The philosopher in his study. Image: Evan Mann

“There are plenty of philosophers who would drum me out of the club.” Daniel Dennett in conversation

His new autobiography isn’t just about a thinker’s life—but about the thinking life itself
October 4, 2023
I’ve Been Thinking
Daniel C. Dennett (RRP: £30)
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Philosophers are trained to keep themselves out of their work. It’s supposed to all be about the arguments, not the arguer. So it’s not surprising that few write autobiographies and, when they do, those autobiographies are not generally considered to be of any philosophical importance. If they are read, it is out of mere curiosity—and not many of them merit the effort.

Daniel Dennett’s new memoir, I’ve Been Thinking, challenges this narrative. It sets out to be not just a life story but a kind of model for how to live a philosophical life. As he tells me over a video call on an intermittently uncooperative internet connection from his home in Massachusetts, “I wanted to gather together in one place a lot of my stories about how I wrote the things I wrote, how I figured out the things I figured out, and to suggest that this was a better way of doing philosophy than other traditional ways.”

In the book, he puts it even more bullishly, saying that it is the story of “how I became such a good thinker.” He knowingly adds a remark by the philosopher Don Ross who said: “Dan believes modesty is a virtue to be reserved for special occasions.” His aura of confidence is perhaps exaggerated by his physicality. Although now 81, he is still a big-built, deep-voiced man with one of the finest, fullest beards in the profession.

But confidence is not the same as arrogance. Dennett has earned the right to show the former and is self-aware enough to avoid the latter. And in some respects, he is modest. He says that “somebody with a stronger character could have done much more”. He admits to a “lazy streak”. He attributes his success to a combination of luck and something that the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who supervised his Oxford DPhil, observed: “There are much cleverer chaps than Dennett, but he has a fire in his belly.”

Dennett is without doubt one of the most pre-eminent philosophers of his generation. His status as a leading public intellectual was cemented in the mid-2000s, when he was grouped with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens as the four horsemen of the New Atheist movement. However, he was always less of a firebrand than the others, and his book urging for religion to be studied as a natural phenomenon, Breaking the Spell, has aged better than the more polemic offerings of the others.

His remorseless insistence that everything should be given a naturalistic explanation or none at all has been the golden thread running through his career. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, he argued that the theory of evolution by natural selection wasn’t just important in biology. It was a kind of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionised worldview, with most of the old landmarks still recognisable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”

That could also serve as a description of his own work. Dennett takes familiar ideas such as consciousness and free will, tears them apart and puts them back together in ways that are supposed to both transform and preserve them. But, to his critics, the metamorphosis is so violent that what is left is not recognisable. Philosopher Galen Strawson once quipped that Dennett’s 1991 book Consciousness Explained breached the Trade Descriptions Act.

Dennett is a divisive philosopher, but in a very particular way. He has many detractors and admirers, but few acolytes. That suits him. “Conflict is important in thinking. I’m always nervous when I’m surrounded by people who agree with me. I don’t want to have satellites, my posse that thinks everything I say is right.”

Those who approve of him support his general approach as much, or more, than his specific conclusions. They are fellow travellers, not disciples. Because of that, reading about how he does philosophy is arguably more important than reading about his substantive conclusions.

There are many features of Dennett’s intellectual biography that merit emulation. One is that “I have been incredibly fortunate in the company I’ve kept. I want to make sure people understand how important it is to find some really smart people to talk with, who’ll listen carefully and ask a lot of good questions. That should be what philosophers are good at: asking better questions.”

Reading about how he does philosophy is arguably more important than reading about his substantive conclusions

Dennett also stresses the social nature of reasoning. By way of illustration, he cites Andrew Wiles, the mathematician who proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. He’s known as the individual who cracked it, but, Dennett says, “he could never have honestly, rigorously believed that he had a proof if the community of fellow mathematicians, his colleagues and his competitors had not conceded, well done, congratulations. That’s not just a sociological fact. That’s why we know he proved it, including Andrew Wiles himself. All learning is communal. What makes us so smart is that we talk things over.”

Yet in philosophy, he notes, most work is still by a single author. “One of the great lessons that we’ve learned in the last century or so is that the problems we’re now facing are probably too hard for single individuals to solve. It’s going to take teamwork.” In collaborative work, you can produce something that is not only beyond the capabilities of any individual author, but also beyond their understanding. “The idea of distributed understanding is upon us, and we should take it very seriously. I’ve published papers where I’ve only semi-understood some of the technical stuff that my co-author has put in.”

In conversation and writing, Dennett is constantly testifying to the collective nature of intellectual inquiry. Phrases like “so and so said” recur with great frequency. He certainly seems to have been, as he calls it, “an intellectual magnet that just kept bringing super smart people into my orbit.” Say something worth saying around Dennett and he will store it away—and be sure to give you the credit.

