Philosophy That Stirs the Waters – The New York Times


BOSTON — On a recent sunny afternoon, Daniel Dennett showed up at the community boathouse on the Charles River ready for philosophical and nautical action.

Mr. Dennett, the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University and perhaps America’s most widely read (and debated) living philosopher, recently sold the Xanthippe, his 42-foot cruiser, named for Socrates’ reputedly shrewish wife. But he still had his boat shoes, his Darwin-esque beard, and an eagerness to demonstrate his sail-handling skills while discussing his 16th book, “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,” which W. W. Norton is publishing next week.

Never mind that the boathouse’s fleet was unexpectedly confined to shore, thanks to a temporary shutdown of river traffic. And never mind that the boats lacked a boom crutch, the piece of nautical equipment that Mr. Dennett uses in the book as a punning name for the kind of faulty thinking tool that blows up in (mostly other) philosophers’ faces.

Sailing was still an apt illustration of the kind of empirically minded problem-solving that Mr. Dennett has long preferred to the abstractions of more traditional philosophy, to the great irritation of some colleagues.

“Philosophers can seldom put their knowledge to practical use,” Mr. Dennett said, squinting under the brim of a baseball hat reading “Freedom Evolves,” a play on the title of his 2003 book on free will. “But if you’re a sailor, you can. I just get a kick out of that.”

These days, Mr. Dennett, 71, is most famous for his blunt-talking atheist activism. “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion,” he said flatly.

But for decades, he has presented himself among his fellow philosophers as a ruthless slayer of metaphysical fancy.

“It’s always good fun to argue with him,” said David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy at New York University and Australian National University, who has long crossed swords with him over the nature of consciousness. “In person, he’s very charming, teasing and joking, though sometimes he’s less good-tempered in print.”

(Note: Paywall after 10 NYT articles)

Written By: Jennifer Schuessler
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  1. Nice interview, if a bit on the short side. Referring of course to the NYT article 🙂

  2. It’s good to see Daniel Dennett looking so well. His knew book will be on my shelf soon!

  3. On May 7th I’ll be attending an event where Dennett and Pinker will discuss the ideas that Dennett puts forth in his new book. I predict that this will be absolutely enthralling. The event is sold out but I have my ticket tucked safely away in my wallet.

    ~self-satisfied smirk~

    Just thought I’d lord that over you all. 🙂

  4. I’m looking forward to another journey into the deep, difficult and enlightening world of Prof Dennett.

    I can’t handle most philosophers, but DD is on a different level for those of us not trained in the complex inquiries undertaken and explained in depth.

    I’m sure, as with his other books, that I’ll really understand it on about the third reading…. Mac.

  5. Both free will and consciousness, he insists sunnily, are empirically solvable problems.

    How you know that until you actually solve them? or at least outline how they could be solved in principle? It is a bit premature to announce such bafflers either soluble or insoluble. Dennet is trying to pass his opinion as fact.

  6. Captain Long Beard : “Aarrgh, Jim Lad.” “If this ‘ere skip beegins ta floundar, weed be unner theez deepity, kald watterz – dead aza parrot.”

    ‘Tufty’ Jim : “Aye, aye, captain.” “But don’t yea worree none, ’cause we solved that old intuition pump tool prablem.” “I’ve went an’ stole us a watterz pump – saves uz fram sinkin’ !”
    “Pieces of 8 – pieces of 8″….SQUAWK.” 😉 m . . . .(copywrite)

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