A Great Loss to the World – #RIPDanDennett

I almost said great loss to the intellectual world – but his intellect is indeed a loss to the whole world.

I last communicated with Dan only three weeks ago, about the fact he was planning to be attending this year’s “How The Light Gets In” only by telepresence. For various multiple conference priority reasons, I’m probably not going to be at HTLGI this year, and could maybe have done a flying one-day visit if it included the possibility of in-person contact. Sadly an opportunity gone forever.

And it’s not just his academic intellect, but the whole emotionally intelligent person we’ve lost. Quite moving that so many of the responses to his death on social-media mention his continuity of caring about the people that encountered him whether as colleague, interlocutor or mentor.

[Example of thoughts expressed, this one from Michael Levin colleague at Tufts, “intellectual integrity” personal & inspiring. And one of his later interview with Nigel Warburton. and another wonderful exchange with Tom Chatfield for the BBC.]

I was looking back at my correspondence with him over the years. Remember I’m only an autodidact fan-boy, but he never failed to respond to a thoughtful question about his work. Sometimes the response would inevitably be an apology for simply not having the bandwidth to do so, but usually it was a brief response to the specific question, with his thanks for showing interest. A lost art in these days of ubiquitous social media.

Given “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” runs through his entire career and body of work since his time in Oxford in 1965 – 6 decades ago – also fitting to note he shares the date of his death with Charles Darwin, the 19th April.

Anyway he’s been central to my thinking for the last 20+ years, so hundreds of mentions and references in my blog and writing and external papers delivered.

My wish is that people read his 2017 “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” – or “B2BnB” as I have always referred to it. I had a review published in New Humanist which explains why.

Too many people, interested in the internal arguments and history of philosophical ideas, still refer only to his 1991 “Consciousness Explained” – affectionately referred to by many as consciousness-not-explained because it is pretty much meta to the topic, about what the different arguments are and what an explanation would need to be and do. Influential in that respect, but not the place to find the answers he found in the decades since.

Apart from that highly recommended read – his book and my review of it – most of my encounters are around defending his ideas against those who mis-represent him. Whether un-reconstructed scientistic reductionists, who just don’t get it or the more enlightened who simply miss his meaning in using the word “illusory” to describe aspects of consciousness to suggest he denies its reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No-one cared more about the reality of consciousness than Dan Dennett.


Previously on Psybertron:

in addition to the review above

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

Dennett and the Little People (The determinist reductionists)

Dennett and the “Little People” #3

Convergence – Dennett at the Royal Institution

Daniel Dennett at The Royal Institution of Great Britain @Ri_Science

Hold Your Definition!

“Definition as a Coffin” – Cybernetics to Systems Thinking


My first reference to Dennett in 2002.

The first of 40 pages of references!


4 thoughts on “A Great Loss to the World – #RIPDanDennett”

  1. I first read him as an undergraduate. I was impressed by the clarity of his style in Brainstorms. And that volume he did with Douglas Hofstadter, The Mind’s I, was a brilliant anthology. I was less impressed by Consciousness Explained, and more by his Darwin book. It was you who urged me to read his From Bacteria to Bach… I’m glad I did. I had assumed it would be a sort of recapitulation of the Darwin volume, and so had not been so keen, but it’s so much richer. It was there I came across his idea of ‘competence without consciousness’. That was a bit of a game-changer. It can be applied to networks from slime-moulds to markets. I’m still thinking it through. It’s just one example of how stimulating he could be.

  2. Yes, thanks for that Mark.

    Hopefully. I’ve made it clear that “Consciousness Explained” doesn’t do what the publisher’s title says it does – it’s a much more “meta” book, and simply a historical part of the 20th C process from our 21st C perspective. Very unsatisfying for anyone looking for answers.

    I too was first sold on him from those earlier essays and collaborations with Hofstadter – he too remains a hero to me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.