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Daniel C. Dennett (1942-2024)

Dan Hutto bids farewell to a friendly giant of philosophy.

“The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it.” – Daniel C. Dennett

With tremendous sadness, the world of philosophy received and was rocked by the news that Daniel C. Dennett (1942-2024) passed away at the age of 82 on the 19th of April 2024.

Dennett, who is survived by his wife, Susan, his daughter, his son, two sisters, and six grandchildren, was born in Boston but spent his early childhood in Beirut, Lebanon. His father, who earned a PhD in Islamic studies from Harvard University, was based there as an American intelligence agent during Dennett’s early childhood, while his mother taught English. Dennett’s depiction of the episodes of his early life, as set out in his latest and final book, I’ve Been Thinking (2023), reveals his great love of adventure and his ability to craft wonderful stories. Those twin features are hallmarks of all his career and many written works – which include over twenty solo and co-authored books.

For the bulk of his career, Dennett served as director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He was the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts and continued his philosophical work there, until the very end, as an emeritus professor.

Dennett stands tall in our discipline. He will be long remembered as one the most prominent and influential philosophers of the 20th and 21st centuries. As early as 1983, Dennett was honoured with being among the select few to be invited to deliver Oxford’s prestigious John Locke Lectures. His writings have enormous reach and uptake by researchers working in many disciplines outside of philosophy.

Dennett had a quite remarkable intellectual upbringing – one that clearly paved the way for the development of his distinctive philosophical position, projects, and methods. After spending a year at Wesleyan University, he moved to Harvard University, where he studied with Willard Van Orman Quine. He then moved on to Oxford University, where he worked with Gilbert Ryle, earning his DPhil in 1965.

What might the philosophical progeny of Quine and Ryle look like? It should not surprise us that such a brainchild would look rather like Daniel Dennett. Dennett’s philosophy is just the sort of thing you should expect to emerge if you combine Quine’s naturalist streak and commitment to an uncompromising physicalism with Ryle’s mission of debunking philosophical pictures and his method of exposing the category mistakes that get in the way of our properly understanding philosophically interesting phenomena.

Ryle’s influence on Dennett is clear enough. Dennett saw his primary job as a philosopher as that of exposing the traps which so easily befuddle our intelligence, while also finding inventive ways to get beyond those traps. Dennett makes no bones about the fact that both Ryle and Wittgenstein were major inspirations for this philosophical mission. In this regard, he acknowledges that his “debt to Wittgenstein is large and long-standing” (Dennett 1991, p. 462). Even so, going by Dennett’s own report of his time at Oxford, he tells us: “I gave up trying to ‘be’ a Wittgensteinian, and just took what I thought I had learned from the Investigations and tried to put it to work” (Dennett 1991, p. 463).

What makes Dennett’s approach so distinctive and, importantly, made it new under the sun at that time – and very unlike that of Ryle and Wittgenstein – was his eagerness to look beyond the bounds of philosophy and to incorporate data and findings from other fields and sciences in his efforts to break the spells that hold us captive.

These debunking ambitions and efforts are evident in Dennett’s work from the start. As far back as 1969, in his first book Content and Consciousness, he set his sights on remedying our tendencies to think in confused ways about the two trickiest characteristics of mind – those of the book’s title – that make the mental seem so impossibly magical, and beyond the ken of the natural sciences.

In his landmark publications, Brainstorms and The Intentional Stance, Dennett distinguished three types of stances that we can adopt when trying to predict and explain phenomena. He dubbed these the physical, the design, and the intentional stances. According to Dennett, when taking up the intentional stance, we attribute a constellation of mental states, primarily beliefs and desires, to predict and explain someone’s or something’s behaviour. Our doing so will prove more or less fruitful depending on how well the behaviour in question conforms to broadly rational patterns.

Sometimes, however, target systems do not behave in ways that are robust and rational enough for the intentional stance to get a grip. In such cases, he says, if we are going to make any useful predictions we are forced to make use of other, more basic stances: we can opt to use either the design stance or the physical stance. As its name implies, the design stance assumes that the target systems, even if non-rational, will behave in accordance with their design, whereas the physical stance drops even that assumption and appeals only to the laws of physics to generate its predictions.

