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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.
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this collection of previously unpublished papers is to explore Dennett's impact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,
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.
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 is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cape Town.