Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Daniel Dennett by Matthew Elton

A great book, but probably not for you. I say that not to be dismissive, but because this book is oriented to someone studying philosophy of mind and/or who has read some of Dennett’s prior work and/or has a large interest in Dennett’s work, and that is not most people (unfortunately). (I could see some students trying to use this as a high-level Coles, with varying degrees of success.)

For huge Dennett fans like myself though, it was an insightful and well-researched exploration of Dennett’s ideas from his thesis in the 1960s to approximately the year 2000. Elton presents a knowledgeable and sympathetic (and often charitable) interpretation of Dennett’s many views and covers the gamut from intentionality to consciousness to evolution and free will.

To paraphrase one reviewer of Daniel Dennett, after reading Dennett you often feel you have been convinced of something but are not sure exactly what it is. Consequently, I believe this work is quite helpful to understanding Dennett because his ideas are not only clarified and placed in context of other views, but also because when Dennett is less than clear, Elton offers interpretations or possibilities which advance Dennett’s line of thinking. After reading several instances of this, I thought about when certain perspectives/arguments become a combination of an initial source and an interpreter, and how an interesting discussion about the notion of authorship and ownership of ideas could be had (but not right now).

Elton excelled at discussing the main papers of The Intentional Stance, as well as his coverage of consciousness and in which he made certain distinctions of Dennett’s more explicit. For example, Elton demonstrates that Dennett could be clearer on consciousness, as he often mixes different types of awareness (which Elton helpfully splits it into behavioural awareness and narrative awareness). The coverage of evolution and DDI was decent but I was seeking more regarding meaning and other aspects of how important Darwin is to Dennett. Additionally, the coverage of Elbow Room and free will was adequate, but the depth of knowledge was not as great and his concerns were less compelling than in other sections.

Although I found it tough going at the beginning because of the large coverage on intentionality (my weakest link in the Dennett chain), it was very educational. One reiteration of Dennett’s perspective stuck in my head: Beliefs are features of the patterns that we observe when we adopt the intentional stance. Basically, intentionality is not so really an intrinsic feature of agents, but it is a way of looking at the world/agents.
Another useful piece of thinking that I took from Daniel Dennett is that I was reminded that one cannot truly explain beliefs using mechanistic processes because beliefs are a higher order phenomenon (visible from the intentional stance). If there is only mechanism, are their beliefs? The Churchlands say no, making them eliminativists, and Fodor says yes and they are representations, but Dennett says yes, but no; a view that is quite appealing (and obviously more complex than here described).

Those who have an interest in exploring one of the most significant philosophers of our time should try this out (but prior exposure to Dennett’s work and background philosophy of mind is recommended).


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