Daniel Dennett, Existentialist?

It is curious, in a philosophical sort of way, to find Daniel Dennett sounding remarkably like an existentialist. Dennett is an important figure in contemporary philosophy of mind, having written extensively on the nature of consciousness, will, personal identity and related topics from the point of view of a thorough-going materialism. His materialism is long standing, stemming from his commitment to the scientific method. “I propose to see … just what the mind looks like from the third-person, materialistic perspective of contemporary science,” he wrote in 1987(1); and he has carried out that program quite assiduously throughout his whole career.

In contrast, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir start from a first-person point of view. They are in a tradition that originates with the Phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and includes Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and many others, a tradition in the family called, not very accurately, “continental” as opposed to “analytical” philosophy (one wonders why the logical positivists of the Vienna Circle are not also deemed continental).

Phenomenology is the practice of examining one’s own experience reflectively and without bias. The investigator inspects experience directly instead of using intermediary channels such as, for instance, an electroencephalograph to measure brain waves or psychological surveys to assess mental attitudes. The practice is called “reflective” because it is like seeing yourself in a mirror. The image you see is, in a sense, you yourself. Just so, the experience the phenomenologist examines is his or her own.

The bias to be avoided is the naive belief that the objects of our experience actually exist independently of us. One suspends judgment regarding the naive belief in the existence of objects in the world and examines phenomena only as they are given in experience.(2) The phenomenologist does not deny the objects’ existence, but neither does he or she affirm it. The phenomenologist merely attempts to avoid letting that naive belief influence the investigation. By putting aside, or “bracketing,”(3) our instinctive belief in a real world, we can perceive things that have been in our experience all along but to which we paid little attention, things such as perceptual judgments (is what I see a snake or a rope?), emotional colorings (is that dog a threat or merely exuberant?) and the like. The phenomenological investigator just pays attention to what is present in experience, without interpreting it as anything else.

The existentialists apply this attitude to the human condition, which they view from a similarly first-person point of view, the point of view of a free agent. As phenomenologists do, the existentialists try to avoid all preconceptions and presuppositions. De Beauvoir says “… let man put his will ‘in parentheses’ and he will thereby be brought to the consciousness of his true condition.”(4) By “in parentheses” she means that we set aside all theories from psychology, history, sociology, biology and similar sciences. We also set aside, as much as we can, all our taken-for-granted assumptions about who we are. Instead, we describe our life purely as we experience it.

From that first-person point of view, one finds a great many things, two of which are of particular interest: (a) that we can take ourselves as objects of consciousness and thought, we can pay attention to ourselves; and (b) that in so doing we transcend ourselves and can deliberately create ourselves. Existentialists such as Sartre and de Beauvoir have made a great deal of these abilities, asserting that we human beings are radically free to reinvent ourselves at every instant and that the failure to recognize and act on that freedom is a kind of inauthenticity: if we don’t act on our inherent freedom, we are not living up to what we could be.

Dennett has a very dim view of Phenomenology, calling it “dubious” and “solipsistic.”(5) No doubt he would say the same of existentialism. It is strange, then, to find him making claims similar to those of the existentialists.

Consider the following passages regarding self-awareness. Which ones are from a French first-person existentialist, and which from an American third-person materialist?

A. [A human being] is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so.

B. [A human being is] a being who … questions himself in his being, a being who is at a distance from himself ….

C. Reflective … investigation of everything is going to change everything. [W]e look closely at looking closely, … we increase our investment in techniques for increasing our investment in techniques ….

And what of these, regarding our ability to create ourselves?

D. [A human being] … is what he wills …. [He] is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.

E. There may be no constants of human nature left at all.

Probably you can tell by the language alone that C and E are from Dennett(6) and the others from French existentialists. A and D are from Sartre(7); and B, from de Beauvoir(8).

We normally think of self-awareness or self-knowledge as a subjective phenomenon, something in our own experience. Certainly we can talk to others about it, but what we talk about is our private business, how we perceive ourselves. How can a materialist talk about it from the third-person point of view?

Dennett begins by observing that we ascribe to others an interiority (my word, not his) much like our own; we all make use of what psychologists call Theory of Mind. The term “Theory of Mind” refers to the ability to attribute mental states – beliefs, intentions, desires, pretense, knowledge, etc. – to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from our own.(9) What psychologists call Theory of Mind, Dennett calls the Intentional Stance:

[The intentional stance] consists of treating the object whose behavior you want to predict as a rational agent with beliefs and desires and other mental states exhibiting what Brentano and others call intentionality.(10)

