Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Dennett, Daniel C. (1942–) from Encyclopedia of Anthropology

American philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett focuses on the philosophical problems concerning science, particularly in the areas of mind and consciousness within an evolutionary framework. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Dennett received his BA from Harvard in 1963 and his PhD in philosophy from Oxford in 1965. After graduation, Dennett taught at the University of California at Irvine as both an assistant professor (1965–1970) and associate professor (1970–1971) until accepting a position at Tufts University (1971). At Tufts University, Dennett was promoted from associate professor to currently held position of professor (from 1975). During his tenure, he has held the position of chairman of the philosophy department (1976–1982) and received several distinguished positions, including both visiting associate professor/professor at other universities. Dennett has also lectured both nationally and internationally. Aside from lecturing, Dennett was both cofounder and codirector of the curricular Software Studio at Tufts. Amid his scholastic endeavors, Dennett holds memberships of several organizations (both national and international).

Throughout his academic career, Dennett has become a prolific writer with great philosophical contributions to science. He has published 11 books and multiple score of academic articles. Of his published books, Content and Consciousness (1969), The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul (1981), Consciousness Explained (1991), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), and Freedom Evolves (2003) reflect a historical account of cognition and implications it has concerning our species’ epistemology, ontology, and teleology. Savoring the deepest philosophical questions, Dennett attempts to explain the implications stemming from a materialistic explanation of cognition. While searching for an inclusive paradigm, interests in computer design (developed from the computer revolution) and subsequent programming have become a point of special interest.

Contributions and Perspectives

Questions concerning epistemology and phenomenology have deep philosophical implications for our species ontology and teleology. These interdependent sources of human inquiry are the basis for our species cognitive existence. Drawing upon physical attributes with rational speculation, the ancient Greek philosophers Plato (ca. 428–348 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) attempted to construct the processes by which human beings exist in the external world. Through this philosophical inquiry, the birth of metaphysics provided the necessary explanations that would replace both myth and superstition. After metaphysics became adopted and modified by natural theology, the Enlightenment provided an opportunity for explanations to be independent of religion and theology. The philosophical positions of both the rationalists and the empiricists movement provided fertile groundwork for all facets of psychology and their philosophical implications, especially in the area of cognition. With the advancements made both in biology and evolutionary theory, a deeper understanding of biological processes has replaced or modified previously held theoretical positions about all processes of cognition, including our species’ derived ontology, epistemology, and self-directed teleology.

Dealing with these issues, Daniel C. Dennett attempts to provide answers for the questions that are derived from human consciousness. His blended intellectual inquiries span from the philosophical spectrum of old (e.g., epistemology, phenomenology, ontology, and teleology), with recent advancements in both the cognitive sciences and artificial intelligence (AI). In the process of contrasting today’s philosophical perspective with scientific evidence, his resulting interpretation provides a unique staring point by which a holistic understanding of person-hood can be attained. Strengthened by the understanding of Darwinian evolutionary theory, Dennett’s philosophical perspective also gives a dynamic materialistic explanation of our species in relation to the rest of nature, resulting in philosophical controversies that give cues to the remaining influences of the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

The philosophical impact of René Descartes (1596–1650) upon psychology’s theoretical foundation has been very profound. With the introduction of dualism, the separation of mind and body served to rationalize human cognition with spiritual implications. Although cognitive psychologists reject this idea of a separation of mind and body, the given materialistic explanation still has dualistic properties. This stems from the personal narrative or perspective of the self-aware individual (e.g., first person). It is both the singularity of incoming perceptions and first-person perspective, via centralized processing (e.g., central executive), that gives the phenomenological problem in what Dennett calls “Cartesian materialism.” To neutralize this phenomenological problem, Dennett poses a third-person narrative or heterophenomenological stand that is similar to processes used in the scientific method. In this perspective, Dennett suggests that an individual, through the senses, creates multiple scripts by which the intentional stance of the individual can choose a point of focus (e.g., notional world). The initial discrimination of incoming stimulus need happen only once, whereby the resulting information creates the perception of a “virtual world” of continuous time and space. This unique perspective may have solved the problems that cognitive theorists (e.g., Broadbent) have dealt with since the beginning of World War II. This would leave the primary filter factors to the physical limitations of the central nervous system and the focus of attention to intentions of the individual. It is the existence of intentions or intentional stance, in conjunction with the biological hardware, which may serve to both answer philosophical questions and give direction toward a united theory of cognition.

On a philosophical level, proving the existence of other minds by a priori means is impossible, not to mention promoting a sense of materialistic dualism. Though this Cartesian feat does nothing but to obscure and mislead areas of critical inquiry, evaluating intentions in an evolutionary framework starts to give a unique starting perspective. When dealing with the philosophical questions concerning whether other minds exist and aid in explaining the resulting behavior, Dennett utilizes an intentional stance of an object, whether human or machine (AI), to determine the teleological and to an extent ontological status. It is during this assessment of intentions that we attribute belief and desires to a particular organism or object by which varying degrees of rationality are expressed.

When addressing intentional systems, there are multiple orders of intentional systems. For example, zero order reflects the basic biological processes (e.g., fight/flight mechanism), often associated with basic survival. Beliefs and desires have no basis on this level. The first-order intentional system has beliefs and desires but has no reflections of these beliefs and desires. The second-order intentional system has reflective abilities concerning beliefs and desires. Third-order intentional systems have the capabilities, based on desires, of transmitting those beliefs in others. The fourth order is more complex. The fourth-order intentional system allows for the ability for understanding of these intensions. Although the construction of these orders is nebulous, whereby numbered class and characterization are moot, the orders by which these intensions are constructed reflect the biological designs and capabilities of the organism. These beliefs and desires, upon it being assumed, give the expression of freedom. Regardless whether freedom is an illusion, as sometimes portrayed in primate behavior, it is the ability of our species’ syntax and semantic capabilities (internal and external) that enable and express this belief and desire in action, including the art of deception. Although both design stance and physical stance have certain objective benefits, it is the intentional stance that opens the “black box” of Skinner’s behaviorism. In the long run, our species cannot be reduced to pure cause and effect. Just as culture (e.g., Dawkins’s memes), thwarted our genetic disposition, the intentional stance frees our species from the blind deterministic outcome. Theoretically, the two are complementary, if not integrated by degree. The resulting processes, expressed in varying degree, are based on the predictive powers of rationality of the intentional system.

