Daniel C. Dennett Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Dennett brought cognitive science and philosophy closer together by discussing the physical structures of the brain and artificial intelligence in his philosophy. Arguing convincingly against Cartesian dualism, Dennett became known as a staunch defender of a materialist philosophy of mind.

Early Life

Daniel Clement Dennett was born to an academic family. His father, Daniel Clement Dennett, Sr., was a historian and diplomat. His mother, Ruth Marjorie Leck Dennett, was a teacher and editor. An outstanding student, the young Dennett entered Harvard and graduated cum laude in 1963. While at Harvard, he married Susan Elizabeth Bell on June 8, 1962. Dennett has reported that he developed a fascination with the mind-body problem during his first year in college, when he read the work of the seventeenth century French philosopher René Descartes. Following his graduation, Dennett went to England to study philosophy at Oxford University, where he received a doctorate in philosophy in 1965. His chief mentor at Oxford was the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle and Dennett’s Harvard mentor, W. V. O. Quine, influenced Dennett’s style of writing as well as his materialist approach. Both of these older thinkers, Dennett later explained, always attempted to avoid jargon-laden writing and tried to write as though their readers would be nonphilosophers.

After he returned to the United States, Dennett took a position as assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, in 1965 and remained there until 1971, having been promoted to the level of associate professor in 1970. He wrote his first book, Content and Consciousness, based on his doctoral dissertation, while in California. He moved to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1971. Although he would travel widely and serve as visiting professor at numerous universities, he continued to be on the faculty of Tufts throughout his career.

Life’s Work

Content and Consciousness established many of the themes that would appear in Dennett’s writings. It was in this book that he developed the idea of intentional systems, physical systems that could best be understood by seeing them as rational decision makers. The idea of intentionality was derived from the work of nineteenth century psychologist and philosopher Franz Brentano, who drew a distinction between mental phenomena and physical phenomena. Brentano maintained that mental phenomena could not be reduced to physical and mechanical events because mental phenomena show intentionality; they are directed upon objects in intentions, goals, wishes, desires, and interests. Dennett believed that Brentano’s distinction was a useful one. Dennett, however, argued that it was possible to see intentionality as a consequence of relations among material parts and not as a characteristic of spirit or soul. His argument drew heavily on Darwinian evolution, another theme that would continually reappear in his work. Dennett paid a great deal of attention to brain mechanisms, a focus that caused some philosophers to question whether his work should really be classified as philosophy.

In 1975, Tufts University promoted Dennett from associate professor to full professor in recognition of his many contributions to philosophy journals and of his growing professional reputation. The following year, he became head of the philosophy department at Tufts.

While serving in this position, he published a book of essays, Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology. These essays extended and revised the theory of the mind Dennett had put forth in his first book. They discussed the nature of intentional systems, implications of Dennett’s philosophy for psychology, the nature of mental phenomena, and questions of morality and personhood.

Philosopher Douglas R. Hofstadter collaborated with Dennett in editing the volume The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981). This was an unusual book for professional philosophers. It was a wide-ranging anthology of stories, fantasies, and speculative essays about the nature of the self and of consciousness, designed to stimulate imaginations and provoke questions, rather than to answer philosophical questions.

Dennett’s interest in exploring the relationship between the freedom of decision making and scientific concepts of causality led to his fourth book, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. In this book, he reexamined the old philosophical question of whether human beings have free will. Most materialist thinkers would argue that thinking, as a product of physical determinants, cannot be free. Dennett, however, maintained that the deliberations of people are critical points in the process of producing actions. Therefore, people can be seen as having free will, even though the universe operates in a deterministic manner. A member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dennett saw the question of free will as a political one and not simply as a disinterested philosophical issue.

In 1985, Dennett received the title of Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor, and he became director of the Center for Cognitive Studies. This center consisted primarily of Dennett and an administrative assistant, and its function was to provide the philosopher with time to research, think, and write. Through the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Dennett produced a succession of books that were best-sellers by the standards of academic philosophy. In The Intentional Stance, he...

(The entire section is 2299 words.)