Daniel Dennett (1942-2024)


Daniel Dennett, professor emeritus of philosophy at Tufts University, well-known for his work in philosophy of mind and a wide range of other philosophical areas, has died.

Professor Dennett wrote extensively about issues related to philosophy of mind and cognitive science, especially consciousness. He is also recognized as having made significant contributions to the concept of intentionality and debates on free will. Some of Professor Dennett’s books include Content and Consciousness (1969), Brainstorms: Philosophical Essays on Mind and Psychology (1981), The Intentional Stance (1987), Consciousness Explained (1992), Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), Breaking the Spell (2006), and From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2017). He published a memoir last year entitled I’ve Been Thinking. There are also several books about him and his ideas. You can learn more about his work here.

Professor Dennett held a position at Tufts University for nearly all his career. Prior to this, he held a position at the University of California, Irvine from 1965 to 1971. He also held visiting positions at Oxford, Harvard, Pittsburgh, and other institutions during his time at Tufts University. Professor Dennett was awarded his PhD from the University of Oxford in 1965 and his undergraduate degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963.

Professor Dennett is the recipient of several awards and prizes including the Jean Nicod Prize, the Mind and Brain Prize, and the Erasmus Prize. He also held a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences. An outspoken atheist, Professor Dennett was dubbed one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism”. He was also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, an honored Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, and was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Organization.

He died this morning from complications of interstitial lung disease.*

The following interview with Professor Dennett was recorded last year:

(via Eric Schliesser)


Related: “Philosophers: Stop Being Self-Indulgent and Start Being Like Daniel Dennett, says Daniel Dennett“. (Other DN posts on Dennett can be found here.)

*This was added after the initial publication of the post. Source: New York Times.

Obituaries and remembrances elsewhere:

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Marc Champagne
1 month ago

Quite a loss. I agree with folks like Andrew Brook and Don Ross that Dennett (on whom I have written) built a full philosophical system. His last interview must have been a YouTube chat with Jordan Peterson, just days ago. Looking back now, I am even more annoyed that Peterson (on whom I have also written) spoke so much and listened so little… R.I.P., mister Dennett.

Quill
Quill
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

What a total waste of a final moment for a great philosopher

Oktober
Oktober
Reply to  Quill
1 month ago

Not shameful to get your ideas out to an audience that might not otherwise hear them.

Quill
Quill
Reply to  Oktober
1 month ago

He didn’t though, as Marc points out.

Joshua Blanchard
Joshua Blanchard
Reply to  Oktober
1 month ago

I agree with you, and I don’t actually think the interview was particularly noteworthy one way or the other, but Peterson didn’t really understand some basic stuff right from the get-go (like what philosophers mean by “intentionality”), so that combined with Peterson’s loopy monologues as noted really limited to the value of the discussion even from a “get your ideas out” perspective.

Quill
Quill
Reply to  Joshua Blanchard
1 month ago

Exactly, Joshua. Oktober says “no shame” and of course there is no shame, no one said there was, but in fact the interview is a waste, turned tragic by being the last.

Bob
Bob
Reply to  Quill
1 month ago

Dennett would be amused.

Reesp
Reesp
Reply to  Quill
1 month ago

I enjoyed but was unfamiliar with Dennett. As a result of the Peterson interview I bought a couple of his Dennett’s books. I get you don’t like Peterson. His over communication was an examination of the case for atheism by a thoughtful and articulate non-atheist testing his beliefs – not part of the philosophy echo chamber. They agreed to talk again. Sad Dennett passed away.

Jack Abaza
Jack Abaza
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

He was my favourite philosopher. I considered him the greatest philosopher of his generation, due to his charisma, the ease at which he danced with ideas, and his legendary sense of humour.

Danely
Danely
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

Check out this one. Perhaps it’ll compensate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGrRf1wD320

Brian
Brian
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

Jordan Peterson is a charlatan and a complete fraud.

RIP Daniel Dennett

Antonio
Antonio
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

Fully agreed.

