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

Related: 

guest
40 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Charles
Charles
4 years ago

A great loss to the philosophical community. Being-In-The-World and All Things Shining have been particularly influential to my thinking, and I had the pleasure of teaching All Things Shining in an honors course to sophomore honors students, all of whom received it well. His legacy will live on for a long time, I am sure.Report

Kian Tajbakhsh
4 years ago

Hubert Dreyfus changed my life and thinking, initially through his online lectures and then his writings. I never met him but was able to thank him by e-mail for being an exemplary teacher and a true philosopher. He was not afraid to remind us of the importance of the sacred for human existence. I hope his ideas will be remembered and his writings and online lectures continue to influence many people far into the future. May he rest in peace.Report

Zahid saleem
Zahid saleem
4 years ago

His work will never die. Salute to his love for PHILOSOPHY.Report

Taylor Carman
Taylor Carman
4 years ago

Sean, are you sure Bert’s first publication, the 1957 coauthored paper, was on DON QUIXOTE? I’m pretty sure it was on the role of Virgil in Dante’s INFERNO.Report

Sean Kelly
Sean Kelly
Reply to  Taylor Carman
4 years ago

“The Landscape of Dante’s Inferno,” co-authored with Joseph Pequigney, was published in the Spring 1962 issue of Italian Quarterly. “Curds and Lions in Don Quixote,” co-authored with James Broderick, was published five years earlier in the June 1957 issue of Modern Languages Quarterly. The Quixote piece was Bert’s first published article. That said, I don’t remember ever hearing him talk about Don Quixote; perhaps others do? He did, of course, teach Dante for over 50 years. Maybe that’s why it seems so likely to have been his first publication. In June of 1962, at around the same time the Dante piece was appearing, Bert also published an article with Sam Todes in PPR. That one, called “The Three Worlds of Merleau-Ponty,” was already onto so many of the themes that seemed fresh and original to all of us in the 1990s and early 2000s.Report

Arun Kumar Tripathi
Arun Kumar Tripathi
Reply to  Sean Kelly
4 years ago

Yes, Sean. You are corect

Hubert Dreyfus with Samuel Todes wrote a paper on “The Three Worlds of Merleau-Ponty” published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (June 1962).

In June 2003 I had a personal correspondence with Bert. Bert Dreyfus wrote me “That is the first paper I ever wrote.” Bert also wrote me (when I asked Bert about the three worlds described my Merleau-Ponty): “Merleau-Ponty never distinguishes three worlds explicitly. The article distinguishes the pre-conceptual (minimal figure ground experience), the everyday perceptual world, and the world studied by natural science.”

I remember meeting Bert and you (Sean Kelly) in Oslo in June (6-8) 2006 where I participated in a Research Course on Phenomenological Approaches to Moral Philosophy and Education at the Department of Physical Education, Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. Very sad to see Bert Dreyfus go! He will be missed. But with his abundance of great writings on phenomenology, Bert will be living with us.Report

Arun Kumar Tripathi
Arun Kumar Tripathi
Reply to  Arun Kumar Tripathi
4 years ago

PS. Sorry. It should be “correct” in above.

Thanks to Taylor Carman, Sean Kelly, Mark Wrathall and Charles Guignon. Due to them I got to know lot about Bert Dreyfus and his engaging phenomenological philosophy.Report

Louis Savain
4 years ago

Thank you for this nicely written obituary about a great human being. Professor Dreyfus’ greatest contribution to the field of artificial intelligence is his insistence that the brain does not model the world. His ability to make the connection between the work of his favorite philosophers (Martin Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) and artificial intelligence is Dreyfus’ greatest intellectual accomplishment in my opinion. One day soon, the AI community community will wake up from its supor and realize how right Dreyfus has been right about intelligence and the brain from the beginning.

See: The World Is its Own Model or Why Hubert Dreyfus Is Still Right About AI
http://rebelscience.blogspot.com/2016/07/the-world-is-its-own-model-or-why.htmlReport

Daria Mazey
Daria Mazey
4 years ago

What a beautiful tribute, Sean. Dreyfus was my favorite teacher at Berkeley and, I’m proud to say, a friend also. Not only did he leave an indelible legacy in Philosophy, but he modeled for so many how to be a truly great teacher and person. Your description of his classes is spot on. What a thrill to engage in them as a freshman and have education redefined for you. And then you show up for office hours, nervous to talk to such a renowned Professor, and he is so open and curious, so interested in your ideas also. He was generous with his time and thoughts and seemed to excel at living fully in the now. I will miss him and his passing leaves a great hole in the world. My sincere condolences to his family, as well as to you. I sadly lost touch when I left the Bay Area, but he spoke often about how lucky he was to have a student, then friend and colleague as smart and engaging as you are.Report

