Dennett, Daniel C. (April 1994). Tiptoeing Past the Covered Wagons: A Response to Carr. In: U. Neisser & D. Jopling (eds.) The Conceptual Self in Context: Culture, Experience, Self-understanding. Cambridge University Press.

Tiptoeing past the Covered Wagons

in "Dennett and Carr Further Explained: an exchange" Emory Cognition Project, Report #28, Department of Psychology, Emory University, Apr. 1994; forthcoming in U. Neisser & D. Jopling (Eds.) The Conceptual Self in Context: Culture, Experience, Self-understanding (Cambridge University Press, probably 1996).

Tiptoeing Past the Covered Wagons: A Response to Carr
Daniel C. Dennett

David Carr complains, in "Dennett Explained, or The Wheel Reinvents Dennett," (Report #26), that I have ignored deconstructionism and Phenomenology. This charge is in some regards correct and in others not. Briefly, here is how my own encounters with these fields have looked to me.


I studied Husserl and the other Phenomenologists with Dag Follesdal at Harvard as an undergraduate, and learned a lot. My career-long concentration on intentionality had its beginnings as much with Husserl as with Quine. But part of what I thought I learned from those early encounters is that reading the self-styled Husserlians was largely a waste of time; they were deeply into obscurantism for its own sake. I may have picked this attitude up from my graduate advisor, Gilbert Ryle, who was himself a masterful scholar of Husserl and Phenomenology. In any case, when we discussed my own work on intentionality he certainly didn't encourage me to follow him in attempting to plumb the depths of the Continental Husserlians. (Note the symmetry of my reactions--I arrived at the same verdict about the Wittgensteinians, and have blithely ignored them ever since as well, as I observe in Consciousness Explained, p.463.)

Over the years I have tested the waters of Phenomenology periodically, reading--and even on occasion reviewing--books and articles drawn to my attention. Endnote 1 More recently I have had more direct and telling encounters in France, where I lectured (in French) at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (in 1985) on various topics in the philosophy of mind, including intentionality. The French Husserlians either were aghast or found me beneath notice, in spite of my attempt to convey my sense of my Husserlian heritage. Still more recently, I participated in a conference on intentionality organized by Dominique Janicaud in Nice (1992), at which the response by the French Phenomenologists was such utter disregard (mixed with defensive postures and hostility) that one of the audience, Jean-Pierre Dupuy (of CREA in Paris), publically scolded them all, calling it a scandal. My own response was to tell them that their hermetically sealed defensive behavior reminded me of the tactic of the early settlers in the Old West, who pulled their wagon trains into defensive circles when they feared an Indian attack. "But I am not out to attack you at all. I am just moving through your territory. Soon I will be on the horizon, and you will be in danger of running out of water."

I have made it plain enough in The Intentional Stance (1978) and subsequent writings what my attitude is towards Husserl: I think I have got him right, and some Husserlians tend to agree (Dreyfus and Follesdal--if they count), but if not, then so much the worse for Husserl, since my version is the one that is worth defending. I can understand the discomfort of those Phenomenologists who see me opportunistically helping myself to a few carefully chosen morsels of Husserl and then ignoring what they think are the tasty bits, but having sampled conscientiously, I have a strictly limited willingness to sample further--though I continue to test the waters. For instance, I take very seriously Eduard Marbach's recent and forthcoming attempts Endnote 2 to build a bridge between my heterophenomenology and (his refreshingly clear version of) Husserl's autophenomenology.

My attitude towards the deconstructionists is parallel, but not as sympathetic. Years ago, Paul Edwards delighted me with a devastating review in Mind (1965) of "Professor Tillich's Confusions," in which he coined the term "bombastic redescription" for Tillich's tactic of taking perfectly good and quite ordinary truths and inflating them into pseudo-profundities. I had always had a strong dislike for this practice by philosophers, and have thought of it as bombastic redescription ever since. Whenever I have taken a gander at one deconstructionist or another--or at Ricoeur, to acknowledge another predecessor of mine Carr singles out--I have found that they have carried the art of bombastic redescription to new heights. For pomposity, deliberate obscurity, and just plain silliness, I know of nothing to compare with the deconstructionists. (Here, mirabile dictu, John Searle and I are of one mind.) I am sure that buried in all that garbage are truths that I myself hold dear--that is the essence of bombastic redescription--but I try to keep the food and the garbage separate, so I have shunned the associations with deconstructionism that many have urged on me. Endnote 3

My strategy is straightforward: If I can figure out at least most of it without having to subject myself to all that stuff, why should I bother raking through it for further good bits? Life is short. This is leading with my chin, of course, and one way of trying to answer that question is to consult such articles as Carr's to see what it is claimed I have missed, thanks to my policy. Here is what I gather on this occasion: my problems are two: I have "a very narrow idea of what is real." (p.6) and I have missed the fact that there have to be (prior, intrinsic?) reader-interpreters for stories to have meaning. I have addressed both these issues carefully in my own work, and come down firmly on the opposite side in each case. Nothing Carr says shakes my confidence in my views on these matters (as expressed, most recently, in "Real Patterns," Journal of Philosophy, 1991).

How do I explain reader-interpreters? The same way I explain the existence of other highly complex phenomena: as products of an evolutionary process that must begin in a world in which there are no reader-interpreters, and must arrive at a world in which there are such wonderful things, via a series of gradual developments that defy dichotomizing classifications (Consciousness Explained, pp.420-21). There was no Prime Mammal, and there was no Prime Reader-Interpreter either. Reader-interpreters have exactly the same ontological (the word sticks in my throat, but there it is) status as text-generators; they are, indeed, one and the same thing, except in thought experiments. I think Carr nicely expresses the deep antipathy to this naturalistic way of thinking, an antipathy common to those whose perspective he favors, and it is precisely because I view it as a major obstacle to understanding that I avoid it.

Carr speaks (p2) of my "prejudices and reading habits." The point of this note is largely to confirm his diagnosis of my reading habits, but to deny emphatically that they are due to prejudice. It is not that I have worked "in complete disregard of Husserl and his successors in German and French philosophy." It is precisely because my disregard has not been complete that it has been, and continues to be, so confident.


1. See, for instance, my joint review of R. Aquila, Intentionality: A Study of Mental Acts, and E. Casey, Imagining: a Phenomenological Analysis, in Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, 1979, pp.139-43. (I praised Aquila's book and deplored Casey's.)

2. E. Marbach, 1988, "How to Study Consciousness Phenomenologically, or Quite a Lot Comes to Mind," Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 19, pp252-68, and forthcoming, "Troubles with Heterophenomenology." What I particularly respect in Marbach's work is his quite uncharacteristic willingness, as a phenomenologist, to do some phenomenology for us to see and evaluate, instead of just holding forth, in portentous jargon, about what the presuppositions and implications of this phantom research project are or might be.

3. For another instance, in most regards consonant with Carr, see Ellen Spolsky, Gaps in Nature: Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind, SUNY Press, 1993.