seconds before going into narrative mode, launching on a wonderful story. His philosophy is in his stories. Only they can really introduce him.
1 Some Stories
Fido, who has not been fed all day, is handed a large chunk of beefsteak, but instead of eating it he carefully gathers together a little pile of straw, puts the meat in the middle, and sits down on the meat. Now, suppose that we are able to determine that Fido’s perceptual state on this occasion is the state he would normally be in when receiving a steak. But since Fido is behaving so strangely, we cannot say that this state has the content (roughly) “this is food” for him, so how do we determine its content? Fido’s behaviour would be appropriate to a belief that the beef was an egg and Fido was a hen, and perhaps therefore we should attribute the following content to his perceptual state: “this is an egg and I am a hen.” But Fido’s behavior is also appropriate to other beliefs, e. g., “this is beef, but if I pretend it’s an egg I’ll get twice as much beef tomorrow,” or “sitting on beef improves its flavour.” So, how do we ascribe content to a perceptual state when the behavior is inappropriate? (Content and Consciousness, p. 77-8)
It takes a really callous person to deny the existence of pain. Or does it? Consider the following exchange (from Content and Consciousness, p. 11):
“How old is Smith’s sake?”
“Sakes don’t exist in time.”
“But they do exist, don’t they?”
“Then if Smith’s sake is timeless, we’ll be able to do things for it after he’s dead.”
“No; although a sake is timeless, it can no longer receive benefits after the death of its owner.”
“Then I might only think I was doing something for Smith’s sake, if all along he was dead without my knowing it?”
“No, you’d be doing it for Smith’s sake, only his sake would no longer have any use for whatever you were doing.”
In order to block this nonsense we would want to say that even if “sake” is a perfectly fine noun, there are no sakes. But, you will say, sakes (whatever they are) are very different from pains. Pains are experienced, so obviously they exist. All this talk about sakes is not really relevant. Then, listen to the following story (from Brainstorms, p. xix):
Suppose we find a society that lacks our knowledge of human physiology, and that speaks a language just like English except for one curious family of idioms. When they are tired they talk of being beset by fatigues: of having mental fatigues, muscular fatigues, fatigues in the eyes and fatigues of the spirit. Their sports lore contains such maxims as “too many fatigues spoils your aim” and “five fatigues in the legs are worth ten in the arms.” When we encounter them and tell them of our science, they want to know what fatigues are. They have been puzzling over such questions as whether numerically the same fatigue can come and go and return, whether fatigues have a definite location in matter or space and time, whether fatigues are identical with some particular physical states or processes or events in the bodies, or are made of some sort of stuff. We can see that they are off to a bad start with these questions, but what should we tell them? One thing we might tell them is that there simply are no such things as fatigues—they have a confused ontology. We can expect some of them to retort: “You don’t think there are fatigues? Run around the block a few times and you’ll know better! There are many things your science might teach us, but the non-existence of fatigues isn’t one of them.” (Now, how about those pains?)
When you believe something, what is it you have in your head making up the belief? A sentence of sorts? Well, what if a clever neurosurgeon were to put the following sentence into your head: “I have an older brother living in Cleveland.” Would you then believe you had such a brother? Suppose you are sitting in a bar and a friend asks you, “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” You say, “Yes, I have an older brother living in Cleveland.” “What’s his name?” Now, what is going to happen? You may say, “Name? Whose name? Oh, my gosh, what was I saying? I don’t have an older brother!” Or you may say, “I don’t know his name,” and when pressed you will deny all knowledge of this brother, but still insist that you have an older brother living in Cleveland. Well, what do you think, are beliefs some sort of sentences in the head? (Brainstorms, p. 44)
Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly dangerous and secret mission. The mission involved the recovery of a deadly warhead lodging about a mile deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma. Something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to recover the device should leave his brain behind. Would I submit to a surgical procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers. All the connectivity would be preserved. At first I was a bit reluctant. Would it really work? The Houston brain surgeons encouraged me. “Think of it,” they said, “as a mere stretching of the nerves.”
When I came out of anesthesia, I opened my eyes, looked around, and asked the inevitable question: “Where am I?” The nurse smiled down at me. “You’re in Houston,” she said, and I reflected that this still had a good chance of being the truth one way or another. She handed me a mirror. Sure enough, there were the tiny antennae poling up through their titanium ports cemented into my skull.
