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Saturday 27 April 2024

Remembering Daniel Dennett

In this post, blog editors Lisa Bortolotti and Kengo Miyazono talk about how Daniel Dennett's work shaped their intellectual journeys. Lisa and Kengo have worked together on a number of projects, are editors of the journal Philosophical Psychology, and co-authored a textbook in the philosophy of psychology for Polity.

Lisa and Kengo


As my graduate research on belief and rationality started in the late nineties, it won’t surprise anyone that Daniel Dennett’s work had a great influence on my ideas and on my way of coming to grips with what being a philosopher of mind involved. I remember reading The Intentional Stance (MIT 1987) many times, and studying the critiques by Stephen Stich and Christopher Cherniak to the notion that ideal rationality governs our practices of belief ascription. I had many questions and some concerns about the intentional stance, but I did love Dennett’s clear writing style and the elegance of his examples. Most of all, I cherished the sense of liberation (from the undue pressures of metaphysics) that I felt when I realised that it was OK to care about beliefs only in so far as we use them to understand each other. 

In May 2019 I got to meet Dennett at an event at the University of Reading where I was a speaker, entitled Growing Autonomy in Human and Artificial Agents. I was so nervous about presenting my work straight after the talk by Keith Frankish and Daniel Dennett! This was a hard act to follow indeed! I argued that there are some irrational beliefs, those that contribute to a view of ourselves as competent, coherent, and efficacious agents, that are instrumental to our pursuing our goals in the face of setbacks and also enhance our chances of attaining our goals. That idea, at the core of the project I was running at the time, had also been inspired by a paper by Ryan McKay and Daniel Dennett on adaptive misbeliefs. While I was walking back to my seat after the presentation, Dennett said he liked my talk and, trust me, that day won’t be forgotten anytime soon. 

My interests have continued to match and be inspired by those of Dennett. I was never particularly intrigued by consciousness but I have always been fascinated by how key notions in the philosophy of mind, such as belief, rationality, agency, and the self, were constantly challenged by experiences and discoveries in the psychological sciences and in mental health research. Dennett managed to combine philosophical rigour and inventiveness with the realisation that the best available empirical evidence is both a powerful inspiration and an unavoidable constraint for the philosopher’s theorising.

This remains his most important lesson to me. In Dennett’s words: 

"The most important job for philosophers is to negotiate traffic between our everyday vision of the world and science".


I decided to write my PhD dissertation on delusions after reading Lisa’s book, Delusions and Other Irrational Beliefs, which was published in 2010. Lisa’s discussions of delusions in that book adopt a Dennett-Davidson-style interpretationism according to which the (third-personal) interpretation or belief-attribution is constitutive of the mental state of believing. In contrast, Dennett-Davidson-style interpretationism is not suitable for my project. I needed a more robust form of realism about beliefs where the mental state of believing is taken to be a discrete state of a person that is ontologically independent from the (third-personal) interpretation of belief-attribution. 

In my dissertation, I adopt a teleo-functionalist theory of beliefs, where the mental state of believing is defined in terms of its functions in a teleological sense (rather than a causal sense). In preparing the dissertation, while staying in Boston as a visiting student at MIT, I found that Dennett described himself as a teleo-functionalist (in the Appendix A of his Consciousness Explained) but wanted to know more about his commitments. So I visited him at Tufts in 2012. 

He was extremely smart, friendly and generous. He spent several hours in the afternoon with me, clarifying his own views on interpretationism, teleo-functionalism, etc. as well as giving me useful feedback on my dissertation project. That conversation with Dennett in that afternoon was, personally and academically, one of the best moments during my years as a graduate student. Later, when my dissertation turned into my first book Delusions and Beliefs: A Philosophical Inquiry, I included Dennett’s name in the acknowledgement section. 

I learned a lot not only from Dennett's ideas and theories on philosophical issues but also from his insight into how philosophy needs to be done, and how philosophers need to behave in philosophical debates. One of my favorite quotes from Dennett is "Dennett-Rapoport rules" (in this book) for criticising another philosopher's view: 

"1 You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2 You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3 You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4 Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism."

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