Zdravko Radman
Zdravko Radman
Reply to  Daria Mazey
3 years ago

Dear Daria, I am writing In Memoriam for Bert Dreyfus for a journal of philosophy and would like to take the following quote from your post:
“And then you show up for office hours, nervous to talk to such a renowned Professor, and he is so open and curious, so interested in your ideas also. He was generous with his time and thoughts and seemed to excel at living fully in the now.”
Looking forward for your permission.
Best,
Zdravko RadmanReport

Karamjit Gill
4 years ago

The AI&Society community would always treasure our fond memories of Hubert Dreyfus, during his visits, talks and reflections on themes ranging from Knowledge, language, culture and artificial intelligence in Stockholm, Culture of the artificial in Urbino, Human centred systems in Tokyo, and Tacit dimension of knowledge in London, and his contributions on ‘The socratic and platonic basis of cognitivism’ and ‘What artificial experts can and cannot do’ in AI&Society. The late Prof. Joseph Weizenbaum introduced me to Hubert Dreyfus during the preparation of the launch of the AISociety journal in 1986, and since then Hubert has been a great supporter and well wisher of the Journal. We on the editorial bard of AI&Society will miss his warmth, guidance and enduring support in shaping the journal and sustaining its humanistic vision.Report

Vincent
4 years ago

May he rest in peace. What a good man.Report

John Muse
4 years ago

Thank you for this, Sean. Professor Dreyfus was so welcoming, open, and eager. I began sitting in on his classes in 1987, started graduate studies in 1996, and worked with him on and off for the next 10 years. What an adventure; what an honor.

Do you know if there are as yet formal events, a memorial, a tribute, etc. being planned? And if so, could you repost or share?Report

Genevieve Dreyfus
Genevieve Dreyfus
Reply to  John Muse
4 years ago

A memorial event is planned for May 24th, 2017 starting at 1:30 PM, Alumni House, UCB campus. Open to the public.Report

Karl Leidlmair
4 years ago

He was a great man. I really appreciated his clear interpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy. I met him 5 times in my life
Thank you for all!
R.I.PReport

Genevieve Dreyfus
Genevieve Dreyfus
Reply to  Karl Leidlmair
4 years ago

Thanks, Karl.
Still have the little Swarovski’s owl you gave Bert.Report

Karl Leidlmair
Reply to  Genevieve Dreyfus
4 years ago

Dear Genevieve,

In the year 1989 I invited Bert to the Austrian Conference on Artificial Intelligence. He gave me a (not yet) published manuscript. That manuscript was (as far as I know) published two years later (it was the book “Being-in-the-Wold”). I have studied carefully the manuscript as well as the book. Of particular interest fot me have been the small differences between the book and the manuscript (about falling and anxiety for example). What I have learned from all this: Bert was never satisfied with a final, self-contained answer to his questions in philosophy. He did not simply teach philosophy, he lived it out in practice. So he has been always my role model.
Although I cannot come to the memorial event in May 24th, I’ll be there in spirit.Report

G. Dreyfus
G. Dreyfus
Reply to  Karl Leidlmair
4 years ago

Dear Karl,
I happen to get back to these comment threads by happenstance. I am glad Bert was of help to you. We miss him everyday!
If you haven’t yet seen the videos of the memorial here is the URL:
http://shoutout.wix.com/so/aLnaw5Fx?cid-0#/main
Best,

GenevieveReport

John Sharman
John Sharman
4 years ago

I learned of him through his interview with Bryan Magee in his Great Philosophers series of TV interviews(and book). I remember his livewire intelligence and his enthusiasm about Husserl, Heidegger
and Meurleau-Ponty. He spoke with so much animation and awareness of his subject to put in the shade
any other person’s account of Phenomenology and Existentialism. Even Magee was visibly excited, he being a really intelligent philosopher himself, able to run circles around people. Dreyfus 1st gave us
the witnessed account of Heidegger’s put down of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness as ‘dreck’. Sartre
needless to say was put in his puny place by the great man,as being someone not worth considering
as important to Existentialism in the future history of the subject.Report

Arun Kumar Tripathi
Arun Kumar Tripathi
4 years ago

Thanks so much, Sean for this beautiful tribute and obituary of a great thinker Professor Hubert Dreyfus. Bert’s ranges of philosophical endeavors have been amazing. Bert was a wonderful human being.Report

Dave
4 years ago

I miss Bert already. He had a wonderfully inspired mind and was a super nice person to boot. I’ll always think of his personal love of blasting classical music around 5PM upon waking most days when I was fortunate enough to visit him and his lovely family. :~(Report