“I gather the operation was a success,” I said, “I want to see my brain.” I was helped over to the life-support vat. I peered through the glass. There, floating in what looked like ginger-ale, was undeniably a human brain. I thought to myself: “Well, here I am, sitting on a folding chair, staring through a piece of plate glass at my own brain….But wait, shouldn’t I have thought ‘Here I am, suspended in a bubbling fluid, being stared at by my own eyes’?” (Brainstorms, p. 310ff, reprinted in that book of stories, The Mind’s I, p. 217ff)
The first day I was ever in London, I found myself looking for the nearest Underground station. I noticed a stairway in the sidewalk labeled “SUBWAY,” which in Boston is our word for the Underground, so I confidently descended the stairs and marched forth looking for the trains. After wandering about in various galleries and corridors, I found another flight of stairs and somewhat dubiously climbed them to find myself on the sidewalk on the other side of the intersection from where I had started. I must have missed a turn, I thought, and walked back downstairs to try again. After what seemed to me to be an exhaustive search for hitherto overlooked turnstiles or side entrances, I emerged back on the sidewalk where I had started, feeling somewhat cheated. Then at last it dawned on me; I’d been making a sort of category mistake! Searching for the self or the soul can be somewhat like that. You enter the brain through the eye, march up the optic nerve, round and round the cortex, looking behind every neuron, and then, before you know it, you emerge into daylight on the spike of a motor nerve impulse, scratching your head and wondering where the self is. (Elbow Room, p. 74f)
2 A Radical Position
Those are just a few examples—there are many, many more—of Daniel Dennett at work, using stories to make philosophical points. He lives off his “intuition pumps,” as he calls them, and he is well aware of their importance: “…reflection on the history of philosophy shows that the great intuition pumps have been the major movers all along” (Elbow Room, p. 17).
If intuition pumps are the major movers in philosophy, they are not necessarily the prime movers, as Dennett himself observes: “An intuition pump is not, typically, an engine of discovery, but a persuader or pedagogical tool—a way of getting people to see things your way once you’ve seen the truth” (“The Milk of Human Intentionality,” p. 429). And Dennett has seen the truth, that is, it is not difficult to see how his stories are motivated by, and aimed at advocating, a definite and stable philosophical position. Unlike most philosophers, Dennett is not content to repeat one or two such intuition pumps, again and again. No, his creative imagination breeds stories at a fantastic rate—but most of them seem to have, pretty much, the same message.
Behaviorism is the message. To use this worn-out label is dangerous, of course, but I have no better way to quickly place Dennett among the variety of often confusing attempts, in our century, to formulate a viable alternative to, what used to be, modern philosophy with its penchant for introspection. Dennett is one of the more consistent proponents of such an alternative today, and I think that when the dust settles, “behaviorism” will be the label we will use for this alternative. And, “behaviorism,” in this sense, will be regarded as the major, original contribution to philosophy, besides logic, of our century. Let me line up a few more of these rather worn-out labels to indicate what I mean when I call Dennett a “behaviorist.”
Dennett is a radical, that is, he is skeptical of many of the traditional ways and methods of philosophy. His major tools in his questioning of the tradition are an unusual acquaintance with front-line scientific research in several disciplines, and, as we have already seen, a Wittgensteinian attention to, and talent for, the concrete examples of philosophical discourse.
His radicalism will not take for granted the world as it is handed down to us in language, culture and philosophical tradition. And he is radical enough not to take too seriously his own, as well as other contemporary, attempts at charting the world. As a true radical he is in no hurry to arrive at the truth, being content not to know, not to be sure, not to have answers. To some this will give the impression that he does not care, that his thinking or feelings are not deep enough, but others will interpret it as courage and confidence. Nietzsche did not feel awe when looking up on the stars or down into his soul, but this was not because he was a more superficial thinker than Kant.