Dan Becklloyd
Dan Becklloyd
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

I’m not sure final appearances are particularly important, but for what it’s worth, Brian Keating posted what might be a more recent interview: https://youtu.be/5r8vMk0Zgds

Jona
Jona
Reply to  Marc Champagne
1 month ago

He wrote so much, just read that.
And listen to the interview about dying with Richard Dawkins, in stead of whining about Daniel Dennett not being interviewed according to your demands by someone you probably don’t even like.
I liked that about Dennett; he stood above that.

Timothy Scriven
Timothy Scriven
1 month ago

As I understand it, some of his last work was warning about the social-engineering style attacks (scamming, propaganda, etc) that large language models enable.

Quill
Quill
1 month ago

I am deeply said about this. I have no smart quips at the moment.

Daniel C
Daniel C
1 month ago

One of the best to ever do it. And he lived a rich, full life in all facets. An endearing figure even if in the moments of deep disagreement. His work is so conversational that this loss feels personal even if you haven’t met him.

Walter Veit
1 month ago

It’s a sad year for philosophy.

Richard Russell Wood
Richard Russell Wood
Reply to  Walter Veit
1 month ago

When was philosophy happy?

Pete Mandik
1 month ago

A terrible loss. DCD was one of my all time favorites.

Pavel Gregoric
1 month ago

Although Dan had a long and fruitful life that had to come to an end, I’m sad beyond words, both as a philosopher and as an acquaintance…

David Rosenthal
1 month ago

A very great loss to philosophy–and to very many friends. He will be deeply and warmly missed.

François Kammerer
François Kammerer
1 month ago

Very sad. A great loss. He was exceptional

Filippos Stamatiou
Filippos Stamatiou
1 month ago

Sad day. I am sure the influence of his ideas will persist and grow with time

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
1 month ago

As well as being a genuinely nice person, he was especially good at hitting that difficult sweet-spot between rigor and accessibility. I still teach “Where Am I?” at least once a year. RIP.

David Wallace
1 month ago

Over and above his individual contributions, which were many and towering, Daniel Dennett exemplified what it means to do philosophy in a way that engages critically but constructively with science and with scientists. He once wrote that “There is no philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage was taken on board without examination”, but he recognized more clearly than almost anyone in philosophy how transformed its own deepest questions were by modern science, most of all by the theory of evolution. These are lessons that have penetrated deeply into areas of philosophy far from Dennett’s own home territory: his work has had a great influence on modern philosophy of physics, for instance. (He has been one of the greatest inspirations and exemplars for my own work.)

He was one of the greatest philosophers of the last century, and one of the very few who have had a transformative influence far beyond academic philosophy. This is a devastating loss.

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

his work has had a great influence on modern philosophy of physics, for instance. (He has been one of the greatest inspirations and exemplars for my own work.)

I’d be very interested in hearing you say a bit more about this, if you’re willing. I admire a lot of Dennett’s work, but this isn’t something I would have expected or found obvious, so it’s of interest to me.

David Wallace
Reply to  Matt L
1 month ago

The largest and clearest is Dennett’s permissive, functionalist stance on higher-level ontology, developed in The Intentional Stance and then stated explicitly in ‘Real Patterns’. That plays quite a large role in the most-commonly-discussed versions of the Everett (many-worlds) interpretation: the idea is that Everettian branches can be understood as emergent structures in the micro-ontology of quantum mechanics and as such can be taken as real (not illusory) even though they’re not directly included in that micro-ontology. If you’re familiar with the intentional stance, you’ll see the parallel with Dennett’s insistence that people really have beliefs and desires, because beliefs and desires are patterns of disposition to action revealed through the intentional stance. My old paper ‘Everett and Structure’ (preprint at https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0107144) is reasonably accessible and uses that idea explicitly. (Conversely, some of the strongest opposition to the Everett interpretation comes from people like Maudlin who rather systematically reject that way of thinking about macro-ontology.)

