Dennett, Daniel C.

Dennett, Daniel C.
▪ 1997

      For centuries philosophers had grappled with the problem of the nature of consciousness, and at the end of the 20th century the mind-body problem still provoked lively debate. At home in this contentious milieu was philosopher Dan Dennett, head of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, Medford, Mass. Beginning in the 1960s Dennett argued, in an elegant and engaging style, for the materialist viewpoint—the idea that the mind can be described solely in terms of the workings of the brain. His latest book, Kinds of Minds, which appeared in 1996, advanced that argument yet another step.

      Dennett was born March 28, 1942, in Boston. His father was a diplomat and a scholar of Islamic history; his mother, an editor and a teacher. After receiving a B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, he moved to the University of Oxford, where he studied with the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. There, as a graduate student, Dennett became interested in the problem of consciousness and wrote his first thesis on the topic, which he later turned into his first book, Content and Consciousness (1969). He received a doctorate in philosophy in 1965, whereupon he returned to the U.S. to teach at the University of California, Irvine. In 1971 he moved to Tufts, eventually achieving the distinction of distinguished arts and sciences professor.

      Although trained in the philosophical tradition, Dennett was conversant in the fields of artificial intelligence, neuroscience, and cognitive psychology. He educated himself in those disciplines, having become convinced that only by being informed by science could the philosophical debate about mind be productive. His somewhat unorthodox approach, which reflected his skepticism of traditional methods of philosophy, cast him as a radical among his colleagues. Nevertheless, his interdisciplinary strategy was becoming more prevalent among philosophers as scientific researchers gathered more information about the brain's mechanisms.

      In 1996 Dennett was involved with a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was attempting to construct an intelligent, and perhaps even conscious, robot called Cog. He also continued to write. Throughout his career he authored a number of books that detail his theories of consciousness. Two recent efforts, Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), examine how the mindless process of natural selection can account for the evolution of the brain and human consciousness. Kinds of Minds continued to explore and, in Dennett's view, to demystify those phenomena.

      (MARY JANE FRIEDRICH)

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Universalium. 2010.

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