(Some reflections on Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back.)
Daniel Dennett loves to explain. In route to explain one thing, he’ll explain three intermediate things, taking time out to explore four or five tangential things. We might call this mania “dansplaining.” Indeed, this is his vision of what philosophy can and should do: utilize all natural knowledge to provide natural explanations for the phenomena philosophers find puzzling, like consciousness, freedom, moral responsibility, and the order in the universe. In this way he is very much like John Locke, who tried in the 17th century to provide a general account of the full range of human knowledge, from sensory data through mental operations to the natures of substances, persons, property, and God. The fact that Locke’s philosophy didn’t quite hang together – that it was rife with inconsistencies, gaps, and assumptions all too confident – did nothing to diminish its sales and influence: it captured the right view for the times, warts and all. Similarly, Dennett tells the right sort of story, given Darwinism and cognitive science and AI. He gives us the general story we should be telling ourselves, given the particular things we know. He is our John Locke.
But, like Locke, he confidently breezes his way past what others see as profound difficulties. Dennett shows very little concern for what’s known as the “sociology of scientific knowledge,” or criticisms from the direction of the social sciences about the way science does its business. He’s not interested in how scientific explanations might be tainted, twisted, and skewed by the interests of powers they serve. He doesn’t have any patience for any of the puzzles, paradoxes, and contradictions of the existential sort that can’t be solved readily enough through empirical inquiry. (He’ll quote Nietzsche, but only when he is providing a good Darwinian soundbite.) Some would say it’s not clear how far into meaningfulness we will be carried by taking delight in explanations. To all this, DD might sensibly reply that science is still the best thing we have going, that its successes are far more evident that the soundness of criticisms raised against it, and who wants to wallow around in existential murk and gloom anyway? Or, if you do, go right ahead and wallow away; Dennett isn’t going to stop you.
I can’t deny that’s a sensible view. And I do take great delight in his dansplanations. But the fact that he’d like to steer discussion away from things like the relativity of knowledge, the power structures of a society, and the problem of meaning (by which I mean: the Problem of Meaning), and toward things like algorithms, memes, and design space, tells us a lot about Dennett’s vision of what philosophy is. It’s more of a science thing than a humanities thing. Humanists (like literary types and historians) regularly immerse themselves in pools of books and texts, establishing links among them and raising questions about traditions of interpretations. Dennett belongs to a long philosophical tradition of standing apart from these people: Plato distrusted the poets, Descartes found history no more illuminating than travelogues, and many others simply talked past the lively conversations among the humanists of their own day. (The great exception was David Hume, who eventually gave up pure philosophy in the interest of writing histories and essays that engaged with his own textual traditions.) Philosophers in this tradition believe they can learn more from science, whether it is their own science or something they have gleaned from books and articles. In this philosophy, Newton and Darwin and Einstein are huge; Ranke and Melville and Collingwood, not so much.
Ideally, of course, one could be well-read, keeping up with large movements in both science and humanities. But it is impossible to do this, not only because there is so much to learn, but also because the two foci cannot be resolved into a single one. You can take up an interest in how traditions do their work upon what we think and say; or you can plunge ahead and think and say without caring where it all comes from; but you can’t do both at once. The first effort means taking what people say as data, as a symptom of something, while the second means trying to get work done by talking or writing. The same person can engage in both efforts, but never at the same time.
But, happily, there is room for both kinds of endeavors. We need not define philosophy’s essence, as it doesn’t have one. Let the dansplanations roll; and let us also encourage some perspicacious analyses of what such dansplanations might mean in the broad currents of our textual traditions.