That same idea turns up (more recently) in work on inter-theoretic relations: see Alex Franklin and Katie Robertson’s “Emerging into the rainforest: emergence and special-science ontology” (https://philarchive.org/rec/FRAEIT-2) and Eleanor Knox and my “Functionalism Fit for Physics” (https://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/22655/), where it provides an account of how the ontology of higher-level theories can be related to that of lower-level theories that’s more permissive and a better fit to scientific practice than something like mereology. (Eleanor and I also refer to the idea of the intentional stance more directly.)

A little more indirectly, Dennett (again mostly through ‘real patterns’) had a big influence on the development of ontic structural realism, mostly via James Ladyman and Don Ross (substantial chunks of their Every Thing Must Go draw heavily on Dennett), and ontic structural realism in turn has become one of the major options in thinking about the metaphysics of physics (albeit there are many versions, some more indebted to Dennett than others). My own version of structural realism (preprint at https://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/20048/) is among other things a sort of synthesis of ‘Real Patterns’ with Simon Saunders’ approach to ontology in physics.

Over and above this, I think Dennett’s model of how to do philosophy of a given science in a way that contributes to that science itself has been a significant influence on recent generations of philosophers of physics. One significant trend in the last couple of decades in philosophy of physics (partly downstream of a rather more mainstream acceptance of the reality of the measurement problem by at least some sections of physics) has been closer, and more constructive, engagement in mainstream physics practice, and for me at least (and anecdotally for some others) Dennett’s example has played a role in that.

(It would be fair to say that Dennett’s influence is most obvious in one strand of the broader philosophy of physics community: roughly, the bit developed in the UK, and by UK-trained people like me who’ve moved away, and our students, in the last couple of decades. Obviously that’s the strand that’s most visible to me and to which I’m most sympathetic.)

I was lucky enough to get to discuss some of this with Dennett at a meeting at the Santa Fe Institute just a few weeks ago (the only time we met in person): he said he was pleased to see his ideas being put to good use!

Matt L
Reply to  David Wallace
1 month ago

Thanks for this – it’s very interesting and helpful. I wouldn’t have expected it, but it sounds reasonable and plausible.

Quill Kukla
Quill Kukla
1 month ago

Ok when I first heard this news a couple of hours ago, I said that I didn’t have anything interesting to say, I was just sad. But now that I’ve had a couple of hours to process I do want to share a story. I have many wonderful Daniel Dennett stories but this one is my favorite.

Dan took an interest in me when I was finishing undergraduate. Because I was full of chutzpa and had no sense of professional norms, I sent him a paper of mine out of the blue and asked him if it would be possible to come do an MA with him. He wrote back and explained to me that the MA program at Tufts was really for people who weren’t quite ready for a PhD program and told me that instead I should go to the best PhD program I could and then come to a postdoc with him later, a generous offer that I ended up never taking up for complicated reasons.

Five and a half years after that, I was on the full-on philosophy job market for the first time. I applied for a job at Tufts, and sent in a writing sample. He was not on the search committee but apparently got excited that I had applied and read my application. The paper I submitted was on Rousseau, which incidentally could not be farther from his areas. Apparently in three places in the essay I mistyped “freedom” as “freeedom.” Dan spontaneously wrote like this 1500 word essay entitled “On Kukla’s Distinction between ‘Freedom’ and ‘Freeedom'”, giving this huge elaborate and absolutely hilarious close interpretation of my purported distinction between the two concepts. He sent it to me via snail mail, printed out, with a lovely note saying that he hoped it would work out for me to come to Tufts. It did not, in the end, but it was the most charming and funny and thoughtful and attentive thing that a senior philosopher has ever done for me. I have no idea how somebody as busy as Daniel Dennett could possibly have found the time to do this, for no reason other than to playfully engage with me and demonstrate that he took me, a 24 year old “girl” who was nobody and who was not even his student, seriously.