As a radical and skeptic, Dennett is a nominalist: he does not believe in essences or final truths. Where others see dichotomies and sharp boundaries, he sees differences, compromises and conventional amplifications of contrasts. He mistrusts our intellectual powers, our ability to reason, define and argue. But he is also practical, with a liking for engineering, at home with and happy to trust and put to good use the results of modern science. His field is the philosophy of mind or cognitive science, and he has so far shown no ambition to extend, but briefly, his philosophical wanderings outside that field. Thus, his nominalism will lead him, like it led Goodman, to a constructive view of what there is, but he will not apply that constructive view to physics—since physics is none of his business.
Dennett is a behaviorist, and in his behaviorism he brings together ideas from Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Quine, as well as from experimental psychology. Behaviorism is functionalism applied to organisms, the idea that an organism is a machine, producing behavior with a mind-brain as its control system. It is a version of naturalism, treating human beings as biological organisms bringing evolutionary theory to bear on our self-understanding. The theory of evolution will support a radical, nominalistic questioning of traditional attempts to define the essence of man, and in particular such attempts that want to draw a sharp line between our species and our ancestors. There are no sharp lines in biology, or elsewhere, except temporarily and by accident.
Dennett’s behaviorism and functionalism are related to verificationism, the idea that where there can be no evidence to decide an issue, there is no issue. The notion of evidence here is borrowed from science: whatever natural scientists in their practice will count as evidence, Dennett will accept. On Dennett’s understanding of science, this means that by evidence we mean intersubjectively accessible physical phenomena (whatever they are—I am not claiming that this is a particularly clear notion). Thus, Dennett’s verificationism is a brand of scientism. When you practice this version of verificationism in psychology, as it is being practiced in the mainstream of 20th century experimental psychology, including cognitive science, you are a behaviorist. But behaviorism is also the more particular application of verificationism to psychological language, what used to be called “logical behaviorism” by philosophers in Oxford. Dennett is a logical behaviorist, that is, along with Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Quine, he thinks that the language of psychology, “is a social art. In acquiring it we have to depend entirely on intersubjectively available cues as to what to say and when.” (Quine, Word & Object, p. ix). Functionalism can, of course, be construed as a version of verificationism—as in the pragmatism of Peirce. Both functionalism and verificationism imply an interest in relations rather than in properties, or, stronger, properties turn out to be relations. Functional roles are relational structures, and evidence are phenomena related to what they are evidence for. Such a relationism will reject the idea of intrinsic properties and all notions of “direct” experience of phenomena, of acquaintance with qualia, or intuition of intrinsic properties. It will deny us the possibility of “grasping” an object, or “entertaining” an idea, at least in the sense of having it present in its totality, in favor of a structuralist, holistic position, according to which an object always refers us to other objects, and can only be approached through its relations to others. (I am not sure that this reduction of properties to relations makes sense in the end, but it seems to make as much sense as the notions property and relation themselves do.)
Behaviorism is often described, by Dennett and others, as giving us a third-person view of things. This is misleading. The interesting difference is not between first and third person, but between a relational and an intrinsic view of experience. We can use one of Dennett’s stories (“Philosophy According to Nozick,” 1982) to explain this difference:
There was once a chap who wanted to know the meaning of life, so he walked a thousand miles and climbed to the high mountaintop where the wise guru lived. “Will you tell me the meaning of life?” he asked.
“Certainly,” replied the guru, “but if you want to understand my answer, you must first master recursive function theory and mathematical logic.”
“Well then…skip it.”
Dennett uses this story to illustrate the encounter between 20th century analytic philosophy and the public, but this story also expresses Dennett’s very modern, very American, belief in hard work. There is no free lunch, the story says, not even in philosophy, but if you are willing to work hard nothing is impossible. So, don’t think that consciousness, those wonderful raw feels, qualia, subjective feelings, or whatever you want to call them, the smell of a cake in the oven, the feel of your beloved’s skin, the sight of an apple orchard in bloom, the sound of a saxophone, will be yours for free. No, in order to experience them, you, or your brain, must work hard. Only by a complex process, the functioning of a complex mechanism, will such wonderful things be possible. It may seem as if all it takes to see something is to open one’s eyes, but we know how misleading this impression is. Likewise, it seems as if consciousness just is there, that qualia are just given for us to savor or suffer. If they aren’t (and how could they be?), then the way to explain consciousness is to look closer at the mechanisms doing the work. And when you know how those mechanisms work, how the work is done, you know what qualia are, or so says Dennett.