Less obviously relevant to good thinking is Dennett’s lifelong interest in working with his hands. “Farming, plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, cabinet work, you name it, I’ve done it.” As he talks about this, it is as if he is describing both his practical and philosophical work at the same time. “One of the most salient features of my method is to be a maker, a doer, a fixer, a repairman and a builder.” The parallels are most evident when he talks about his work as a sculptor. “The sculptor gets to nibble away and approximate and move in slowly and look at the thing from other angles, rough something out before they begin. And I think that’s the way I’ve done my work all along. I’ve turned the topic around in my head and tried to sculpt something and don’t go in for premature definition.”

Although some philosophers have advanced a similar conception of philosophy—most notably Mary Midgely with her comparison of the discipline with plumbing—this almost make-do-and-mend approach offends those who aspire to purer, eternal truths. But it strikes me as refreshingly realistic, in the tradition of empiricists such as Aristotle and David Hume. Philosophers are not seers, able to penetrate the nature of ultimate reality. They’re imperfect human beings, trying to make sense of the world as best they can. In that sense, at least, Dennett is an extremely modest thinker.

I suggest to Dennett another good reason why thinkers of all stripes should spend time doing something practical: the mind moves in mysterious ways and many intellectuals and artists have found that it works best when given time away from conscious deliberation and is allowed to lose itself somewhere else.

“Absolutely. My colleague and co-author Marcel Kinsbourne has a nice saying: the only reason anything is difficult is because something attractive and simpler is standing in the way. If you have a problem that you’re stumped by, you can sit there and just bang away at it, or you can try to distract yourself with something else. That loosens up some of the circuits in your brain, and lets some better candidates rise to the surface. I look at some of my colleagues who chew away on a problem like a dog chewing on a bone. Sometimes I just want to throw a pail of ice water in their face and say, ‘Take a deep breath and try thinking of this in a slightly different way. You may surprise yourself!’”

This may sound like common sense, but it flies in the face of the orthodoxy that philosophy is entirely about conscious, rational deliberation. “We don’t know how to control our thoughts directly, contrary to what a lot of philosophers seem to think. We’re pretty well dependent on whatever the brain throws at us next.”

Given how sceptical Dennett is about how much we are in control of ourselves and even understand our true nature, it might seem odd that he has written an autobiography. He questions the common belief that we have a kind of privileged access to the contents of our own consciousness. He is in favour of “treating subjects’ beliefs about their own consciousness as data to be explained, not necessarily true.”

But, as with Dennett’s questioning of consciousness and free will, the aim isn’t so much to debunk as to cut down to size. On his view, we only have privileged access “in a very mundane sense. You know your own mind better than you know the minds of your best friends because you hang around with yourself all the time. You are in the room. You get to hear. But it’s not different in kind from the sort of access I have to the mind of my wife when she’s thinking. Richard Rorty put his finger on it years ago. It’s a social fact that you and I can sit down and share our thoughts.” Dennett is the best person to write the story of his own life not because he knows it as a fact from the inside, but because he has had the best seat in the house to watch it unfurl.

Another feature of Dennett’s intellectual history is his eclecticism. “I’m a packrat, a magpie, always on the lookout for a useful tidbit,” he writes. He is not constrained by disciplinary boundaries, which means those who place more value on these demarcations sometimes claim that he isn’t actually a philosopher. “I know that there are plenty of philosophers who would drum me out of the club,” he says. “But I’ve still got plenty of philosophers and very smart people in other fields that are paying attention, and that strikes me as more important.”

He also has no time for those who say you have to keep your focus and be a specialist, or else you end up spreading yourself too thin. “If we look around, we see a lot of people working in the trenches, in the sciences, in the humanities, and they’re so narrow in their focus that they never get a chance to see how this fits into the larger picture of what’s going on in the world. I think philosophers are particularly vulnerable in that regard.”

They’re also inclined to lose sight of what really matters, getting hung up on unimportant conceptual disputes. As Dennett puts it in the book: “Philosophy can readily degenerate into high-concept pissing contests.” He tells me that too many thinkers get bogged down in what doesn’t matter because they “do not want to be deflected from the course they’re on. They’ve invested their career in a certain way of doing business, and they just don’t want to face the prospect that maybe they have gone down a blind alley.” As he writes, “Anybody who becomes a philosopher and never has any serious doubts about whether this is a wise life choice is not a very good philosopher.”

That Dennett has strong disagreements with some of his colleagues is obvious. In some cases, that tips over into antipathy, mutual or otherwise. Autobiographies offer temptations to hit back at those you feel aggrieved by and Dennett succumbs, but selectively, when he writes: “[I] have done a conscientious job of reserving my barbs for academic bullies.” These are people who are “not afraid to humiliate, disparage, criticise in unfair ways, misrepresent the work of others.” Dennett went for them because “they have a lot of power and they wield it. One of the things that I realised is that not depending on foundation grants to do my research, I was pretty much invulnerable to the sorts of retaliation that academic bullies can unleash.”

