Daniel Dennett is Not Wrong (mostly)

August 29, 2016

Recently, Prof. Dennett, a friend of secularism and humanism who has long committed to our joint concerns (and who many of us have met and interacted valuably with), made a stir among philosophers with the following statements:

“A great deal of philosophy doesn’t really deserve much of a place of the world,” he says. “Philosophy in some quarters has become self-indulgent, clever play in a vacuum that’s not dealing of problems of any intrinsic interest.” Much if not all philosophical work in analytic metaphysics, for example, is “willfully cut off from any serious issues”

…much of philosophy is little more than a “luxury decoration on society,” and he complains many of the questions studied in both analytic and continental philosophy are “idle—just games.”

Having been a professional philosopher for some time, and now being more or less outside that particular profession, I will admit that Dennett is not wrong for the most part. His words raised a great deal of ire and vigorous denunciation from the professional philosophical community, mostly by those objecting to the characterization. No one wants to believe that their career is some sort of game. Indeed, there are also a number of philosophers who are engaged with the world in their work, and their objections based on their personal view of their contribution to society are to be noted. But what of the vast majority of published philosophy that 99.99% of the world will never read nor care about? It seems that, for the millions of words published in the field of academic philosophy in journals no one outside of the profession will read, and most professional philosophers will likewise ignore, Dennett has a real point. As pointed out in the Daily Nous (a popular philosophy blog), Dennett has made similar claims and arguments in his paper: “Higher Order Truths About Chmess” also published as a chapter in his book Intuition Pumps. A paragraph of that paper is revealing, and forms the basis for my disagreement with any overly hasty conclusion about the ultimate value of philosophy:

Of course some people are quite content to find a congenial group of smart people with whom to share ‘‘the fun of discovery, the pleasures of cooperation, and the satisfaction of reaching agreement,’’ as John Austin once put it (see Austin 1961, p. 175), without worrying about whether the joint task is worth doing. And if enough people do it, it eventually becomes a phenomenon in its own right, worth studying. As Burton Dreben used to say to the graduate students at Harvard, ‘‘Philosophy is garbage, but the history of garbage is scholarship.’’ Some garbage is more important than other garbage, however, and it’s hard to decide which of it is worthy of scholarship.

Frankly, most of academic research is just this. The world of academia is a sort of game, much like the games we play in other realms. I happen to love playing tennis and chess (I haven’t tried chmess), and I also enjoy politics, and astronomy, literature, and reading about particle physics. The bulk of the world cares very little about any of these things, and most people could care less about the implications of the standard model of particle physics or the leitmotifs in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The academic game, however, demands that professional academics comment about all such things, and do so in highly ranked journals, as often as possible. So the commentary abounds, and it largely amounts to a lot of back and forth among a small group of people who are, after all, just playing a type of game.

              Recently, a list of the “50 most influential living philosophers” was likewise circulated, raising a fair amount of debate also in the philosophy community. Prof. Dennett is on that list. A notable feature of the list is that many of those listed are known outside of the world of academic philosophy, and so their influence extends beyond the philosophy game into other games. We may well ask a number of questions about the larger game of academia in general, such as: how does academia benefit the world at large, or the least advantaged, or “everyman?” Should particle physicists, for instance, do more to make the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or the search for dark matter, more clearly relevant for non-academics? Does interdisciplinary work among researchers in different fields improve the world of academia, or the world beyond the ivory tower in any material way? But I would suggest that all of these questions, while perhaps well-meaning, are ultimately irrelevant.

              Donald Trump is more influential than any philosopher alive. So are the Beatles and Madonna. This influence is not an indication of some objective worth, nor can we have some sort of universal scale for value among fields. The domains of the games we play are largely non-overlapping, and the values at their cores are incommensurable. A very influential philosopher or chess player (or chmess player) may have no influence outside the realm of their game. Their work may have no relevance to the world outside that domain. And that’s OK. Indeed, the world of Tennis is self-indulgent, as is the world of high art, music, politics, NASCAR, etc. Indeed, we live in a time when we are fortunate that much of what any of us do is a “luxury decoration on society.” Having achieved a standard of living beyond mere subsistence, at least in the prosperous developed world, we have invented all sorts of games to bide our time, none of which are ultimately necessary for survival, nor inherently worthwhile to the species and its survival.