McFarland Duncan
McFarland Duncan
Reply to  Quill Kukla
1 month ago

Wonderful story

Mick D Coleman
Mick D Coleman
Reply to  McFarland Duncan
1 month ago

When you talk about yourself as “nobody”, you discredit yourself and anyone who saw your potential.

Lucy Weir
1 month ago

Attitude is spirit! Your spirit lives on in the attitudes of curiosity, meticulous research, and generous sharing. Thank you, Dan.

M.B.Ranjbar
M.B.Ranjbar
1 month ago

It is very sad that the world of science and philosophy lost a great person like Daniel Dennet.
His views on brain function were innovative and interesting. I read several of his books that were also translated to Persian. They were excellent, especially “From Bacteria to Bach and back”.

Simon DeDeo
1 month ago

Academia survives in part because there are wonderful scholars (thoughtful, intense, creative) who happen to be wonderful human beings (kind, open to cold-calls, gentle with people at an earlier stage of emotional development). Dan was certainly one of these people.

But he was also something more, which perhaps accounts for the fact that I was in tears this morning when I heard the news.

For many of us, Dan was a companion from adolescence well before we ever — if we did — meet him in person. I ended up in cognitive science in part because of the voice I encountered, in his pages, at the age of 14. So losing him feels like losing a part of one’s self.

Dan was continually, radically, accessible. In a funny, odd way, he was the Anglo-American Zizek — making sense of past confusions in a way that the intelligent amateur could use to enrich their world. Without Dan, we’d have been immeasurably poorer not just as scholars, but also for the scholars who wouldn’t exist but for his exoteric work.

Michael Lynch
Michael Lynch
1 month ago

Dan was hugely influential on me as a philosopher and writer. We first met when I was a graduate student and while I didn’t see him regularly, we kept up a long-running discussion over the years about intentionality, consciousness, AI, truth and sailing–the last because that was something we both enjoyed.

He taught me how to both write serious philosophy and speak to a wider audience at the same time, and he cheered me on at my first philosophy talk at Tufts and at my first big-stage TED talk. (His presence made me way more nervous than having Steven Spielberg and Al Gore sitting in front of me). I consider him one of the best, and the world will be less bright without him in it.

UOJ
UOJ
1 month ago

Dan was the ultimate intellectual and a super mensch. He will be sorely missed!

Ilkka Pättiniemi
Ilkka Pättiniemi
1 month ago

Dennett, I believe, was the last great verificationist. The world of philosophy is the worse for his loss. We need more like him, not less.

john sundman
1 month ago

In 2003 I wrote an long essay for Salon on the then state of ‘artificial intelligence’ in general, and the Loebner chatbot Turing test competition in particular. In the course of my research I spoke with Dan Dennett by phone and email about his initial support of, and later repudiation of the Loebner competition. I found some of what he had to say unconvincing, and in my essay I poked fun at him.

A few years later Douglas Hofstadter — another person I had met only through email and telephone — was to be in town to give a lecture in one of Dennett’s evening seminars at Tufts, and he invited me to attend his lecture and then join him and Dennett and a few others for dinner. I accepted, but I was extremely nervous. After all, these people were famous intellectuals and I was just some guy who wrote a story for Salon.

Hofstadter brought a copy of my essay to the dinner, and kept reading from all the parts where I had made fun of Dennett. Dennett, for his part, was an extremely good sport about it all, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable outing. When the check came, Dennett insisted on paying for my meal.

I blogged about the whole experience in my post ‘Mindful of Philosophy,’ which has a lot more background on Dennett, the turning test, the Loebner competition, the dinner party, and all that.

He was a true gentleman and I feel lucky to have met him.

Jack Abaza
Jack Abaza
1 month ago

Philosophy has just lost one of its most powerful voices and heroes. Daniel Dennett was a member of the critically endangered species of polymath, a talent that is becoming less and less common while social media, artificial intelligence, religious dogma, and restrictive government policies creep in to make us, humans, more and more thoughtless, lucrative, and tax-worthy.