The purportedly interesting difference between a third and a first person view of something is this difference between hard work and having something for free, between hard-won interpretation and easy acquaintance. Since Dennett does not believe that there is anything in the latter category, he should really stop describing himself as taking a third-person view of things. My view of the world is always my view, and no one else’s, and the distinction between a first and a third person account that works so well in everyday life should not be pressed into philosophical service. In post-war philosophy of science, the positivistic notion of theory-neutral observation has been abandoned. So Dennett’s rejection of the notion of acquaintance should come as no surprise, but it does. People don’t seem to want to accept the idea that “nothing is given.”
There are many isms involved in this characterization of Dennett’s position: radicalism, nominalism, constructivism, behaviorism, functionalism, verificationism, scientism, relationism, holism, interpretationism. But they all join together into a tight knot, tying Dennett to philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Ryle, and Quine, but also to Nietzsche, Rorty, and Derrida. This is one of those remarkably stable positions in philosophy, and Dennett has not moved an inch from it since he first saw it and nailed it (as he would put it himself) in his D. Phil. thesis (what was to become Content and Consciousness) at the age of twenty-three.
Dennett’s many stories are supposed to nudge us in the direction of this radical behaviorism. But this position is too radical, too different from the majority view, for even the best of stories to do very well. Through the history of philosophy the distinction between intuition, sensation or acquaintance, on the one hand, and knowledge, judgment, or description, on the other, plays a fundamental role. It is a distinction deeply engrained in contemporary common sense, and it plays an important role in our understanding of what an object is and what it is for an object to have properties. To deny this distinction is to claim that we are fundamentally alienated from reality, that we have no real contact with the world, our own experiences, or ourselves.
This is a frightening vision, causing anxiety and giving a glimpse of nothingness—and not only to existentialists like Heidegger. To many people it seems obviously, utterly wrong. Still, this vision has been favored by many of the major philosophers of this century: by pragmatists like Quine, by positivists like Carnap, by existentialists like Sartre, and by post-structuralists like Derrida. Indeed, it makes good sense to read this attack on man’s sense of being at home in the world as only one in a series of similar attacks accompanying the progress, some would say decline, of Western civilization. And like earlier such attacks, it will take a while before it sinks in and people get around to accepting it: Surely the earth is the center of the universe and does not move, surely man is a rational being, certainly not descended from some ape, or comparable to a machine, surely our experience is really real and not a figment of our theoretical imaginations.
3 The Ways of his Critics
With his very radical philosophical position pervading most of what he does, Dennett cannot really expect to get many to agree with him. All the efforts of Wittgenstein, Ryle, Quine, and Derrida have not succeeded in making the way any smoother for this kind of philosophy. So, Dennett seems bound to be frustrated. But if he does not find enough support for his philosophical position, he can certainly look back with satisfaction on the role he has played in changing the way that philosophy of mind is being done. That discipline of philosophy is now dominated by people who are just as happy to describe what they are doing as cognitive science, and this change owes a lot to the example set by Content and Consciousness.
In spite of a general commitment to cognitive science, the variety of ways in which philosophy of mind is being done today is striking. Look only at the contributions to this volume. Patricia Churchland, reporting on Ramachandran’s intriguing experiments on filling in, gives us an example of how to do philosophy with facts. Dennett has argued against the rather naive view that we perceive by copying our environment inch by inch, in favor of a view of perception as using shortcuts and heuristics of various sorts. Exemplifying his view, Dennett has ventured opinions on some special cases of perception on which Churchland and Ramachandran now bring a number of experimental results to bear, accusing Dennett of speculating, and being wrong, in a domain where there are empirical results.
Churchland and Ramachandran end their paper with a diagnosis, another commonly used method of philosophy. Rather than just showing that someone is mistaken, you go on to give the intellectual etiology of the mistake. Richard Rorty gives us a more extensive specimen of a similar genre, making clear the nature of Dennett’s radical behaviorism and how it comes into conflict with the views of “the new mysterians.” There is, of course, something presumptuous about this way of doing philosophy, presupposing as it does that one’s colleagues need to be told what is going on in the texts they read and write. But, then again, this is very much the role of the philosopher since Socrates.
