The Sign of a Great Mentor: An Appreciation of Daniel Dennett

I spent so much time thinking with him and reading him that I find an unconscious influence within me now

Dan Dennett died last month. He was a great philosopher, as many know, and a very good man, as fewer will know.  Three decades ago, a few years after his 1991 Consciousness Explained book, I heard that the Tufts Department of Philosophy had a master’s degree program. I had always wanted to get a degree in philosophy, but the timing never worked with my medical and psychiatry training. 

At that time, I was finishing my psychiatry residency, and as I prepared for a research fellowship, I thought that I might have a window where I could finally do some formal education in philosophy, and specifically in philosophy of mind with Dennett. 

When I called the department and asked for a meeting, he invited me to lunch at the Tufts faculty dining room. There we talked about my background and the program, and he immediately arranged for me not only to enter as a graduate student but to receive a scholarship. I had the good fortune of taking classes with him and in later years I had the even better fortune of teaching a class with him.

They say that writing style reflects the man, but in his case, there was a certain disconnect. Those who read Dan find an author who is very direct and self-assured, but if you disagree with him, perhaps irritating. In person, he remained direct and self-assured, but also quite open-minded, flexible, and curious in what others think. 

He clearly was extremely intelligent, but unlike many people who use their intelligence to make others feel less intelligent, he had this ability to make everyone around him smarter. I learned much from my other professors at Tufts, too. They showed no competition with Dan, no envy, even though he was so widely known. He set an example that excited all around him. Everyone rose to his standard of hard thinking and creative effort. 

He looked like Santa Claus, with that big white beard and big belly, and the laughter and the optimism. He lived like Santa Claus, too, passing along intellectual gifts to everybody around him, trying to make the world of philosophy and science more fruitful and more clear. 

As with Santa Claus, he had his skeptics, and some who didn’t know him personally perhaps opposed him a bit too strenuously. But as with Santa Claus, the world was much better off with him. Perhaps it is ironic that such a materialist scientifically oriented man should approximate a mythical figure, but myths have truths inside them.

Unlike most philosophy programs, Tufts didn’t produce PhDs; it was a master’s program. Because of that, faculty were expected to teach undergraduate students, and Dennett did so for decades. First years entering Tufts could take a philosophy class with him, and he would try to explain philosophy from the very beginning in the very simplest way to an average freshman.

He always said that he benefited from these classes in his writing. He would use the classes to test his ideas and to explain them more and more simply to undergraduates. He used to say that if he could not make his ideas clear to an average undergraduate student, then the idea wasn't clear.  This process was a secret to the clarity and readability of his writing, so unusual among academic philosophers.

Dan had no pretense. He had trained at prestigious places like the University of Cambridge in the UK, and he could have easily worked anywhere he wanted, but he stayed at Tufts for half a century. He always said that Tufts was a great place to do philosophy, with the emphasis on the word do. It wasn’t a place where a professor supervised dozens of graduate students, taking credit for the work of others. It was a place where the professor did philosophy himself, and we students had the joy of watching him do it.

To the outside world, philosophy is an esoteric, complex undertaking. It remained complex in Dennett’s hands, but it wasn’t esoteric. He wrote about the mind, his specialty, but also about Darwin and evolution, ethics, and religion. He stood out as a philosopher who took science seriously, and tried to understand its implications for philosophy in particular. There are very few philosophers who take science seriously, and very few scientists who can understand philosophy. This is another place where he was almost sui generis.

I thank him for his gifts to me, beginning with that lunch in the faculty dining room, and continuing with decades of interactions at lectures or in events. He set an example for others to follow of the generous man, the serious philosopher with the temperament of a happy warrior, the committed teacher, the clear writer, and the engaged intellectual. There have been great professors in many places in many eras, so he is not unique in that sense. But he does belong to that constellation of great souls.

I last saw him at his retirement party about a year or so ago; the pandemic had prevented an earlier in person appreciation. He was masked, being still ill, and thus some distance had to be kept. Yet he stood and gave a brief speech about how great the department had been for decades as a place to do philosophy, about its early days, and how he had recruited great colleagues, like George Smith, who once taught a class I loved with a simple title, “God.”  I took the class; I didn’t meet God, but I got to know what logic could tell us about God, which was good to know. 

Soon thereafter, Dan sent an email to his former students, offering up parts and pieces of his office as gifts to those who wanted them, before donating them. It was classic Dan Dennett: thoughtful, giving, direct. I got a piece of the Berlin Wall that he had obtained in Germany in 1989 and his framed portrait of the Scottish philosopher David Hume. I had seen that portrait many times in his office, the skeptical rationalist forbear inspiring his modern descendant. I have it sitting over my desk at home now, looking at me to remind me of that brilliant lineage. 

I always wished that I could have published a philosophy paper with him, but I never did. His applied work was more closely related to neurology than psychiatry, although in later years he did publish about psychiatric topics like delusions. Although we never wrote together, I spent so much time thinking with him and reading him that I find an unconscious influence within me now. Often I have an idea which I later realize was his, though it feels like mine. That’s the sign of a great mentor; he becomes part of you.  

Nassir Ghaemi is a professor of medicine the Department of Psychiatry at the Tufts University School of Medicine.

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