The great philosopher's academic courses "were genuine, live conversations in which everything was always on the line"by James Garvey / May 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
“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.