Kathleen Akins’ paper illustrates, I think, a less presumptuous kind of educational effort. Addressing both the philosopher who would use bats to exemplify the subjectivity of consciousness, and the philosopher who would use the intentional stance to ascribe beliefs to bats, she says: Interestingly enough, there is rather a lot of empirical research on bats that one should perhaps consult before saying too much about them, research results which can bring into sharper focus philosophical worries about subjectivity and the nature of beliefs. The point of this way of doing philosophy is not just to rebut a specific philosophical point, but also to enrich and change the discussion as a whole.
Churchland and Akins give us more facts, as Holmes would say, and more facts is certainly something we and philosophy need. But the typical method of philosophy is not to give more facts but to dispute, to engage in dialectics, as it used to be called, putting to use the very special philosophical competence of analyzing concepts, making distinctions, identifying basic principles and lines of reasoning, unveiling hidden premises, testing different interpretations, evaluating arguments, and so on. All the contributors to this volume do, of course, practice philosophy in this way, but none do it so explicitly as Jerry Fodor and Ernie Lepore when they spin a web in which to catch Dennett’s interpretationism and prove it wrong.
Dennett has always insisted that psychology—and, more recently, biology—is very different from physics, and that explanations from the intentional stance are normative, based on rationality assumptions, rather than on laws. When Fodor and Lepore argue that psychology is just like any other science in this respect, their argument illustrates yet another of philosophy’s many ways. To show that many intentional explanations are just like explanations in the rest of science, they give an example—the Moon illusion—of what they claim is an intentional law.
Ruth Millikan is using biology in yet a third way, differing from both Akins and Churchland. Millikan uses biological categories as a framework in which to couch conceptual distinctions and arguments, forging chains of reasoning, doing philosophy in the style of that great metaphysician Wilfrid Sellars. Her views on representation are close to Dennett’s, but the way she relies on intuition to make decisive points is rather different from the way Dennett does philosophy.
Intuition is the philosophical method par excellence, and the painting of imaginary scenes or setting up of thought experiments, and then asking what we see or would say, is the major alternative or complement to the philosophical dispute. Dennett has been anxious to remind us of the dangers of trusting our intuition on complex examples, to use it to decide the details of metaphysics or ontology, in the way, I think, Millikan is here using her intuition. In this she resembles John Haugeland, who is testing his powers of intuition on the question of being. Haugeland proceeds from Dennett’s recent paper “Real Patterns,” the aim of which is to help people quit ontology, to outline a far-reaching ontological project, in aim and ambition much like Heidegger’s.
If Fodor and Lepore argue that explanation in psychology is like that in physics, Richard Dawkins, Colin McGinn and Bo Dahlbom are all trying to show that the difference between psychology and physics is even greater than Dennett wants to say. Psychology has its laws, says McGinn, but they are the laws of logic, and mind is logical in its very nature. No, says Dawkins, much of what goes on in mind is terribly illogical, due to the fact that our minds are so susceptible to viruses, ideas that unexamined invade our minds and take control. Dahlbom has a more positive view of these viruses, thinking of them as socially constructed artifacts, subject to control by society if not by every individual. Thinking involves the use of such artifacts, and is therefore social rather than natural.
The contributions by Dawkins, McGinn and Dahlbom all illustrate yet another way of doing philosophy: trying to change the perspective. Metaphors and surprising juxtaposition of ideas are the means employed by this type of philosophy. We are survival machines for our genes and memes, and some ideas are viruses. Psychology is really logic, psychological laws are the laws of logic. Minds are artifacts, thinking is the use of tools, a craft that is becoming industrialized. The typical ambition of this philosophy is, as McGinn puts it, to “open up some new lines of enquiry rather than arrive at any firm conclusions.”
The philosophers, biologists and psychologists speaking up about the mind in this book have different philosophical positions to advance, but more striking is, I think, the differences in the way the go about doing this. Positions and ways will normally depend on each other, of course, but still they are often distinct enough for it to make sense to ask which is most important to a philosopher—the fundamental position or the way philosophy should be done. And I am not sure what the answer is in Dennett’s case.
One could of course argue that Dennett’s preference for stories, and the indeterminacy they give to his views, is an obvious reflection of his radical behaviorism and its Quinean belief in the indeterminacy of meaning. But then one must add that Dennett himself is convinced that his stories make his views more determinate than could be done with definitions and principles. Yet, there is something intriguing in seeing a connection between his increasing insistence on the indeterminacy and holism of meaning and his method of telling narratives to make an idea clear. But then again, there is no similar connection in Quine.