Throughout the history of philosophy, rationality has become a cornerstone of human ontology, teleology, and to an extent epistemology. As for Dennett, rationality is not some decisive and divisive deciding factor. Systems, by an evolutionary process, must operate by some principles of logic, even though it may not be readily apparent. Regardless if the system is biochemical or silicon based, rationality, though not total, is an adaptive strategy that allows for survival and reproduction in an environment. Though design and physical stance precede existence (evolutionarily speaking), it is the evolutionary-tested rationality of the intentional stance that allows for the possibility of prediction. Prediction is the key to understanding the intentional system of the object in question. For example, the a priori assumption of logic is given to Object A. If the object has been encountered prior, a posteriori cue in memory of past behavior gives behavioral predictability. If the object is new, perceptual cues within a logical framework (e.g., physical form and behavior) become encoded in memory in order for prediction to become possible. Evolutionary success is based upon the ability to predict such outcomes. The degree to which prediction can be utilized is based on the degree of physical (biological) complexity, signifying the evolutionary “leap” in the cognitive functions of our species. Although terms of belief and desires are expressions of freedom due to intentional systems, the inquiry nevertheless shows the complexity by which human systems operate in comparison to other species.

While treating systems as intentional systems, the mental processes by which human systems operate are a point of conjecture. The process of deriving the “mind” from organic matter boarder on determinism; after all, intention does not imply freedom of choice. As Dennett clearly points out, the algorithmic process of mental activity, the same algorithmic process that can account for the evolutionary process of our species (including chance or random occurrences), may seem to leave little room for free will. Yet human action and interaction has the sensible qualities of freedom found within the array of beliefs and desires. The relationship among biology, mind, and the mind’s intention are expressed within our species’ unique expression of culture, above all, including language and materialistic expressions.

The impact of culture upon our species’ ontology, and thus teleology, is essential to our own epistemological understanding. Just as natural selection (or as Dennett humorously depicts Mother Nature) produced our design, culture enables our species to modify it. Dennett, utilizing Richard Dawkins’s storm of memes, realizes the impact that culture has on both the environment and phenotypic expressions, the resulting behavioral modification necessitated by changes in the environment (e.g., memes act as a selective factor). In the process of enculturation (the transmission of memes from one individual to another), the active processing of exposed memes tends to modify the individual’s selectivity. Emotional responses to cultural, including aesthetical qualities, has an active role in behavioral expressions. Dennett, even while contemplating Dawkins’s stance on the Selfish Gene, believes the behavioral characteristics of genetics can be subverted by the exposure of memes. Though not advocating blind determinism (the disappearing self) or behaviorism, Dennett provides the connection among these factors. Through logical progression (all that varies by degree) of mental activity, the overarching biological factors are either subdued or enhance by the cultural phenomenon. Directed by belief and desire, the opportunity for choice (even as simple as yes or no) is present, an indicator for existence of freedom. When viewed in its entirety, the combination produces something, evolutionarily speaking, unique—that being personhood.

Questions pertaining to personhood are just as problematic as proving the existence of other minds. Combinations of design stance, physical stance, and intentional stance interact with environmental factors that produce the dynamics of human personality. These characteristics, by which intensions can be revealed, possess a contextual element of value judgment. On a basic level, these value judgments are neither good nor evil (by traditional religious standards). They are amoral decisions that are utilized to promote the genetic welfare whereby these decisions are expressed by the variation (sometimes conflicting) of cultural expressions (e.g., mores and laws). The defining qualities or constituents of being a person have no magical or transcendental properties. The expressive use of language in practical reasoning can account for the necessitated views of ontology and teleology. In the course of human development, issues concerning causation and control over an individual’s actions were given to free will via a divine source. With the discovery of organic evolution by Charles Darwin (1809–1882), the groundwork was set for a naturalistic explanation of human existence. In time, new scientific discoveries launched new areas of research and development. Dealing with these formable issues, Dennett continues to provide insight into the human condition. Advancements in AI and the cognitive sciences may someday aid in the evolutionary direction of our species. Through the views of philosophers such as Dennett, the “essence” of our humanity will evolve with great insights provided by science. In terms of personhood, our species will redefine its own ontological status in light of a self-directed teleology.

Further Readings
  • Dennett, D. C. (1984). Elbow room. Massachusetts: Boston: MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1987). The intentional stance. Boston: MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1993). Brainstorms. Boston: MIT Press.
  • Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin’s dangerous idea. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • David Alexander Lukaszek
    Copyright © 2006 by Sage Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Dennett, Daniel Clement
    Biographical Dictionary of Psychology

    Born 1942, Boston, USA Nat American Ints Philosophical and theoretical psychology Appts & awards University of California,...

    Full text Article Daniel Dennett
    Great Thinkers A-Z

    1942- Daniel C. Dennett presents a way to understand the human mind. He seeks to clarify what a mind is, what consciousness is, and what mental...

    Full text Article Intentional Stance
    Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science

    The intentional stance is an attitude to the place of mind and psychology in the world that allows a real scientific role for such concepts as...

    See more from Credo