Jeff Yoshimi
Jeff Yoshimi
4 years ago

Another sad day for phenomenology. I owe much of my life project–that for the sake of which I live!–to Dreyfus. He was, as others note, so open and intellectually honest. I remember how someone would ask a question in one of his giant classes, and how he would pace back and forth on stage, scratching his head, and then say something like “Well, maybe you’re right, and I’ve been wrong for the past 20 years…” He was such a genuine thinker. I was constantly skeptical about what I took (and still take) to be Heidegger’s excesses. He was always patient with me and really thought through the issues on their own terms. One day in his office he said, “you know, you sound like a Husserlian.” He was right! That set me on a path I am still following… Rest in peace Bert.Report

JOHN BAILIFF
4 years ago

I knew Bert from the Heidegger Circle and a seminar at Berkeley in 1986. Prof. Kelly’s eulogy is fittingly thorough and thoroughly affectionate. I appreciate the writing as I appreciated Bert Dreyfus’ work and person…Report

Frank Barrett
Frank Barrett
4 years ago

Sean,

This is a beautiful tribute. Bert was inspirational on so many levels, but for me what stands out most was his approach to teaching. So many Full Professors start sleep walking through their courses after so many years of repeating the same material. Not Bert. He approached teaching as a vocation in which he was a perpetual learner, as if he were going through the material for the first time. He loved when students asked him questions that made him stop and think out loud. I only hope I can model some of that openness with my own students.

I was lucky to get to know him. I had dinner with him in Berkeley. I even got to ride in his beloved convertible. And of course I had lunch with him a few times at Harvard with you Sean. Remember the time at HBS when he suddenly got a bloody nose and that woman came over to help him ice and a towel? He calmly said: “this person is the head of the bloody nose department.” He had an impish sense of humor.

I slipped into the back of his classroom last fall to hear one of his lectures. He was still enthusiastic and doing his best to respond to students.

Sean — are you coming in for the memorial at Berkeley? Would love to see you again.

Best,
Frank BarrettReport

Arun Kumar Tripathi
Arun Kumar Tripathi
4 years ago

Searching for Meaning in a Secular Age
An interesting conversation with History: Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly discuss their book, All Things Shining. “Drawing on their reading of Western classics, Bert and Sean analyze how different epochs offered unique answers to the question of what are sacred and what can provide meaning for human existence.” This is a fruitful conversation.
I enjoyed listening it.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpQHxJQrg1EReport

Paul Park
Paul Park
4 years ago

To the man that forever kept me thinking of the potential of technology and challenging the notion of the expertise of the soul.

May you continue to inspire the inquisition of the soul.Report

jake
jake
4 years ago

I listened to all his Heidegger lectures twice and his Brothers Karamazov lectures once. I read several of his books and papers. I heard him talk of his battles at MIT where his critiques of early AI were not only powerful but profoundly prescient.

I never met the man in person, but he is one of my intellectual mentors of astounding stature. For sure, as with any great scholars, his body of work had moments of imperfection, but he is, without a doubt, one of my greatest teachers ever on one of the greatest journeys I ever undertook, a journey into human existence.Report

Ron Glass
4 years ago

Bert Dreyfus and his body of work was and is inspirational for me. As a grad student at UCB for five years in the 1970s I sat in every one of his courses every year. He never ceased to be amazing in his capacity for openness and engagement with texts and with people. He respected my refusal of the ‘scholarly’ approach to philosophy and my pursuit of a philosophical praxis that was revolutionary and socially transformative. He encouraged me to ‘come up from the underground’ a decade later, and was a generous reference for me when I went to Stanford to teach. I hope my own work continues to honor Bert and his powerful insights into human existence.
Ron GlassReport

Genevieve Dreyfus
Genevieve Dreyfus
4 years ago

If you like Sean’s piece you may like this one by John Schwenkler:
https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/05/a-life-of-being-in-the-worldReport

Richard Hammerud
Richard Hammerud
4 years ago

I will always be grateful to Hubert Dreyfus for introducing me to the thought of Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche way back in 1970 when I was a sophomore at Berkeley. I credit Dreyfus with my love for philosophy; once you’ve seen how exciting philosophy can be (by the way it excited Dreyfus) you know that there is something there worth pursuing. I went on to do my doctoral dissertation on the hermeneutics of Paul Ricoeur–and I will always be thankful for what I learned from Dreyfus. I was looking forward to reading more of his books in the coming years–I guess now I’ll have to reread his Commentary on Being and Time and watch him on YouTube. He was and will remain for me unforgettable.Report

