Daniel Dennett (1942-2024)

Daniel Dennett has passed away.

While my own connection to Dennett was limited, I want to share a few of memories, because these moments spent with and around Dennett impressed me greatly.

I met Dennett during my visit at Tufts University in 2017, when I was in the middle of my PhD in philosophy. I don’t believe I had been aware of Dennett’s presence at Tufts when I initially planned the trip, but once I caught wind of it, I had to sit in on one of his courses. Dennett was willing to let me attend his course; on the condition that it wasn’t too overbooked and I didn’t take away a place from a registered student.

It was an undergraduate course on his then just out book “From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds”. The crowd thinned out a little as the term progressed, but I stuck around. In addition to Dennett’s own book, I also read Peter Godfrey-Smith’s “Other Minds” for discussions in the class. For a few classes, Dennett was away, engaged in some professional manner, perhaps giving a talk or presenting his book. The weeks he was there were always a highlight. Hopefully, my contributions as a PhD student amongst Bachelor students were not too obnoxious.

A magic lantern projecting the Cartesian theatre

Dennett expressed dissatisfaction with the turns academic philosophy had taken: The all–too–common disciplinary navel–gazing lacking any serious engagement with science. The inability of philosophers to imagine possibilities and their insistence that their lack of imagination was a proof of something. Dennett was impatient with some questions of metaphysics, or other intellectual puzzles that philosophers entertain themselves with — chmess! — because he was aware that actual progress can be made in science.

By sticking around, I got to know Dennett a little better. I remember having pizza with him, or rather sitting next to him having pizza with the others, since there was no vegan option. It didn’t matter; I was listening to this great mind and his anecdotes, many of which I was happy to read again in his recent autobiography. His life was truly worth a book and more.

One could just hang out with Dan and the crowd forming around him, and end up having a debate about cognition, or evolution, or AI, or anything else that caught one’s intellectual fancy. Dennett was accessible and made everything around him accessible. Not just philosophy, but science and art as well, the entirety of the intellectual world. One just had to not let oneself be intimidated, be imaginative, and make one’s case. I’m deeply grateful that Dennett was open to such easy engagement and let me be part of it for a few months.

For more memories of Dennett see:

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