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Daniel DennettReview - Daniel Dennett
by Andrew Brook and Don Ross (Editors)
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Review by Jeremy Wanderer, Ph.D.
Oct 29th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 44)

There is little doubt that Daniel Dennett ranks amongst the most popular contemporary philosophers, even if few would go as far as the claim made late in this volume that: "… Dennett almost certainly now stands with or just behind Russell and Wittgenstein as the most famous professional philosophers of the century" (p. 272). His books often feature on bestseller lists, his thought is regularly discussed by figures in a range of disciplines outside philosophy and he is frequently an invited contributor to wider public debate.

For some, part of the reason for this popularity stems from factors that are largely circumstantial. Dennett writes lucidly and provocatively on topics of much current interest, including consciousness studies and evolutionary theory. Further, Dennett has achieved a degree of notoriety in these areas, especially as a result of his (admittedly unwilling) role in the so-called Darwin Wars. In these, Dennett is portrayed as an ultra-Darwinian, lumped together with other popular figures such as Dawkins and Pinker, and infamous for ascribing beliefs to thermometers, denying that humans have consciousness and using reflections on evolution to 'reduce' morality. Combine all this with engaging prose and Dennett's popularity, the claim goes, is not hard to understand. 

Reading this interesting collection of essays on Dennett's thought, one is struck by just how unfair such a diagnosis is. Over a number of decades now, Dennett has articulated a subtle and distinctive position in the philosophy of mind that is a far cry from the populist caricature above. This Dennettian stance forms a surprisingly coherent point of view, moving from a distinctive understanding of the phenomenon of intentionality articulated early on in 'The Intentional Stance', through his more famous work on consciousness (esp. in Consciousness Explained) and then binding of this all together with a distinctive understanding of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Indeed, one could claim, with some justification, that Dennett's seminal contribution to what the editors of this collection term 'the cognitivist revolution' has been partly responsible for the rise in popularity of these topics themselves.

A central aim of this collection of previously unpublished papers is to explore Dennett's impact in areas beyond traditional philosophy. To this effect, we are provided with ten essays that critically consider Dennett's contribution to consciousness studies, cognitive science, developmental psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, cognitive ethology and AI. There is even a groundbreaking attempt, in the first of two essays by Ross, to consider the implication of Dennett's work for the philosophy of social science, especially through a demonstration of the central relevance of the intentional stance to an understanding of game-theoretic approaches to economic theory. Many of the contributors are leading figures in these areas, including, for example, Baron-Cohen on autism, Cheney and Seyfarth on ethology and Churchland on cognitive science. These individual contributions are framed by an excellent survey of Dennett's work, written by the editors of the volume, which features as the introductory chapter of the book. This essay was read by all the contributors to the volume prior to writing their own contributions, ensuring both minimal overlap between the various contributions and a distinct coherence to the collection as a whole.

If there is a weakness to this collection, it lies in a lack of critical consideration of Dennett's impact within the traditional disciplinary confines of philosophy itself. Few of the contributors list 'philosophy' as their home discipline and those that do are generally insiders to Dennett's perspective, even to the extent of employing Dennett's distinctive, chatty style of philosophising, know what I mean? This is not merely a gripe stemming from partisan concerns for one's own discipline, but in the belief that taking Dennett seriously as a philosopher is important in providing a genuine evaluation of his overall contribution. In motivating the decision to omit serious discussion of Dennett's philosophical achievements in this volume, the editors point to the existence of other collections whose focus is primarily philosophical. Presumably they have in mind, amongst others, their own recent collection of essays, entitled: Dennett's Philosophy: A Comprehensive Assessment (MIT Press; 2000). Whilst such a division of labour between the two volumes is understandable, it is notable that both are populated by philosophers who are sympathetic to Dennett's approach, and insufficient room is given for serious, critical dissent to the Dennettian stance as a whole.

For example, Dennett's robust naturalism is such that not only are philosopher's encouraged to become empirically aware, but are also encouraged to use scientific research to resolve traditional philosophical questions. This naturalistic starting point has many dissenters; for some, as Bennett & Hacker put it in their recent book (Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience, Blackwell: 2003),  "the suggestion…is akin to claiming that knots can be untied in a piece of string by taking a fresh piece of string". By focussing on Dennett's influence 'beyond the bounds of academic philosophy', this volume serves to highlight a number of interesting questions about philosophical methodology and interdisciplinary boundaries in this regard. It is a shame that no essay attempts to address these broader issues explicitly.

All this is not to imply that no dissenting voices are heard in this volume, of which the contribution by Wilkes probably stands out as the most vocal. According to Wilkes, Dennett's position has little to teach AI researchers, who concern themselves with more mundane engineering concerns than engage in the overly-optimistic, abstract speculation found in Dennett. Wilkes suggests that the core problem stems from 'the curious position of cognitive science', falling between the accepted methodological cannons of either science or philosophy. Instead, Dennett:

"resorts to games and stories, perhaps imagining himself in the tradition of Wittgenstein, a notoriously hard act to follow. But this has left him without an intellectual base…He grabs at AI metaphors but with no procedural or structural traditions…with no real criteria for the judgement of what is said and claimed, while appearing to be very up-to-date in the use of metaphors from other subjects, metaphors that are imperfectly understood by one's target audience". (p. 269).

Again, it is interesting to note that such a diagnosis involves reflection on methodological and interdisciplinary concerns, and explicit discussion of these issues would help facilitate a fuller evaluation of such strong claims.

Overall, such reservations should not mask the strengths of this particular volume. The essays are accessible to the uninitiated and comprehensive in terms of their outline of Dennett's contribution to a variety of disciplines. The introductory essay stands out in particular as providing one of the most succinct and engaging overviews of Dennett's stance currently available. Indeed, for anyone looking for a helpful companion to his or her initial engagement with Dennett's own writings, I know of no better place to start.

 

© 2003 Jeremy Wanderer

 

Dr. Jeremy Wanderer is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cape Town.  


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