              The marketplace determines what is ultimately valued, and for now philosophers are valued well enough. There exist philosophy departments, and their members publish papers and give lectures, and bandwidth is consumed on the internet discussing philosophical topics, and meta-philosophical topics about philosophy and philosophers. The same is true of every one of our games, although the market for each may differ in size. Prof. Dennett is mostly correct in his assessment, but he makes that assessment as part of yet another game, another luxury decoration on society for which we should be thankful.


#1 Craig (Guest) on Tuesday August 30, 2016 at 9:18am

Lets me get this straight:  Professor Dennett makes the claim that Philosophy has declined in its quality of production with most academic work being useless banter and ruminations (paraphrased)unrelated to the serious issues of human life and thought. I hear many implicit profundities in this statement. I am sure that is why he has said it more than once.

Koepsell then comments that yeah, OK maybe he is mostly correct, however, he really upset some people and Dennetts claim is just another example of a “luxury” of the discipline (game).  Oh and by the way “The marketplace determines what is ultimately valued, and for now philosophers are valued well enough”. In a nutshell Koepsell is telling us that most everything we do as a species, including academic liberal arts, is just a game or decoration tagged onto the true economic physiology of life which is the ultimate arbiter of true value. And Donald Trump and Madonna are examples of that true influence.

This article should be sufficient proof that Dennett makes a very timely observation about the state of our intellectual capital!  As evidenced by his statement, “Their work may have no relevance to the world outside that domain. And that’s OK”, Koepsell admits that he does not understand or believe that what we study, how well we study it and the conclusions we draw from that study, affects the real world or has any real influence on the future!  The fact that academia is somewhat sequestered from the general population at institutions of higher learning, think-tanks and R & D labs, does not negate their impacts on the future development of our culture, economy and survival. To characterize academic dialectics as “games” (similar to NASCAR) is to show a complete lack of understanding as to how human thought evolves culturally, intellectually and politically.  To ascribe real “influence” to an idiot political candidate in one election or to a pop singer, is to subscribe to the modern, shortsighted, capitalist definition of influence, and to miss the legitimate, lasting impacts of academic and intellectual resource application. If a Trump has more influence than any philosopher we have, is that not an indictment of our society?  Notice he uses the caveat “alive”, so as to exclude past philosophers who have unquestionably impacted our lives more than Trump ever will. So philosophy was not always irrelevant. Is this not the point that Dennett is making? That Koepsell can make such a statement and be correct is a scary proposition and should be an insult to the discipline of Philosophy.

With all “due” respect to Koepsell, who by his own assessment,apparently spent his whole life playing a meaningless “game” that has no real influence on the real world, Dennett’s point that the official academic discipline of Philosophy no longer produces substantive contributions to elevated thought, is perfectly on point and coincides with the decline in many other academic areas, to the detriment of us all.  Technology must be developed in lockstep with the intellectual and emotional sophistication of the users, or chaos ensues. Or as Carl Sagan put it, “it will blow up in our face”.  Music, art, philosophy, legitimate history, literature and the other liberal arts are in decay due to the anti-intellectual trajectory of society as a whole.  The causes are many and the solutions difficult. Recognizing that we have a real problem is the first step in finding a better way to live and survive our own worst tendencies. It is true that the legendary genius of our ancestors has waned.  But the waning is a symptom of the anti-intellectualism being spread by the unfettered, unopposed rampage of the Western cultural memes of materialism, narcissism, and a mental surrender to a Corporatocracy run amok. The intellectual capital we do still retain as a culture are busy with the unquestionably crucial tasks of financial market machinations, military production and making video games.

