Hubert L Dreyfus (1927-2017): Teaching was learning

The great philosopher's academic courses "were genuine, live conversations in which everything was always on the line"

May 03, 2017
Hubert Dreyfus at an event at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 2011 ©Jörg Noller
Hubert Dreyfus at an event at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in 2011 ©Jörg Noller

“No one in our day has done more than Hubert L Dreyfus to make American philosophy less parochial,” the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in the forward to a collection of essays in Dreyfus’s honour. “For some forty years, he has helped the rest of us understand what our European colleagues are up to, introduced us to them, and encouraged the study of their works.” He even tried to convince Rorty that the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl was “not nearly as pointless” as he might have thought. Dreyfus died of cancer at the age of 87 on 22nd April in Berkeley, California. As his Twitter feed had it on that day, “Reports of my demise are not exaggerated.”

Dreyfus studied physics at Harvard but turned to graduate work in philosophy after attending lectures by C I Lewis, the founder of conceptual pragmatism. Thanks to fellowships and visiting appointments, he spent several years working and studying in Europe, where he met Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. He brought their ideas—alongside the thoughts of other big names in the continental tradition—to generations of philosophers in nearly 50 years of teaching at UC Berkeley.

His teaching was legendary, and his classrooms were packed. According to a former student and co-author, the Harvard philosopher Sean D Kelly, “Dreyfus believed that teaching is learning… his courses were genuine, live conversations in which everything was always on the line. They were electrifying.”

The range of his interests was legendary too. In addition to work on major philosophers in the continental tradition, he published papers on Don Quixote, Dante, aircraft pilot behaviour, morality, death, The Matrix, globalization, U2, the internet and, in a best-selling book called All Things Shining, finding meaning in a secular life. He was an early critic of artificial intelligence, raising objections from the 1960s and taking issue with the assumptions behind the more enthusiastic claims of AI researchers. In Mind Over Machine, he argued that “Human intelligence can never be replaced with machine intelligence simply because we are not ourselves ‘thinking machines.’” The thought was that what we do when we think and act is very different to what a computer is able to do.

This was the beginning of a long enquiry Dreyfus undertook throughout his life, focusing on the nature of human understanding. His target was the old Cartesian conception of the mind and action, a notion that is deeply embedded in contemporary philosophical thinking as well as cognitive science. According to it, the mind consists in representations of the world that might or might not correspond to the way things really are. The paradigm case of deliberate or intelligent action is a mind representing the world, weighing up the options, having beliefs about what it desires and a grip on the steps it has to follow to achieve what it wants—the body then does what it is told to. It nearly goes without saying that if this is your picture of human intelligence, then of course artificial intelligence is possible—you just need to get a computer to represent parts of the world, work out the rules a human follows when it thinks and acts, and then program the thing accordingly.

But Dreyfus was led, largely by thoughts about the phenomenology of human action, to reject every part of this picture. Dreyfus argues that intelligent action is best exemplified by “fluid coping,” being in the zone, dribbling a basketball, driving, playing chess—exhibiting a skill. “Since we all have many areas in which we are experts,” Dreyfus argues, “we have the necessary data, so let’s look and see how adults learn new skills.”

He identifies five stages of skill acquisition—novice, advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, and finally expertise. Everyday, practical human action, fluid coping when things are going well for us, the actions of someone who has at least gained competence, looks nothing like the old Cartesian picture of minds and bodies and representations and rules. When you first acquire a skill you might need to follow rules to work out how to do it, but once you know what you’re doing, you are in the world doing it, there are no rules, no representations, no deliberations—in fact, bring any of that into an expert’s efforts to dribble a basketball and it will get in the way of dribbling the basketball.

Philosophy, for Dreyfus, was an activity undertaken too. As he put it, “There are no facts, there are no rules, there is not even a corpus of accepted interpretations. It has to be reinvented every day. Some days you fail, some days you succeed, and when you do, then you and your students know something of what is exciting and important about philosophy.”