He was a genius of rare abilities to the extreme, a philosopher who neuroscientists considered one of their own. A person of this sort is born, perhaps, once every few centuries, and we didn’t appreciate how lucky we were to have lived alongside him. Now, Daniel C. Dennett is joining the long line of philosophy’s greatest thinkers who are forever etched in our thoughts and memories. If the theists are right, and God exists, then it won’t bode well for the theists who insultingly write on his X (Twitter) profile that he’s now at God’s mercy. Rather, it’s the other way around: that deity will have to watch out if he knows what’s good for him. Heaven is under new management, and God just got a demotion for two thousand years of such incompetently sloppy work. I imagine him rolling up his sleeve, as he storms into God’s office, saying “Move aside, oaf! It’s going to literally take a genius to unravel the mess you made since time immemorial!”

As a titan who towers among the giants of philosophy, of old and new, and whose legendary eccentricity, exceptional brilliance, and peerlessly witty humour were too much for one discipline to handle, a great void, vast like a supermassive black hole at the epicenter of a galaxy with an insatiable hunger to devour all in its path, has emerged abruptly. I know that, if he were here, he’d tell us to get our acts together and continue what he started. There is so much to be done in philosophy, and Dennett gave it his all, fighting the dogma, intolerance, and cruelties of religions, and the myriad forms of ignorance taking up the anodyne appearances of “theories” in various disciplines. Don’t let instrumentalism die.

The best way to honour our fallen champion is by rallying by his memory and legacies and finishing what he started. If there is a theism-versus-atheism debate, bring up his name. If there is some mumbo-jumbo about free will or consciousness, bring up his name; dilute the idea of unconstrained free will; reduce consciousness to a series of memes! Cite his name in your articles and books, and keep citing him. Let’s build on his theories and make instrumentalism a dominant perspective, not only in philosophy but in society at large. No matter what anyone says, Dennett didn’t “die”; he merely took on another form as our collective thoughts. He is now bigger than ever; theists will never be able to shake him off. And the best way to keep him alive is by building on his legacy.

Tonight, I toast to a legendary man whose accomplishments would require too many volumes to list and explain here.

Long live Daniel Dennett (1942– ) and instrumentalism!

Anderson Brown
Anderson Brown
1 month ago
Matthew Murphy
Matthew Murphy
1 month ago

We will not fully understand the magnitude of this loss for a long time. Undoubtedly one of the most brilliant philosophers of our time.

Antonio
Antonio
1 month ago

I am very sad for this loss. His latest Ted Talk summarizes his accrued view of thought: The 4 biggest ideas in Philosophy. Daniel Dennett. https://youtu.be/nGrRf1wD320?si=bvzXU8Mteqj5lUpR
RIP.

V. Alan White
1 month ago

I echo the many tremendous tributes here. Besides enjoying his presentations at APAs, Consciousness Explained and Elbow Room had profound influence on my thinking. I wish he could know the debt I owe him.

Antonio
Antonio
1 month ago

Two more:

1.- From Bacteria to Bach and back. Talks at Google: https://youtu.be/IZefk4gzQt4?si=-VLaU7jKlZcdZTmh

2.- Cognition all the way down. by Michael Levin & Daniel Dennett. https://aeon.co/essays/how-to-understand-cells-tissues-and-organisms-as-agents-with-agendas

Please enjoy.
RIP

Sean Sanyal
Sean Sanyal
1 month ago

The world has lost a towering intellect. His wisdom changed my life forever, I will never forget him. This loss feels very personal even though I didn’t know him at all. Perhaps RIP wouldn’t make much sense given he was one of the four Horsemen, but his body of work will live on considerably longer.

V. R. Edgar
V. R. Edgar
Reply to  Sean Sanyal
1 month ago

On the contrary, resting in piece—or pieces, but resting—is exactly what an athiest would expect to do!

Rob Wilson
1 month ago

Dan Dennett is very high on my list of favourite people in philosophy. Here are some personal vignettes that indicate why.
 