Koepsell has indicated that Dennett has pointed out nothing of any real utility and his observation is therefore just another aspect of the game and another decoration on the edifice of society as well.  Apparently even some our most vetted minds are incapable of recognizing that we have a real problem and that some really intelligent people are trying to point that out. 

Knowledge is not intelligence.  Academic banter is not necessarily erudition.  I would like to see someone make a more insightful analysis of this very important point that Dennett makes.  Allow me to offer this request in the form of open questions to our celebrated membership/readership:

What does it mean for the future of Western culture that most of its citizenry are completely ignorant of its history and the philosophical infrastructure of its thoughts, policies and behaviors? 

What does the decline of intellectual capital and the liberal arts specifically, mean for the future of Western polities, capitalism and culture in general?

What can be done, if anything, to redirect or invigorate the liberal arts and move away from the idea that academic dialectics and accomplishment is nothing more than a decoration on society?

#2 David Koepsell (Guest) on Tuesday August 30, 2016 at 9:47am


Thanks for your comments. All your errors can be traced to your belief that there is such a thing as intrinsic value, and I take issue with the same point of view of Dennett. I value all the games we play, just not equally, they mark our advance as a species now no longer struggling just to survive. My valuing is entirely subjective, and I am defending above the liberal arts as a wonderful luxury.


#3 cjdomin (Guest) on Tuesday August 30, 2016 at 3:12pm


You are welcome for the response to your article. I am happy to stand with Dennett in the camp of intrinsic value. Even though my opinions (errors) were not addressed specifically, your follow-up has allowed me to further understand your beliefs.
Best wishes,

#4 Dick Springer (Guest) on Friday September 09, 2016 at 1:34pm

The examination of implicit assumptions, most of which are either wrong or oversimplifications, is essential for clear thinking and arriving at truthful beliefs.  I have long thought that this was the essential function of philosophers, although I recognize the role of some philosophers in generating new wrong assumptions.

#5 Kathryn Wilkins (Guest) on Sunday September 11, 2016 at 4:56pm

Would I be too much of a capitalist to suggest that it all boils down to money? The way I see it is that our society’s collective awareness beyond their small, individual circles has declined along the same trajectory as our economic health in this country. Poverty destroys opportunity, energy and aspiration. Some might say everything is a game, but trying to support a family on the minimum wage our overpaid and underworked representatives in Washington deem good enough for “the masses” is all consuming and draining. It saps any possibility that a person might seek out ways to rise above the mundane and access education and enlightenment. And there is wisdom in the minds of the working class that is being squandered. As Noam Chomsky said “Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.” But exhausted people don’t take college courses, which would offer them knowledge in various areas of study they will never find on controlled media outlets. I believe the “dumbing down” of the American people has been a calculated process, as I watch, for example, the History Channel airing programming about aliens and pawn shops, helping to create a populace of ill-informed, under-educated, and obedient drones to work for low pay, and who are too afraid of losing what little they have to speak out. Also, people living in poverty don’t usually travel, which might expose them to perspectives other than their own and their community’s. Local Sunday morning church services have filled the spiritual gap for many people, leaving them to be exposed to the narrowest philosophical assessments of the world offered up, many times, by undereducated ministers with personal agendas, who claim knowlege of the “otherworldly”, leaving much to be desired in the way of acceptance of varying views of life in this world. And because so many people are fearful about their security and place in the world, a monster making empty promises and saying the things they have thought but were afraid to say has caught the attention of too many, and has emboldened the fearful to make their usually private fears and intolorences public. Few in academia have come forward beyond their hallowed halls with any educated assessments of this monster and, because of the threat of violence, some are afraid to speak at all. In conclusion, I don’t think considerations of higher thought will expand and influence the general public until there is more financial security for the average Joe/Jane in our country. The daily strain is just too much to rise above, and the drone creators aren’t looking to let up on the pressure being exerted on “We, the People”, the 99%.

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