No one could accuse Dennett of punching down. The people he criticises include such academic big-hitters as Jerry Fodor, John Searle and Stephen Gould, along with the journalist Andrew Brown. Noam Chomsky only gets a passing mention for his review of BF Skinner’s Verbal Behaviour (“a masterpiece of misleading polemics”) because “I’ve already put my stories of his bullying in print in other places.” Interestingly, Gould, Fodor and Searle were all once friends of his.

Given that scholarly bad behaviour comes in many forms, I ask Dennett why he had singled out academic bullying as the crime to challenge. He accepts that there is plenty else he could have talked about, notably sexual misbehaviour, which was once rampant. “It’s getting better, but there were male faculty members at University of California, Irvine, when I was there in the 1960s, who viewed coeds as one of the perks of academia. They were quite open about it. It was astonishing to think back on that. But I leave that to others.”

It’s an interesting decision, because it seems that Dennett was something of a puritan by the standards of the 1960s. He’s been married to his wife Susan for over 50 years and writes “many of our friends on the faculty were turning to drugs, open marriage, and other activities that were distressing to us when they weren’t comic.”

“I take morality seriously,” he explains. “I take my own morality seriously. I made plenty of moral errors and committed my share of what, if I were religious, I would call sins, but nothing that I bitterly regret, I’m happy to say—so far. And I think that’s probably going to stay true unless I go bonkers.”

Most of Dennett’s work has been in the philosophy of mind, trying to demystify the nature of consciousness and show that it is a purely natural phenomenon. Although many of his peers share the same ambition, he has argued that most can’t shake off the model of the “Cartesian theatre” in which consciousness is assumed to be some kind of inner movie projected on the mind’s eye. In response, they accuse him of ignoring the irreducibly subjective nature of mind. John Searle’s claim that “Dennett denies the existence of consciousness” is often repeated as though it were a fact.

Dennett considers most of these accusations to be directed at straw men. “I devoted a whole subsection of Consciousness Explained to say I’m not denying the existence of consciousness. I have the section called ‘Welcome to the Phenomenological Garden’.” Dennett’s argument is that “Yes, there’s pain, there’s suffering, there are ideas, there’s yearnings, and hankerings, and all the rest. They’re just not what you think they are.

“If you think that consciousness is a show running in the Cartesian theatre inside your head, then consciousness doesn’t exist. But if you can wean yourself off that fatally confused image, then consciousness exists just fine. Consciousness is not that show. It’s the enjoyment of the show. It’s like the point I make about the soul. Yes, we have a soul. It’s just made of lots of tiny robots. It’s not this pearl of magic stuff.”

Dennett argues that rather than there being a kind of singular centre of consciousness, there are any number of different things going on in the brain at any one time. What we are conscious of is whichever one of those things happens to force its way to the front. “It’s cherry picking,” Dennett explains. Even when we think we are thinking about one thing, in reality that is just what happens to be most mentally salient. “Right now, there are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of possible questions and responses churning around in your brain. Thank goodness you’re not aware of it. And one of them will win the competition.”

“A student of mine once made a wonderful, impromptu suggestion. She said, ‘Oh, I think I get it. He wants the ideas to think for themselves.’ I said, ‘Bingo! You’ve got it.’ There’s no thinker as an independent agent. It’s all of these content-full states vying for influence. That’s what consciousness is.”

This is a reboot of Hume’s “bundle” theory of the self. There is no separate “I” that has thoughts, feelings, desires, memories and sensations. There just are thoughts, feelings, desires, memories and sensations, and “I” is a name we give to their collection. For Buddhists, this is old news. For many contemporary philosophers, however, it remains scandalous. But whatever the best explanation of consciousness is, there is no reason to expect it to sound intuitively plausible. As Dennett writes in the book, “Of course something must be counter-intuitive or we wouldn’t have an enduring mind-body problem.”

Dennett’s life is as interesting as his mind because the two cannot be separated

Like most autobiographies without ruthless editors, I’ve Been Thinking contains a bit too much indulgent anecdotage. Stories about recording a song in a professional studio, learning languages on holiday, trying hang-gliding, renovating an outbuilding and so on would make for perfectly entertaining dinner-table chat but hardly merit immortalisation between cloth covers. These moments are unlike Dennett, who has always been a terrific prose stylist as well as a great phrasemaker. Terms such as “universal acid”, “skyhooks” (purported explanations for natural phenomena that hang on nothing) and “intuition pumps” (aids to thinking, such as thought experiments) have entered the philosophical lexicon.

He learned the importance of good writing from his mother, an editor. “She would often explain to me what was wrong or flabby or misleading in a sentence she was surgically revising.” But although he endorses the principle “Record everything and throw away everything but the sweet spots,” in this book, he doesn’t always follow it.

Nonetheless, these flaws are easily forgiven. Dennett’s life is as interesting as his mind because the two cannot be separated. His autobiography serves as a kind of demonstration of how the way in which you live reflects and shapes the way you think. The life of the mind is the entire life of the whole thinker.