As I consciously walk down corridors of the public intellectual sphere for the first time, rather than trying to make sense of how the term is defined, I allow those at the forefront of the ‘public intellectual’ community to give their perspectives on what it means to hold such a title.  Without much digging, I came across articles, publications, and reviews of lengthy novels by those considered to be members of this distinct group.  The most evident writings focused on the importance of the role of the public intellectual, but without fail, followed with a worrying plea that feared their endangerment and stressed their existence.  Why was the loudest message of this public intellectual community an anxious attempt to prove their significance?   Is it appropriate that they place so much focus on vocalizing their importance?  Or rather, should they earning the public’s attention and appreciation through their work and the articulate lessons they give.   Of course, this certainly isn’t to say these public intellectuals are any less of a “public intellectual” because common folk are unaware of their title.  Little did I realize that I had been consuming, and enjoying, the work of these intellects for years.  It is not their voice that isn’t heard and known – it’s the title that seems to bear little meaning to the general public.  Needless to say, I began to feel the yearning to be recognized and appreciated in this role as a public intellectual.  The role of these scholarly thinkers, and to define the term “public intellectual,” is to address and work to solve matters pertaining to the general public, through work released to the public in a manner that is easily understood, whether or not favorable, with the intent of moving the human race forward.

The arise of the public intellectual label could have come about due to a need for more formal role of academic work and a commitment to educating the general public. The title places a greater significance on the intellectual’s work and provides reason for its distribution beyond the walls of academia.  Though a questionably shrinking community – whether it is or not still remains a topic of debate argument, the “public intellectual” status provides a tangible, defined title for what they do – as if to make themselves more official.  The fear comes across as insecure and defensive about their occupation.

Some believe the name can be given to anyone with the academic standing, expertise in a particular field, and willingness to translate problems, concerns or solutions involving his or her given subject matter into more a practical, comprehensible language.  This is not to say that public intellectuals should be seen merely as ‘educated activists.’  There is a certain depth and need for this work and, coupled with superior education and proficiency in certain subject areas, public intellectuals provide critical analyses and well-informed perspectives on all free-floating ideas thrown out to the public.   Not to mention, a profound danger exists here: the public can quickly misconstrue or misinterpret these “thrown-out” ideas if left for uninformed or misguided interpretation.  A public intellectual, provided that the general public make an effort to know and understand his or her work, can lead readers to a more accurate and rationale understanding of a certain issue within society.   Regardless of the industry or culture, public intellectuals play a role in the formation of accurate insight and sound rationale.

I’d like to highlight and look more deeply into the work of one particular public intellectual: Daniel Dennett.  An American philosopher, writer, and cognitive scientist, Dennett stood out from the rest, for reasons good and bad, with his influential voice and unwavering confidence concerning subject matter that I had never before questioned or seen questioned.  Regardless of whether my beliefs, views, or background align with Dennett’s, his attempts to tackle and refute claims that I have always considered foundational and indisputable was fascinating, to say the least.   Renowned but often amongst controversy, Dennett speaks out on his research regarding the philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, and particularly how those fields relate to evolutionary biology.  He is also acknowledged for his academic instruction as a University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University.  He has authored many books and essays, the most famous of which are Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Freedom Evolves (Viking Penguin, 2003) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Dennett has spoken out repeatedly and in extreme terms about his view as an atheist.   In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell, Dennett argues that religious beliefs should be looked at solely through the scientific lens of evolutionary biology.  Religion, he believes, is a natural, versus supernatural, phenomenon and argues that education should break the taboo against scientific examination of the belief system and in so doing, pull apart all facets of the many world religions.  Dennett’s understanding of gaining a rationale understanding of religion in the broader sense is that human beings must mature in the knowledge of how religious beliefs immensely influence behaviors, and therefore not fall into any category or set of rules of a particular religion.  Stephen Mack provides fair insight into how religion might be incorporated rationally into the American culture and a fair compromise for those who fear it’s overbearing manner:

For those who are concerned about the use of religious rhetoric in democratic debate, a more important challenge would center on how religion is being used, not whether it is used.  Or, not whether they are talking politics, but who they are talking politics to.  Just as enlightened religious thinkers have used the terms of their faith to build a sense of a larger American community, it has also been used to insulate particular Americans within the cultural walls of more narrow communities.

