Hubert Dreyfus (1929-2017)

[The following is an obituary of Hubert Dreyfus by Sean D. Kelly, Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University.]


Hubert Dreyfus, a renowned philosopher and a professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley for almost 50 years, died early Saturday morning. He was 87 years old.

Dreyfus studied philosophy at Harvard, arriving from Terre Haute, Indiana as a freshman in the fall of 1947. He received his B.A. with highest honors in 1951, completing an undergraduate thesis in the philosophy of physics under what he once described as the none-too-strenuous supervision of Quine. He stayed at Harvard for graduate work in philosophy, receiving an M.A. in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1964.

The long interval between Dreyfus’ advancement to candidacy and his final degree was punctuated by a series of research fellowships in Europe—at Freiburg, Louvain, and the ENS in Paris—during which he met such figures as Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty. The conversations with these great men, he told me, were disappointing. Merleau-Ponty, for instance, refused to talk about his early work (because he had progressed so far beyond it) and also about his current work (because it was still too underdeveloped). Instead he insisted on academic gossip. Conversations with Sartre and Heidegger were no more satisfying. But Dreyfus studied the written work of these philosophers carefully, and became convinced that phenomenology and existentialism were worth paying attention to. He returned to the States with what was then the unconventional idea of writing a dissertation on transcendental and existential phenomenology.

This topic was strange enough in the Harvard department of the 1950s that by itself it might have accounted for the length of Dreyfus’ graduate career. But there is another factor worth mentioning, if only because it highlights the difference between the profession now and then. For six of the twelve years that Dreyfus was advanced to candidacy he taught full-time. Without a Ph.D., he taught from 1957-59 as an Instructor in Philosophy at Brandeis. Then, after another year in Europe, he taught from 1960-64 as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at MIT. Moreover, his teaching from this period ranged widely across the whole spectrum of the humanities. Dreyfus’ early courses covered not only Heidegger’s Being and Time, taught from a clandestine translation that he produced with students and friends, but the works of Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, and other great writers of the Western tradition. His first publication, in 1957, was a jointly authored paper on Don Quixote.

Dreyfus had a knack for finding deep philosophical themes in surprising places, and he loved presenting, discussing, and learning about these themes with the smart engineers at MIT. Despite this, his time there was not easy. In 1965, while still untenured but finally having received his Ph.D., Dreyfus published an influential document for the RAND Corporation called “Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence.” The paper argued that AI research was like alchemy: its initial success covered up the fact that the basic orientation of the research program was wrong. In a recent paper he explained this early argument with a quip from his brother and frequent collaborator Stuart: “it’s like claiming that the first monkey that climbed a tree was making progress towards flight to the moon.” These were fighting words for the powerful AI researchers at MIT, and Dreyfus’ tenure case was held in limbo in part because of their objections. After eventually being granted tenure at MIT, Dreyfus moved quickly to Berkeley in 1968, where he spent the rest of his life and career.

The RAND paper eventually became Dreyfus’ influential 1972 book What Computers Can’t Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. A twenty-year anniversary edition of the book was published in 1992 under the title What Computers Still Can’t Do. In this book Dreyfus made a move that became characteristic of much of his philosophical work. He took the phenomenological account of human existence—especially as he found it in Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty—and applied it to influential domains outside of philosophy. Dreyfus’ interpretation of human being, of Dasein as Heidegger calls us, would eventually reverberate through natural and social scientific disciplines as diverse as nursing, leadership and management practice, psychotherapy, education, filmmaking, religious studies, and others.

Perhaps Dreyfus’ most important influence within philosophy was to interpret and extend recent European philosophy for the English speaking world. This was no mean feat. During the famous philosophical summit at Royaumont between French and English philosophers, in 1958, the two sides were so far apart that Charles Taylor described the event as a “dialogue de sourds” (dialogue of the deaf). It is no exaggeration to say that, insofar as English speaking philosophers have any access at all to thinkers like Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Michel Foucault, it is through the interpretation that Dreyfus originally offered of them. Indeed, Dreyfus’ 1991 book, Being-in-the-world:  A commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I, was hailed by Charles Taylor as an indispensible text that makes “Heidegger accessible to the English speaking reader as never before,” and Richard Rorty claimed that his very “acquaintance with European philosophy owes almost everything to Dreyfus.”

During Dreyfus’ long tenure at Berkeley, he was an enormously influential and much-beloved teacher. His undergraduate classes were filled to overflowing, and even his graduate seminars were standing room only. Dreyfus’ teaching style was unique. Like Kierkegaard, a philosopher whom he revered, Dreyfus believed that teaching is learning. He refused to teach any text that he felt he already understood sufficiently well, and much of his time in the classroom involved not only getting the students to the edge of his understanding but, crucially, soliciting from them and discussing with them their suggestions for ways forward. Because his basic topic was the phenomena of human existence, he believed that any living human being had the resources to contribute to the conversation. Because the history of philosophy had covered up these basic phenomena, he believed that the naïve freshman was just as likely to see the way forward as, or perhaps even more likely than, even the most seasoned graduate student or colleague. His courses were genuine, live conversations in which everything was always on the line. They were electrifying.

Dreyfus’ influence will live on in the dozens of Ph.D. students he supervised and mentored, who are now spread out across the globe. I am grateful to count myself among their number. He will also continue to publish for some time. His twitter feed from the afternoon after his death announced that “Reports of my demise are not exaggerated.” The second volume of his collected papers, edited by Mark Wrathall, will be published by OUP in June.

To the end, Dreyfus was deeply engaged in philosophy. He and I had discussions about a successor volume to our 2011 bestseller All Things Shining until only a few months ago, and at a conference in his honor in February he was surrounded by students, colleagues, friends, and family who celebrated the manifold ways that his influence had changed their lives and work.

Hubert Dreyfus is survived by his beloved wife Geneviève, his son Stéphane and daughter-in-law Jessica Kung Dreyfus, his daughter Gabrielle and son-in-law Benjamin Phillips, his brother Stuart, and thousands of students who will carry his memory and his example into the future.

Sean D. Kelly
April 24, 2017


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