4 An Optimistic Style
When we read philosophy we do it for our interest in the issues, of course, but also for the satisfaction of dealing with these issues in a certain style. When we become engrossed in Quine’s philosophy, for example, it is only partly because we worry whether “gavagai” means “rabbit” or “undetached rabbit part,” and it is perhaps mainly because we enjoy the company of Quine and his style, his particular outlook on the world, and the particular mode and mood in which he expresses that outlook. We may find his radical behaviorism outrageous, but it will seem less outrageous if we sympathize with his style.
As it is with Quine, it is with Dennett. When peddled second-hand, as in the April 20, 1992 Newsweek coverage “Is the Mind an Illusion?” Dennett comes off as something of a villain: a science-crazed, insensitive mechanist, with a bleak and inhumane world view, a rather superficial engineer compared to deep and serious thinkers like Thomas Nagel and John Searle. But people who hear Dennett speak, or read him first-hand, are almost invariably fascinated. They are being educated, intrigued, and entertained. They are so fascinated, it often seems, that they fail to fully appreciate the radicalness of his philosophy. But in appreciating his style, they accept his philosophy in a way that matters more, I think, than whether they accept his behaviorism or not.
By a philosophical style I mean the attitude philosophers have to their own philosophies, or to philosophy in general, as it is expressed in the way they present their view, the mood in which they think. Are they serious? Angry? Tragic or ironic? Cautious or bold? Complaining? Styles are not easy to describe. You take them in half consciously, and when you try to describe them, they prove to be complex objects. When we discuss them we seem to be discussing the person rather than the philosophy—as if the two could be distinguished. But to really appreciate the role of philosophy, we have to be aware of the different styles, the different attitudes philosophers have to philosophy.
The styles express what they want to do with philosophy, what their deepest ambition and values are, as Rorty puts it, and how they feel about that ambition. Philosophers are after wisdom, truth, of course, and sometimes fame, but their particular style will reveal additional motives: a need to believe and share beliefs, to find in philosophy a cause and a firm foundation to stand on; a wish to surprise and stir, to use philosophy to shock us out of our beliefs into enlightenment; an ambition to change the world, to use philosophy in politics; an ambition to entertain, to induce a more playful spirit; or an exhortation to take life more seriously, a mission to teach, to educate, and so on.
What I find most striking about Dennett as a philosopher, speaking now of his style, is his optimism. I read him in order to be a part of those good spirits, to experience with him the enthusiasm and belief in making progress, in philosophy as elsewhere. I read him for his rationalism, for his impatience with mysteries and intellectual laziness, and I read him for his confidence in his own very radical position. If you are bored and frustrated by the rather childish extravagances that philosophers seem so fond of, if you are not interested in card house construction projects, then you have a friend in Dennett, and you will savor his direct, unaffected, down to earth, yet elegant and professional, philosophical style.
When Dennett is described as a radical behaviorist, a conspecific of Quine and Ryle, he comes out very much as a philosopher. Undeterred by what has been going on in cognitive science, it seems, he has been steadfastly advocating an extreme empiricism. When Noam Chomsky, in the early 60s, dragged linguistics and psychology out of their behavioristic hole, Quine, Putnam, Goodman, and others among the second generation analytic philosophers were up there on the barricades defending Skinner and behaviorism against the new tide. Looking back now it seems as if Dennett would have been on their side, on the side of philosophy, against a developing science.
Today, with connectionism, brain science and Darwinism, it is empiricism that dominates cognitive science, and Dennett can be comfortably on the side of science. But that seems more like a stroke of luck than anything else. Like Quine, Dennett describes his philosophy as “naturalized,” as a “chapter of psychology,” and like Quine, Dennett will only accept what psychology is saying as long as it is talking the language of empiricism. Don’t mistake Dennett’s interest in science for a belief in science. In spite of being genuinely interested in science, feeling perhaps most at home with scientists, and not afraid of contributing theories and hypotheses for experimental testing, both in biology and psychology, Dennett is a philosopher and nothing else. He is using science to produce a more convincing package for his radical behaviorism.