Dan Dennett
Dan Dennett on his sloop Xanthippe during Downeast Race Week, 2006

Ultimately, by highlighting our capacity for such stance-switching, Dennett aims to reveal that there is nothing magical or intractably mysterious about minds or how they get their work done. His signature approach to such topics is neatly illustrated by his example of how we can square the circle when accounting for the intelligence exhibited by a chess-playing computer, without any explanatory gaps but also without taking anything away from the remarkable capacities exhibited by such devices. He writes:

“We know that there is a purely mechanistic explanation of the chess playing computer, and yet it is not false to say that the computer figures out or recognises the best move, or that it concludes that its opponent cannot make a certain move, any more than it is false to say that a computer adds or multiplies. There has often been confusion on this score. It used to be popular to say: ‘A computer can’t really think, of course; all it can do is add, subtract, multiply, and divide’. That leaves the way open for saying ‘A computer can’t really multiply, of course, all it can do is add numbers together very, very fast’, and that must lead to the admission: ‘A computer cannot really add numbers, of course; all it can do is control the opening and closing of hundreds of tiny switches’; which leads to: ‘A computer can’t really control switches, of course; it’s simply at the mercy of electrical currents pulsing through it’. What this chain of claims adds up to ‘prove’, obviously, is that computers are pretty dull lumps of stuff - they can’t do anything interesting at all.”
(Dennett 1987, p.64).

Other phenomena, such as consciousness and free will, get the same treatment. For example, in his seminal paper ‘Quining Qualia’, Dennett seeks to discredit standard assumptions about what makes phenomenally conscious experiences special – indeed, magical – in that there is something-it-is-like to have or undergo such experiences which cannot be accounted for, in principle or practice, using the third-person resources of the natural sciences.

In attempting to debunk this idea Dennett specifically targets our concept of qualia: a philosophical technical term that denotes the intrinsic, ineffable, mental objects or properties with which we can be acquainted only in the first-person, and which alone give conscious experiences their distinctive qualitative feels. (The classic example of this is the ‘redness’ of red). To achieve this, in the paper, he devises fifteen ‘intuition pumps’: his term for carefully crafted tools for thinking designed to nudge audiences out of their dogmatic slumbers. Dennett uses intuition pumps to show that the concept of qualia is deeply confused; so confused, that the only thing we can say is that “there simply are no qualia at all.” (Dennett 1988, p.75).

Following up on this spadework, in his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, he continued putting pressure on our familiar but philosophically-loaded pictures of consciousness. But he also offered us a new metaphor – the multiple drafts model – to help us think better about what being conscious really involves. If we could only make that switch in our thinking, Dennett held, there would be no barrier to explaining what-it-is-like to have and enjoy conscious experiences using only standard scientific tools and without any residual mystery.

Taking on the question of free will in a similar vein, Dennett sought to get us to abandon the philosophically extravagant vision of free will that requires us to be at odds with, and to be capable of, breaking laws of nature. He worked to persuade us to trade in that fantasy for a more mundane, but still important notion – namely, that we act with a degree of freedom that is exhibited by nothing else we know of in the natural world. His goal, as the subtitle of his book Elbow Room states, is to get us to focus on the kind of free will worth wanting.

A major consequence of Dennett’s treatment of such things – contentful, world-directed thought, consciousness, and free will – is to highlight that they aren’t as deeply woven into the fabric of the universe as the phenomena described by and of interest to the hard, physical sciences. Nor do they show up everywhere, under all conditions. But, for all that, if Dennett is right, it would be a mistake to conclude that they have no place in the natural world. In ‘Real Patterns’, he muses, rhetorically, “Are pains real?” In reply, he is quick to point out that: “They are as real as haircuts and dollars and opportunities and persons, and centers of gravity.” But, turning again, he also pushes us to ask, “how real is that?” (Dennett 1991, p. 460).

This kind of back-and-forth, give-and-take is classic Dennett. Such moves are part of his constant effort to eke out a stable position in that apparent philosophical no-man’s-land between the extremes of hardcore realism and out-and-out eliminativism about the mental. Those unpersuaded by his efforts cast him as a tragic figure – one who is forever trying, impossibly, to have his cake and eat it too.

I have, more than once, heard him described as a slippery, Teflon philosopher. This is because he does not use the standard analytic technique of advancing tightly crafted arguments in the service of advancing or defending a metaphysical system. Indeed, given his love of Darwin and empirical science, he was ardently anti-essentialist and scathing about the pointlessness of analytic metaphysics. He frequently claimed that such work, though very clever, had as much value as studying the higher order rules of Chmess – a game of his own invention, played by no one, which is like chess in all respects except that the king can move two squares instead of just one. Relatedly, another of his favourite, oft-repeated catchphrases was: “If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing well”.

