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What Is Good Philosophy?

Daniel Dennett on his approach to philosophy and philosophy historians' role.

Key points

  • Daniel Dennett is one of the most influential philosophers and cognitive scientists of his generation.
  • According to Dennett, many knowledgeable young philosophers have entered the field.
  • Scholars who devote themselves to particular figures in philosophy play an important role.

This is part 3 of a series. See part 1 here and part 2 here.

Daniel C. Dennett is an emeritus professor at Tufts University and one of the most influential philosophers and cognitive scientists of his generation. In my podcast (see references for the full video), I recently spoke to Dennett about his recent memoir, I've Been Thinking, his views on consciousness, free will, religion, the importance of evolution, and philosophy itself. I previously published the first and second parts of this interview. Below you will find an edited transcript of the third part.

Walter Veit: How has philosophy changed since your days at Oxford? At this time ordinary language philosophy was really the non plus ultra. But now a kind of scientific style of doing philosophy akin to your approach has become much more popular. Then again, for many young philosophers to try to engage in this work, they might also struggle getting the work published; the work that really tries to integrate insights from different disciplines and getting that into the mainstream journals.

Daniel Dennett: Well, we've made a lot of progress. I think one of the things that I'm actually proudest of is that today there are literally dozens of very good young philosophers, younger than I am, who know much more neuroscience, much more cognitive science, much more computer science, and much more evolutionary biology, than I do.

They've really been in the labs, they've performed experiments and that's the next generation that's carrying on some of the trends that I helped start, and I'm very happy to see that and they are getting published, but it’s still an uphill battle and of course for many people in philosophy, traditional analytic philosophy or continental philosophy, there's still people that look down on that or are intimidated by it.

I think one of the more sobering moments in my career was when I gave a talk at a graduate philosophy conference organized by graduate students in philosophy at Brown University some years ago. That's where I invented "chmess." But over drinks, they were getting nice and relaxed and several keynote speakers said that they went into philosophy because you didn't have to know anything and that appalled me.

But I remember it from Oxford too, when I was a graduate student and there were lots of very clever chaps. They were almost all chaps. They were clever as a devil, very fast, very good with counter examples, and they didn't know a darn thing. And they didn't think they had to.

They could just live by their wits and know their Wittgenstein, their Austin, their Ryle, and their Russell. And that was about it. And I thought, those are wasted lives. People getting very good at something that doesn't really need doing.

WV: You have a really nice quote to describe your way of doing philosophy:

“I’m a pack rat, a magpie—to slices of what strike me as the most exciting or thought-provoking tidbits and leaving the rest of the interpretation to the scholars. I think I have learned a lot from Husserl, but some distinguished Husserl scholars think my reading is irreparably ill-informed. I don’t care. I turned to Husserl to figure out how the mind works and got some valuable help from that reading; if Husserl himself would be aghast at my construal, too bad for Husserl. I am happy to give him credit, but if Husserlians want to reject my gift, they are welcome to do so.” (Daniel Dennett, I’ve Been Thinking, 2023, 81% Kindle version).

DD: Yeah, that does express my attitude towards the history of philosophy. I have respect for those philosophers who for good reason decide to become experts on Kant or Husserl or Frege or Plato or Aristotle. That's valuable work and it helps to undo one of the paradoxes of teaching philosophy.

And that is, you gotta start somewhere. So you start with the greats, but when you start with the greats, your young students don't know enough to appreciate how great the greats are, and they get watered down into oversimplified caricatured versions. Students think they know them, and then they never go back. Time and again in my later years, I've gone back to a classic text and discovered, to my embarrassment, how little I appreciated the real depths of that philosopher.

So it's the historians, it's the scholars who do devote themselves to particular figures, who keep us honest and that's very important. It’s perhaps not as glamorous or exciting a philosophical role, but it's very important in the same way that in the sciences, most of the experimental science is not Nobel-winning, innovative stuff. It’s keeping the field honest, filling in the blanks, correcting errors, checking, replicating experiments, and this work is all good, honest work. It needs to be done since the strength of intellectual endeavour depends on those good citizens who do that work, do it well, and do it with integrity.

My hat is off to them and I sometimes blush when I think that I've been sort of parasitic on their efforts, because I go in with my smörgåsbord approach and make a little of this and a little of that, and come up with something that strikes me as a new wrinkle, which is what I do best. But I'm fully appreciative of the efforts of the scholars who really dig down into the time, era, context, and the minutiae in the works of others.


Click here for the full interview.

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