Be that as it may, the result has become an unusually rich and exciting version of empiricism. And, to get to the punch line, at last, it is the many layers of this philosophical package, and the way they are wrapped together, not the radical behaviorism, nor, in the end, the stories, that make Dennett such a fascinating philosopher to read. When Dennett is described as a radical behaviorist, I am confident that we have correctly identified the essence of his philosophy. But it is somewhat ironic that a philosopher who is such a critic of the idea of essences should be stuck with an essence himself. Similarly, when Dennett is described as a story teller, there is an irony there too. Stories are pedagogical devices, and as such they are incidental ornaments to the real thing. Now, for all his interest in intuition pumps, Dennett has a view of evolution denying the importance of both essences and ornaments.
Isms are the essences of philosophy, and taking isms seriously means being caught in an Aristotelian, essentialistic way of thinking. No wonder nothing much changes in philosophy, if there is no evolution of the species. For someone as intrigued as Dennett is, by Darwin’s non-essentialistic theory of evolution, it must be painful to constantly hear people asking what species of philosopher he is. Likewise, for someone as strongly a believer in adaptation as the important mechanism of evolution, in the function of things, Dennett must find it painful to be getting requests for stories when it is his many theoretical innovations, the taxonomy of stances, the intentional systems theory, the consciousness of time, elbow room, hoping for hieroglyphics, free-floating rationales, abstracta and illata, centers of narrative gravity, virtual machines, real patterns, multiple drafts, heterophenomenology, the Baldwin effect, …that does all the real work in his philosophy.
6 Another Story
It is now twenty years since I first read Content and Consciousness. Impressed by Quine’s program for a “naturalized philosophy” and excited by the radical power of his behaviorism, I found in Dennett’s writings the program practiced with wit and gusto and a richness of provocative ideas and details. I was particularly fascinated by the evolutionary theory of content, promising contact with and a hold on reality, thus overcoming the circularity of formal semantics.
For discussion at a meeting of the weekly faculty colloquium, in the phenomenologically oriented department where I was a beginning graduate student, I chose the section of Content and Consciousness that I liked the most, section 11 on pain. I am sorry to say that Dennett and I, his poor defender, were laughed out of school. Three years later, I knocked on Joe Lambert’s door at the UC Irvine campus in southern California, asking for Professor Dennett. I had been admitted as a graduate student there, and in my application I had motivated my choice of university by reference to what I had read on the jacket of Content and Consciousness.
But, alas, Daniel Dennett was no longer assistant professor at Irvine. He had left a few years earlier and was now at Tufts University in Boston, on the other side of the continent (where he still remains). Had they not seen in my application that Dennett was the only reason I wanted to come to Irvine? No, they only remembered my quip about being from Göteborg, where Volvo, of legendary high quality, was being produced, and Bill Ulrich had more or less admitted me on that quip, so happy was he with his Volvo.
“Let’s talk to Dan,” was Lambert’s suggestion. Stammering and stuttering I explained to “Professor Dennett” over the phone how much I appreciated his work and that I was now in California and so on. “Well, why don’t you come here?” was his immediate response. “We don’t have a Ph. D. program at Tufts, but you can be a visiting scholar working with me, and I have a big house, the third floor is not really used, you can stay there as long as you like.”
So the editor of Dennett and His Critics is a friend of Dennett. And maybe that is why, when I took on the job of editing this book, I was not really interested in doing a Dennett book. I encouraged the contributors to concentrate on their own themes rather than write explicit criticism of Dennett’s philosophy. I wanted a book with a rich and varied content, bringing out the best in the contributors, and the most exciting ideas in the philosophy of mind today. The result is, I believe, a happy compromise. There is a lot of Dennett in this book, both about him and by him, as should be, but there are also intriguing, alternative conceptions to Dennett’s conception of the mind.
I am grateful to the Swedish Council for Planning and Coordination of Research for financial support, to Kathleen Akins, Linus Broström, Stephan Chambers and Ernie Lepore for encouragement and advice, to all the contributors for the excitement they brought and the grace with which they received my editorial suggestions, to Susan Dennett for checking my English, and to Daniel Dennett for permission to tamper with some of his stories for the purpose of this introduction.