From beginning to end, Dennett staunchly articulated and defended his own peculiar brand of what might be called a humanistic naturalism – a view of reality that gives pride of place to the physical sciences and which is underwritten by a reading of Darwin that emphasises the pivotal importance of natural selection, understood as a thoroughly mindless and mechanical process. This was an idea that Dennett, in the title of another of his books, billed as Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. He embraced the conviction that everything about us, and every one of our achievements, can be ultimately explained and accounted for by appeal to the mindless operations of natural selection. This put Dennett at odds with anyone who sought to give a rival account of the origins and nature of humans and other beings, and especially those of a religious bent.

In some circles, Dennett is best known for the controversy he courted by publicly propounding atheism, but his real legacy is the pathbreaking role he played in founding new ways of doing philosophy by drawing on findings from disciplines beyond philosophy. The great value of his work is not limited to his specific contributions to specific philosophical topics: he did much more than just shape the course of those discussions – he gave us new directions, new tools, and a wonderful new role model of what a philosopher can be.

Dennett was a truly towering figure – gargantuan in more than one sense. He sports a reputation for being tough on some of his peers. This is, notoriously, evidenced in his exchanges with and treatment of figures such as Gould, Nagel, and Searle. Yet my impression of Dennett, having met him in person on three occasions over three decades (in 1998, 2008 and 2018), is that, to many, he was in fact a gentle giant, full of good natured and supportive largesse.

In toeing a fervent humanist line, although he saw no room for God in our world, Dennett clearly thought there is plenty of room for acts of goodness. He frequently made his own contributions in this regard, showing kindness to new researchers and helping them launch their careers. A recent personal correspondence with Ruth Millikan at the time of his passing, shared with permission, confirms this: “You are right about Dennett. I don’t think I would have been read at all if it weren’t for Dennett’s kind backing. And I was neither a student nor a colleague of his. His help was all just generosity.”

Dennett was larger than life and – though his passing has brought great sadness to those who knew and loved him – it is of some comfort to know that he is also larger than death. It is only fitting that he should have the last words in this piece in his memory. Below is what he kindly wrote to my daughter-in-law Shaani, in answer to a personal request for some guidance (the sort of request one might make of a Father Christmas figure) when she first took up Honours study in philosophy after having completed her first degree in psychology.

Hi Shaani,

Good luck with your pursuit of philosophy. Here is some advice.

1. Most ‘interminable’ debates in philosophy arise because both ‘sides’ are assuming something that just isn’t true! Ask yourself: suppose BOTH sides are missing something; what are they missing? (My book Intuition Pumps has a lot of related advice for young philosophers. See especially the “surely” alarm, and Rapoport’s Rules.) Sad to say, philosophers are not above the motive of careerism, and may struggle to keep alive an issue that actually deserves a burial simply because they are making a career out of being an expert on that very problem.

2. There are lots of merely artifactual puzzles in philosophy. That is, one philosopher overstates a case (almost deliberately, to get attention) and then everyone piles on. Avoid these scrimmages (or, perhaps better, make one brutal stab into the center of them and then MOVE ON). A good—but imperfect—rule of thumb is this: if you can’t motivate the problem to bright undergraduates (not just philosophy majors) take seriously the hypothesis that it is actually a problem of only contrived interest. See my ‘The Higher Order Truths of Chmess’ in Intuition Pumps. Don’t get trapped playing chmess!

3. Study deeply, even professionally, in some other field of inquiry. Almost any will do. Philosophy taken by itself is a pretty thin education. There are many surprisingly powerful ways of thinking, posing, and solving problems that are outside of philosophy. ENRICH your education with a strong dose of other fields, especially science.

That should be enough advice for now!

Best wishes,


© Professor Daniel D. Hutto 2024

Daniel Hutto is Professor of Philosophical Psychology at the University of Wollongong.

Books by Daniel C. Dennett referenced in this obituary

Content and Consciousness Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969

Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting Clarendon Press, 1984

Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology MIT Press, 1985

The Intentional Stance MIT Press, 1987

‘Quining Qualia’, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science ed. by A. Marcel & E. Bisiach, OUP, 1988

Consciousness Explained Penguin Books, 1991

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Simon & Schuster, 1995

Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking W.W. Norton & Co, 2013

I’ve Been Thinking Allen Lane, 2023

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