Though religion has been used to advance the policies in the democratic system by many with the purpose of uniting Americans, there must be awareness for the severity and sensistivity of the arguments at hand when bringing religion into the debate.  The importance of this awareness and deeper perception goes without saying (and frankly seems downright obvious) as we continue to revere, kill, sacrifice, love, hate, [fill-in-the-blank] our own species due to these beliefs.  Dennett puts in bluntly in saying that if we don’t understand religion, we’re going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century.   In his Ted Talk, “Dangerous Memes,” Dennett explains a unique, realized purpose that separates human beings from all other species:

The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it. Most of us — now that the “Me Decade” is well in the past — now we actually do this. One set of ideas or another have simply replaced our biological imperatives in our own lives. This is what our summum bonum is. It’s not maximizing the number of grandchildren we have.  Now, this is a profound biological effect. It’s the subordination of genetic interest to other interests. And no other species does anything at all like it.  Well, how are we going to think about this? It is, on the one hand, a biological effect, and a very large one. Unmistakable. Now, what theories do we want to use to look at this? Well, many theories. But how could something tie them together? The idea of replicating ideas; ideas that replicate by passing from brain to brain. Richard Dawkins, whom you’ll be hearing later in the day, invented the term “memes,” and put forward the first really clear and vivid version of this idea in his book “The Selfish Gene.”

Dennett, along with all evolutionists and religionists, agree there is something about mankind that differentiates us from animals.  Dennett argues, however, that this discrepancy is merely a ‘subordination of genetic interest to other interests.’  He oversimplifies human beings’ meaning in life as a ‘biological effect’– isn’t there greater significance or deeper meaning than just a biological imperative of which we settle on and change, decade to decade? What about our sense of morality or free moral agency or capacity for wisdom or desire for worship? This list of unique human capabilities over animal-like simplicity goes on.  To support of Dennett’s argument, it has been recognized that the physical characteristics of our brains do not warrant the extreme creative and processing power that defines human ingenuity.   We have abilities beyond what can be defined or reasoned through an x-ray or scan.  Dennett stands firm behind the argument that there can be no other argument but that of which comes from scientific investigation.  But in fact, Dennett touches on a unique facet of the human capability – one that is not found in any other specie: human beings can step back and become an active observer, critic or admirer of the world around him.  Humans have the unique ability to see their position in the larger picture of a society and analyze their purpose within it.

While Dennett has received numerous awards and positive reviews for his work, he has also faced a great deal of reproach and disagreement.  In response to the critics, Dennett poses the question in considering some of the basic inclinations and subtleties of today’s increasingly opinionated culture: “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”  To make an example of these critics, Dennett writes in his book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, about an idea that he refers to as the best antidote tendency to caricature one’s opponent:

The social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport (creator of the winning Tit-for-Tat strategy in Robert Axelrod’s legendary prisoner’s dilemma tournament) once promulgated a list of rules for how to write a successful critical commentary on an opponent’s work. First, he said, you must attempt to re-express your opponent’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your opponent says “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” Then, you should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement), and third, you should mention anything you have learned from your opponent. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

The book spells out a framework of rules put together by the legendary social psychologist and game theorist Anatol Rapoport, best known for originating the famous Tit-for-Tat strategy of game theory.   Regardless of the magnitude of the argument, Dennett defends that this psychological strategy remains sound if for just one reason: it creates an environment for reception and respect from your opponent despite the points of arguments or dissent, which in turn contributes to the discussion rather cause a step backwards or one of defense.  Perhaps this is how Dennett hard-headedly cuts through common cognitive biases and logical fallacies.  Nevertheless, the “intuition pumps” provide anecdotal clips that lead in to Dennett’s arguments, from free will to consciousness.  Many are built around fictitious characters with made-up problems, with the occasional chess problem or card trick.  “Other tools for thinking” include uncommon words and uncommon uses of common ones, plus the occasional Dennett-ism such as “jootsing” (Jumping Outside Of the System, a word for the familiar concept of thinking outside the box).  Having received numerous swings of criticism from fellow academic writers for arguments made in book, I too found it most fascinating and quite suspicious when I read Dennett’s view on philosophers:

Philosophers are never quite sure what they are talking about — about what the issues really are — and so often it takes them rather a long time to recognize that someone with a somewhat different approach (or destination, or starting point) is making a contribution. We recognize – and cite and discuss – head-on collision courses much more readily than nearly parallel trajectories, which tend to strike us, if we notice them at all, as too obvious to comment on.  Besides, it is not as if philosophers uncovered their favorite truths by pursuing elaborately chained series of laboratory experiments or on long treks into the wilderness.  We are all standing around in each other’s data, looking in roughly the same directions for roughly the same things.  Priority squabbles may make sense in some disciplines, but in philosophy they tend to take on the air of disputes among sailors about who gets credit for first noticing that the breeze has come up.