Bernard Field
Bernard Field
4 years ago

I came across Prof Dreyfus about 5 yrs ago through his Heidegger commentary. I’d been interested in Heidegger for yrs but it only really started to open up for me when I read and reread the commentary. Then I discovered the podcasts. What a treasure trove on Homer, Dante, Dostoevsky, Melville, Kierkegaard and more!! As a playwright I felt like I’d stumbled into a stash of jewels each one more dazzling than the last. I can’t tell you what a blessing it has been to discover Prof Dreyfus. I’ve no doubt he’s made me a better and more interesting writer but what surprised me was how he made me a better human being but I know it’s so. Listening to him teach never ceases to amaze and inspire me. I love the man. All my condolences to his family and friends.Report

Dan Sherman
Dan Sherman
4 years ago

I fondly remember Bert well from years ago – auditing his Heidegger course, conversations in his office or over lunch whenever I passed through Berkeley. In those days I was still teaching high school, but to Bert what mattered was not the letters that came after one’s name, rather that one cared about engagement with ideas and with the person before one. We lost contact over time, except for a brief exchange in 2013 when I published a Plato book (with a gloss on Heidegger, and a footnote on Bert). And now I sadly learn that it is too late . But yes and no … he is a constant reminder of what we shared, and what there is to share, and of the joy and meaning of teaching and learning.

Genevieve – Please accept my heartfelt sympathy for your loss, and from Yvette too.Report

G. Dreyfus
G. Dreyfus
Reply to  Dan Sherman
4 years ago

Hi Dan,
This is only the second time I am looking at all these wonderful messages about Bert.
Glad, and sad, the news of his passing reached you. Life is such that it’s not always easy to keep in touch =(
My best to you and Yvette.Report

Donald Pretari
4 years ago

I’m pretty sure Bert told me that his supervisor for his undergraduate thesis was William Craig.Report

G. Dreyfus
G. Dreyfus
Reply to  Donald Pretari
4 years ago

Hi Dan,
This is only the second time I am looking at all these wonderful messages about Bert.
Glad, and sad, the news of his passing reached you. Life is such that it’s not always easy to keep in touch =(
My best to you and Yvette.Report

G. Dreyfus
G. Dreyfus
Reply to  Donald Pretari
4 years ago

Don,

You are correct. He told me the same thing.
!Report

Ned Block
4 years ago

I think I must have been Bert’s first student to go on in philosophy. Genevieve says he never mentioned a student from his previous teaching at Brandeis. He and I started at MIT at the same time: September, 1960. He was my first philosophy teacher and I probably wouldn’t be a philosopher if not for him. When I was a first term freshman at MIT in I walked into my required freshman humanities course to find him teaching it. It was a mesmerizing and inspiring course, the pre-pre-first draft of his book with Sean Kelly. Later I took his course on existentialism and phenomenology where we read a samizdat translation of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit. In 1965, I met with him in Paris where he took me to his favorite restaurant of the time on rue des Beaux Arts. He took me on a guided tour including showing me where Sartre had lived. When I was a grad student at Harvard I met with him frequently, talking about his criticisms of AI. When Bert left for Berkeley he gave me his mattress–which I used for years. The AI group at MIT—notably Seymour Papert– disparaged Bert. In response to Bert’s seminal Rand Report, Alchemy and Artificial Intelligence, Papert wrote a diatribe, “The Artificial Intelligence of Hubert Dreyfus”. When Bert left for Berkeley I witnessed a conversation between James Thomson and Barry Stroud in which Stroud spoke of how glad they were to get him and Thomson spoke of how glad they were to get rid of him. The way he put it was “Your gain is our gain.”Report

larry
larry
3 years ago

I have little right to join this thread. However, I’ve followed Prof. Dreyfus’s courses (online) on Being and Time as well as later Heidegger, and they have been nothing short of life changing. I’m humbled by the man’s accomplishment, and bid his soul sweet well-earned rest.Report

Erik Westlund
Erik Westlund
3 years ago

I listened to every lecture I could find by Prof. Dreyfus as a high school teacher on the other side of the country. His enthusiasm for philosophy inspired a love of it in me, which infused my teaching and thought (probably to the annoyance of my students and some friends).

Several years later I entered a PhD in sociology, which I finished five years later. Despite being a quantitative sociologist, to this day I hear Prof. Dreyfus in my head when both teaching and writing. I only knew him through podcasts and perhaps one or two very brief email exchanges.

It’s quite something that Prof. Dreyfus was one of if not the most influential teachers I ever had, and I never took a course with him. He was just that good.

I still day-dream of finding the time to give Being and Time another shot, and, perhaps, even teach it to some sociologists.Report

Raphael
Raphael
2 years ago

infinite thanks ProfessorReport