Dan gave a talk at Cornell while I was a grad student there around the time that “Real Patterns” was published in J.Phil, a paper much of the faculty was skeptical about. The talk was “Two Black Boxes” and the commentary I gave on it in the Discussion Club was the first talk I gave in the USA.  Dan was very generous and encouraging through the visit, in contrast to the general competitiveness, mean-spiritedness, and hierarchy that permeated philosophy of mind at the time.
 
As a newly-minted PhD, I would see Dan at conferences, such as the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and the APA. At one of these, he taught me not humility but humiliation. Not the phenomenon, but game: name a book you haven’t read but you should have, as indicated by how many others playing have read it—the more who have, the higher your score. (It derives from David Lodge’s Changing Places, but, alas, at that time, that was one of those books I hadn’t read but should have.). 5-6 of us played it at a bar, crammed into a booth, with Dan taking delight in leading the way. I remember him exclaiming “No!” when I produced both Quine’s Word and Object and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations
 
One story this prompted from Dan was his recounting finding himself, as an undergraduate at Harvard, in one of Quine’s classes, where the philosophy graduate students seemed “wickedly smart”—it turns out that that class included a number of people who quickly became superstars in philosophy, the most notably of whom was David Lewis. Dan noted that he wasn’t sure if he belonged in that group, but thankfully he went on to work with Gilbert Ryle at Oxford, writing a D.Phil. that became Content and Consciousness.
 
Dan was one in a cast of stellar keynotes at a conference on metarepresentation that another Dan, Dan Sperber, organised in Vancouver in 1997. I got a last-minute invite after someone else dropped out, giving a talk that meshed together some early extended cognition thinking a la wide computation with some evolutionary psychology bashing. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby were amongst the illuminati in the audience, which made that all the more nerve-racking. I remember walking away from my talk with Dan literally giving me an enthusiastic “two-thumbs up” from the corner of the front row. 
 
In more recent years, amongst the various Dennett-fests that were organised was one in Poland, more-than-coinciding with a book tour for From Bach to Bacteria (I think) and its translation into Polish. I accepted an invitation to speak at the otherwise spacetime awkward conference—I was in the process of moving from Canada to Australia—primarily to pay my respects to Dan, not having seen him for some years. The highlight was a happenstance breakfast with him alone for an hour on one of the mornings before the day got under way. It was an opportunity to talk more about the importance of his early support for Ruth Millikan (e.g., see the preface to Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories), for junior scholars, and to make it clear how he had made a positive difference to my own pathway in philosophy.

Vale Dan!

Siddharth Muthukrishnan
Siddharth Muthukrishnan
1 month ago

Dennett’s delightful ability to develop and defend complex philosophical and scientific ideas using playful and accessible prose was unparalleled in philosophy. Stylistically speaking, I think of him as maybe the first great American philosopher, in the sense that he was committed to doing difficult and subtle and first-rate intellectual work without pretension and jargon, and without gatekeeping, by using language close to the vernacular. (In this American tradition, I would also place writers like Isaac Asimov and Richard Feynman, two other intellectual giants who prized plain speech above all.)

Growing up in India, I had little to no exposure to mainstream analytic philosophy, with the sole exception of Dennett’s work (though obviously I didn’t categorize it as “analytic philosophy” back then), which I think is a testament to the power of his writing and its ability to cross borders.

Devin Curry
1 month ago

Here is a self-indulgent remembrance of my experience as Dan’s mentee: https://www.devinsanchezcurry.com/dcd/

Walter Veit
1 month ago

Since many have shared some beautiful anecdotes of how Dan has helped them over the years, I wrote a little tribute as well: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-and-philosophy/202404/daniel-c-dennett-tribute-to-a-philosophical-giant

Miroslav Imbrisevic
1 month ago

In this interview from September 2023 Dennett talks about some of the books that most influenced him: https://fivebooks.com/best-books/daniel-dennett-book-recommendations/