Truth be told, I was hesitant to continue after Dennett pointed out that philosophers are never quite sure what they are talking about… How is he then to question what it means to be human? How can he then make such strong claims and forceful arguments for what even Dennett confidently states as fact?  Dennett has responded to philosophers across slews of literature works, and to what end?  If none really know what they are really talking about, is all tit-for-tat combat and verbal jousts one big game with no score?   The argument against the validity – or purpose – of philosophers and their outcries is further exacerbated by the fact that while philosophical views, including Dennett’s, have generally been steadfast over the years, numerous interpretations have undergone successive augmentations, refinements, and alterations. Funny – they were all presented so adamantly in the moment.   Whether they are triggered by a sudden realization or through a gradual evolution of evidence against a “proven” argument, these corrections or changes in argument weaken future opinion of these authors.  What’s to say it’s not another case of the philosopher who cried truth?

Dennett argues that the universally powerful topic of religion should be a simplified so much to be considered a creation of mankind, and investigated scientifically as such.   The argument can be made that philosophy too should be considered a scientifically studied “influencer,” and the theories of its patrons, including Dennett, should be merely questioned in the same way.   Truthfully, I’m baffled as to why Dennett would expose this vulnerability of his own occupation and life’s work in this way.  His claim marginalizes the full range of philosophical work, past and future.  Is it rational for us as a community of citizens to consider the work of a philosopher who himself questions and discounts philosophy?  We willingly throw daggers at the first taste of political contradiction or scientific error.  Why, then, do we accept or turn a blind eye to a discipline that questions such heavy topics like the point of our existence and our purpose as human beings?  How long should we continue to allow a barking dog in the corner to answer for our meaning in life?

Perhaps the most appropriate way to consider the purpose of philosophy is to reflect on what constitutes the rationality of other disciplines.  Defining how we demarcate the field of other areas of study such as biology or linguistics should similarly be applicable to philosophy.  With common academic subjects of, say, chemistry or economics, their purpose is derived from the theme of questions to which they have been developed to provide the answers.  The same should hold true for the subject of philosophy.  To excuse this area of study with the reasoning that the field is unique or too ambiguous to define in the same regard is not acceptable.  Granted some questions cultivated within the philosophical realm may not lead to straightforward answers or fit the typical mold of how masters of the field would normally find solutions to the questions, we mustn’t allow a universally accepted uncertainty or permissible inability to find these answers to separate the field from others with more discoverable solutions.  Some could argue that Dennett’s argument “against” his own occupation is one of courage, awareness and appropriate skepticism.  Maybe he should be praised for being readable, clear, and original in this way.  However, when he adamantly and often offensively continues to push definitive statements about controversial and sensitive matters, his own disclaimer and contradiction to the validity of his claims doesn’t leave a favorable taste in the mouth.   This argument against Dennett’s comment lends to reasoning for a recent alleged decline in the public intellectual.  With Dennett’s scholarly but strongly dismissive tone in both argument and response, anyone with sensitivity and intelligence may be against reading or responding to his work in fear of a subsequent verbal assault flung their way.   Unfortunately, Dennett’s behavior may give innocent common folk who come across his officious responses a sour name to philosophers and public intellectuals as a whole.    Maybe what’s needed in this case, as Stephen Mack puts it in his post, “The ‘Decline’ of the Public Intellectual (?),” the sustainability of the role “needs to begin with a shift from ‘categories and class’ to ‘function.”  Rather than accepting a public intellectual’s superior rejection of all combative claims, such as Dennett’s, the role of a public intellectual may live on more effectively by placing more of the focus on its function and benefit to society.  Mack accurately goes further with this argument saying, “our notions of the public intellectual need to focus less on who or what a public intellectual is—and by extension, the qualifications for getting and keeping the title. Instead, we need to be more concerned with the work public intellectuals must do, irrespective of who happens to be doing it.”  To strengthen his case, Mack alludes to John Donatich’s introduction to a panel discussion on the issue that The Nation sponsored in 2001 and, in so doing, sharply responds to John’s inaccurate and naïve position on the public intellectual: “ The very words ‘future of the public intellectual’ seem to have a kind of nostalgia built into them, in that we only worry over the future of something that seems endangered, something we have been privileged to live with and are terrified to bury.  Mack fairly and aptly points out a subsequent critique that John’s argument is “subordinating [the title] unnecessarily to the most elitist argument for the public intellectual, the one grounded in the myth of an aristocracy of experts.” While there is worry of endangerment of the public intellectual and its continuation years down the road, there is also a brewing conflict over the receptiveness of American intellectual work and how it fits with the more conventional ‘American anti-intellectualism.’  The question remains: do we have reason to doubt public intellectuals due to their occasional unwarranted superiority or is it our embrace of ignorance as Americans that wrongfully puts down a public intellectual’s voice of reason.

One thought on “A Public Intellectual Profile: Daniel Dennett

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s