In The New Yorker, Joshua Rothman has a very good profile on the seminal philosopher Daniel Dennett (“Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul”) whose functionalist theory of consciousness is probably the most prominent and influential materialist position contra the ‘mysterians’ (e.g., Chalmers/Nagel/McGinn.)
Despite being a brilliant and hugely influential philosopher, Dennett is a most unpretentious Renaissance man, someone comfortable in rural Maine, and someone who is both competent or accomplished in many disparate areas of life:
Dennett learned to frame a house, shingle a roof, glaze a window, build a fence, plow a field, fell a tree, butcher a hen, dig for clams, raise pigs, fish for trout, and call a square dance…
In the course of a few summers, he fixed up the Blue Hill farmhouse himself, installing plumbing and electricity. Then, for many years, he suspended his academic work during the summer in order to devote himself to farming. He tended the orchard, made cider, and used a Prohibition-era still to turn the cider into Calvados. He built a blueberry press, made blueberry wine, and turned it into aquavit. “He loves to hand down word-of-mouth knowledge,” Steve Barney, a former student who has become one of the Dennetts’ many “honorary children,” says. “He taught me how to use a chain saw, how to prune an apple tree, how to fish for mackerel, how to operate a tractor, how to whittle a wooden walking stick from a single piece of wood.” Dennett is an avid sailor; in 2003, he bought a boat, trained his students to sail, and raced with them in a regatta. Dennett’s son, Peter, has worked for a tree surgeon and a fish biologist, and has been a white-water-rafting guide; his daughter, Andrea, runs an industrial-plumbing company with her husband.
Dennett’s full name is Daniel Clement Dennett III. He was born in Boston in 1942. His father, Daniel C. Dennett, Jr., was a professor of Islamic history, who, during the Second World War, was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services and became a secret agent. Dennett spent his early childhood in Beirut, where his father posed as a cultural attaché at the American Embassy. In Beirut, he had a pet gazelle named Babar and learned to speak some Arabic. When he was five, his father was killed in an unexplained plane crash while on a mission in Ethiopia. In Dennett’s clearest memory of him, they’re driving through the desert in a Jeep, looking for a group of Bedouins; when they find the camp, some Bedouin women take the young Dennett aside and pierce his ears. (The scars are still visible.)
After his father’s death, Dennett returned to the Boston suburbs with his mother and his two sisters. His mother became a book editor; with some guidance from his father’s friends, Dennett became the man of the house. He had his own workshop and, aged six, used scraps of lumber to build a small table and chair for his Winnie-the-Pooh. As he fell asleep, he would listen to his mother play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Prelude No. 6 in E-Flat Major. Today, the piece moves him to tears—“I’ve tried to master it,” he says, “but I could never play it as well as she could.” For a while, Dennett made money playing jazz piano in bars. He also plays the guitar, the acoustic bass, the recorder, and the accordion, and can still sing the a-cappella tunes he learned, in his twenties, as a member of the Boston Saengerfest Men’s Chorus.
As a Harvard undergraduate, Dennett wanted to be an artist. He pursued painting, then switched to sculpture; when he met Susan, he told her that she had nice shoulders and asked if she would model for him. (She declined, but they were married two years later.) A photograph taken in 1963, when Dennett was a graduate student, shows him trim and shirtless in a courtyard in Athens, smoking a pipe as he works a block of marble. Although he succeeded in exhibiting some sculptures in galleries, he decided that he wasn’t brilliant enough to make a career in art. Still, he continued to sculpt, throw pots, build furniture, and whittle. His whittlings are finely detailed; most are meant to be handled. A life-size wooden apple comes apart, in cross-sections, to reveal a detailed stem and core; a fist-size nut and bolt turn smoothly on minute, perfectly made threads. (Billed as “haptic sculptures,” the whittles are currently on display at Underdonk, a gallery in Brooklyn.)