“Intentionality” is a technical term meaning, roughly, “aboutness.”(11) It does not mean what it normally does outside of philosophy, doing something deliberately or on purpose. In philosophy, it means that when we are conscious we are conscious of something and that when we make statements or have beliefs, they are about something other than the statements or beliefs themselves. Since “intentional” has a perfectly good everyday usage, it is unfortunate that Dennett used it to describe the stance we generally take toward other people, toward many animals and, figuratively at least, toward some non-living things such as computers. I prefer to call it an agential stance: we interpret others as agents. Dennett himself notes that he could have called it the “rational agent” stance.(12)

Dennett writes in the context of philosophical debates about what sorts of things beliefs are. Are they real states of a person’s mind, ultimately describable in terms of states of the person’s brain? Are they merely interpretations we make of a person’s behaviour or speech? Dennett does not want to talk about states of mind that are perceivable only introspectively, not (I think) because he believes they don’t exist, but because he believes we can’t get any useful knowledge out of such talk. But he does want to say that beliefs and desires and the like really do exist in some sense out there in the world. They are reasonable explanations of observable phenomena which are usefully described as the actions and behaviours of agents.

In other words, his intentional stance is a way of describing reality that has predictive power in certain circumstances. Other ways of describing reality are the physical stance, in which we use our knowledge of the laws of physics (i.e., the discerned regularities of how physical things interact) to describe and predict events, and the design stance, in which we predict that a system will behave as it is designed to behave, ignoring the details of how that design is implemented.(13) The intentional stance is objective, revealing “patterns in human behaviour that are describable from the intentional stance, and only from that stance, and that support generalizations and predictions.”(14) From that stance, beliefs and desires are quite as real as physical objects:

There are patterns in human affairs that impose themselves, not quite inexorably but with great vigor, absorbing physical perturbations and variations that might as well be considered random; these are the patterns we characterize in terms of the beliefs, desires and intentions [in the everyday sense] of rational agents.(15)

The intentional stance, like the others, is a “tactic of anticipation.” If Dennett can sound like an existentialist, he can also sound a bit like a pragmatist: “The intentional stance works remarkably well as a prediction method ….”(16)

That is about as far as Dennett will go regarding the reality of mental states, beliefs, desires and subjectivity in general. Of course, each of us knows from our own experience that mental states are real; we know how it feels to be a conscious being. And we know that we are conscious. In other words we have the ability to investigate ourselves reflectively, as Dennett says, to be aware of and at a distance from ourselves, as Sartre and de Beauvoir say. That ability, which I call the capacity for second-order thinking, is the peculiarly human virtue, what we humans can do that other beings can’t.

And, as both Dennett and the existentialists recognize, self-awareness enables us to transcend ourselves. By noticing who we are and contrasting that with an idea of who we could be, we can change our thinking, our attitudes and our habits. Sartre and de Beauvoir take this idea to an extreme, claiming that we can decide at any moment to do something, and thus be someone, completely different from our past. I think that claim is exaggerated, but there is a grain of truth in it. After all the original goal of philosophy, the love of wisdom was to find out how to live well; and that goal implies the ability to change the way we live. Otherwise, what would be the point of the inquiry?



(1) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 7.

(2) This is the famous phenomenological epoché or bracketing. See Wikipedia, “Epoché.”

(3) Wikipedia, “Bracketing.”

(4) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(5) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 157-158.

(6) Dennett, “Introduction,” pp. xxii – xxiii.

(7) Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.”

(8) De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity.

(9) Wikipedia, “Theory of mind.” Dennett is known to dislike the term because in everyday life we do not actually make use of a psychological theory such as behaviourism, cognitivism and the like. Our use of the intentional stance is more like a talent or competence than an explicit theory. See Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 73.

(10) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 15.

(11) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 240.

(12) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 78, footnote.

(13) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, pp. 16-17.

(14) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 25, emphasis in original.

(15) Dennett, The Intentional Stance, p. 27.

(16) Dennett, Intuition Pumps, p. 79.


De Beauvoir, Simone. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Tr. Bernard Frechtman. On-line publication, URL = http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/ambiguity/index.htm as of 6 October 2011. Another version, not as well proof-read, is here: http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/existentialism/debeauvoir/ambiguity.html as of 6 October 2011.

Dennett, Daniel. “Introduction.” In This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape The Future. Ed. John Brockman. New York: Harper Perennial, 2010. The book is an entertaining collection of essays by noted contemporary thinkers and intellectual luminaries on what trends in their fields of interest are likely to cause profound changes in society.

Dennett, Daniel. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2013.

Dennett, Daniel. The Intentional Stance. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Tr. Philip Mairet. Online publication http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/works/exist/sartre.htm as of 10 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Bracketing (phenomenology).” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bracketing_(phenomenology) as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Epoché.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epoché as of 14 May 2014.

Wikipedia. “Theory of mind.” Online publication https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind as of 14 May 2014.

How To Be An Excellent Human

Mysticism, Evolutionary Psychology and the Good Life by Bill Beacham, Ph.D.

Purchase on Amazon
Share this post