Daniel Dennett’s Autobiography

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[Posted by BR]

I thought some of you might enjoy reading Part I of Daniel Dennett’s (brief) autobiography (Part I covers the “pre-professional years”). It’s available online in the July/August 2009 issue of Philosophy Now. To access it, click here.

Here is an excerpt:

One night as I crammed in the math library [while Dennett was an undergraduate at Wesleyan], I took a breather and scouted out the shelves. Quine’s From a Logical Point of View caught my eye, and I sat down to sample it. By breakfast I had finished my first of several readings of it, and made up my mind to transfer to Harvard. This Quine person was very, very interesting – but wrong. I couldn’t yet say exactly how or why, but I was quite sure. So I decided, as only a freshman could, that I had to confront him directly and see what I could learn from him – and teach him! A reading of Descartes’ Meditations in my first philosophy course, with Louis Mink, not only confirmed my conviction that I had discovered what it was I was going to teach, but narrowed the field considerably: philosophy of mind and language transfixed my curiosity.

When I showed up at Harvard in the fall of 1960, the first course I signed up for was Quine’s philosophy of language course, and the main text was his brand new book, Word and Object. Perfect timing. I devoured the course, and was delighted to find that the other students in the class were really quite as good as I had hoped Harvard students would be. Most were grad students; among them (if memory serves) were David Lewis, Tom Nagel, Saul Kripke, Gil Harman, Margaret Wilson, Michael Slote, David Lyons. A fast class.

When it came to the final exam I had never been so well prepared, with As on both early papers, and every reading chewed over and over. But I froze. I knew too much, had thought too much about the problems and could see, I thought, way beyond the questions posed – too far beyond to enable any answer at all. Quine’s teaching assistant, Dagfinn Follesdal, must have taken pity on me, for I received a B- in the course. Follesdal also agreed to be my supervisor when two years later I told him that I’d been working on my senior thesis, ‘Quine and Ordinary Language’ ever since I’d taken the course. I didn’t want Quine to supervise me, since he’d probably show me I was wrong before I got a chance to write it out, and then where would I be? I had sought Quine out, however, for bibliographical help, asking him to direct me to the best anti-Quinians. I needed all the allies I could find. He directed me to Chomsky’s Syntactic Structures, the first of Lotfi Zadeh’s papers on fuzzy logic, and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, which I devoured in the summer of 1962, while on my honeymoon job as a sailing and tennis instructor at Salter’s Point, a family summer community in Buzzards Bay (my bride, Susan, was the swimming instructor). 1962-3, my senior year at Harvard, was exciting but far from carefree – I was now a married man at the age of 20, and I had to complete my four-year project to Refute Quine, who was very, very interesting but wrong. Freed from the diversions and distractions of student life, I worked with an intensity I have seldom experienced. I can recall several times reflecting that it really didn’t matter in the larger scheme of things whether I was right or wrong: I was engulfed in doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, pursuing a valuable quarry through daunting complexities, and figuring out for myself answers to some of the most perplexing questions I’d ever encountered. Dagfinn, bless his heart, knew enough not to try to do more than gently steer me away from the most dubious overreachings in my grand scheme. I was not strictly out of control, but I was beyond turning back.

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